R&B Ashanti’s career began much more promising than it has been as of late. Two number one albums, a Grammy win for best contemporary R&B album (now best urban contemporary album), and some notable hits. While third album Concrete Rose would yield another platinum-certified album, its number seven debut signaled the first notion of Ashanti’s former commercial success taking a hit. This hit was more pronounced on The Declaration (2008), which debuted a slot higher at number six, but sold considerably less copies. Ultimately, The Declaration would fail to go gold and her fifth studio album, BraveHeart, would only materialize after numerous delays, which would total just shy of six years. Six years is an eternity, particularly given the fragility that has become Ashanti’s once fruitful career. Regardless of the setbacks, BraveHeart ends up being a much better than expected album, particularly from an artist who has received plenty of criticism vocally. It’s neither the best album of the year, nor the best R&B album either, but Ashanti gets many things right on BraveHeart.
“Intro – Braveheart” is more than just an interlude; it also includes the album’s title track, an actual full-length song. The intro rightfully exhibits ‘strength’, which establishes the tone and exemplifies the album title. The attached full-length continues to showcase the aforementioned strength, relating the idea of possessing a “BraveHeart” to love (“I’m so lucky to have you by my side / I know it ain’t easy baby”, from verse two), later confirming it on the refrain (“…We both gotta have a BraveHeart”). “Nowhere” follows up nearly perfectly, confirming strength once more through a rock solid commitment: “I ain’t going nowhere, you ain’t gotta worry / ain’t nobody perfect, but what we got is worth it.” Ashanti still isn’t what you’d characterize as a powerhouse vocalist, but unflashy as she may be, she sings “Nowhere” soundly. On the bridge and towards the end, the singer shows a bit more grit and nuance vocally. The message and song don’t feel new by any means, but definitely tried and true.
“Runaway” continues the consistency, delivering a commanding, incredibly enjoyable number. Like the opening “Intro – Braveheart”, “Runaway” is set in a minor key, with a darker sound suiting the hard, old school hip-hop soul beat perfectly. “I try to make it work,” sings Ashanti on the catchy, emotional chorus. “I try to make it work, but I just end up hurt / I tell you it’s okay cause I don’t wanna leave / but you make it so hard for me to stay so I run away.” More so than “Nowhere”, Ashanti ‘lets it rip’ a bit more vocally. “Count” has a more modern R&B edge, with its thumping 808s and gimmicky chorus (“Baby don’t make me / count, count…count”). “Count” is by no means ‘the second coming’ of anything, but it definitely possesses the swagger of a solid club joint. Don’t call it a masterpiece (it ain’t), but it’s not too bad. On “Early in the Morning”, Ashanti taps French Montana for the assist. Again, Ashanti thinks contemporarily and about love. Ultimately, “Early in the Morning” is thoughtful, but lacks lyrical depth.
If nothing else, “3 Words” benefits from its exceptional production work. Still, aside from the production itself, it has its thoughtful lyrical moments. Certainly deeper than either “Count” or “Early in the Morning”, “3 Words” has more momentum working in its favor. “There’s only so many words I could use to tell you whatchu do / to me physically, sexually penetrating my immunity,” sings Ashanti, later going on to say “I just can’t explain it / Picasso couldn’t paint it / but these three words say it all / I love you.” On “Love Games”, Ashanti gets another assist, this time from Jeremih (known for hits “Birthday Sex” and “Down On Me”). Given Jeremih’s sensually driven past musically, he matches up well with Ashanti on this ‘sex’ joint. While calling “Love Games” tasteful would be an overstatement, it certainly isn’t as raw as some contemporary cuts that come time mind. Ultimately, it works out well for Ashanti.
Still, “Scars” works out even better, with its hip drum programming, slick synths (and production in general), and overall attitude. Sure, there is still a cool energy about Ashanti vocally, but that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change. Perhaps she lacks the same bite that a Mary J. Blige or Fantasia might deliver on this cut, but Ashanti still ends up with the desired effect (“You could have kept the pain / my heart is slain / nothin’ remains, no more / but scars”). The outro at the end of “Scars” is definitely a thoughtful way of ending the standout by all means, even if the cut ends up clocking in just shy of six minutes in duration.
“Never Should Have” gets the incredibly difficult task of following a juggernaut. The cut contrasts “Scars” sporting a more enthusiastic, and pop-driven R&B sound. Think bright, adult contemporary-oriented R&B that ends up being just as effective as “Scars”, centered in a major key. Still, Ashanti shows her reservations despite the optimism in sound: “You never should have loved me / you never should have touched me / you never should have / never should have told me you loved me and you would never leave me / ‘cause everything that you would do / it made me fall in love with you…” “Never Should Have” is easily another #winning moment for Ashanti – a sister’s in it to win it.
“She Can’t” is filled with attitude, evidenced by lines like “You gotta let him know what he got on his hands / and if he tend to forget, betta remind his a$$…” (Verse one) or “Long as you keep me on a pedestal / and nobody ever made you feel like I make you feel” (verse two). Is Ashanti overconfident on “She Can’t”? Nope! She’s just a strong woman with a “Brave Heart” – did you expect something different? On “Don’t Tell Me No”, Ashanti’s confidence continues to factor in, as she knows he still want her: “I still look in your eyes and / I can tell that you want it / Baby, don’t tell me no / give me what I’m lookin’ for…” There it is! Oh and by the way, if Ashanti is turning the table when she puts the ‘desire’ all on the man’s plate, she sort of takes a back step when she states “Baby, I just want that old thing back.”
“I Got It” brings in Rick Ross, who unsurprisingly drops a line about money (ever heard that Gucci Mane track that Ross guests on, “All About The Money”?). Staying in character, on his guest verse (verse two), Ross brags about all the lavish things he can give his girl as well as plugging his latest album, Mastermind (“Mastermind coming, still running from the fed”). That’s promotion. Don’t call “I Got It” a tour de force, but like the majority of BraveHeart, it’s definitely enjoyable and worthwhile. And ultimately, as Ashanti alludes to, “if you got it, flaunt it”. “First Real Love”, featuring Beenie Man, closes the standard edition of BraveHeart with a mix of reggae and R&B in mind. It is manic, but much like the album as a whole, it ends up being much better than anticipated. The iTunes deluxe edition of BraveHeart features two bonus cuts, “Perfect So Far” and “Never Too Far Away”.
Ultimately, BraveHeart ends up being a surprising affair. It’s by no means perfection realized, but its also nowhere near being a train wreck of any sorts. BraveHeart is a solid and enjoyable R&B album with truly little pressure on it. Honestly, what did Ashanti have to lose after a six-year hiatus? Nothing. BraveHeart won’t reignite her career commercially, but critically, it finds the singer in a much better spot than she was before. Perhaps the biggest flaw of BraveHeart is the lack of ‘selling it’ – better promotion certainly brings better awareness. It is what it is though.
“Nowhere”; “Runaway”; “Scars”; “Never Should Have”; “I Got It”
Ashanti • BraveHeart • eOne/Written Entertainment • US Release Date: March 3, 2014