Since we’ve all been some manner of “at home” since March, one of the most consistent forms of Black entertainment has been Verzuz—not always for the right reasons; doesn’t it seem like forever ago that Teddy Riley was trending?—and the arguments, speculation and unsolicited social media advice offered to multimillionaire entertainers who apparently all forgot how to work a crowd (or their catalogs) as soon as Swizz Beatz or Timbaland called. Truly, in a sea of political and real-world nonsense, the entire culture around the Verzuz battles has been extremely entertaining.
Anyway, one of the frequent spin-offs of the actual Verzuz battles is speculating on who would make for solid matchups. That little exercise had me arguing for a full day on social media about whether or not Bow Wow was a hip hop legend. Either way, what looked, to me, like a simple “hey girl hey” from Keyshia Cole to Ashanti in the comments during the recent Snoop vs. DMX Verzuz turned into a full speculation by Al Gore’s internet about a matchup between the two.
A few things of note before we go any further: 1) The Internet is both undefeated and trash. No matter how big or beloved you are, folks hop on social media and kick dirt on your name just because somebody said your name. Especially when it comes to singers and rappers. 2) I’m going to attempt to do something that feels impossible: convince you that I’m not taking shots at individuals even though I’m about to write a bunch of paragraphs that will absolutely sound like I’m letting the choppa spray.
Why are those noted important? Because we’re talking about Ashanti versus Keyshia Cole. And then because I’m going to include Jhene Aiko. Which brings me to the point: I think I might owe Jhene Aiko an apology.
I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side, staying alive was no jive. Literally none of that is true. That’s a classic bar from the Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon on their hit song, “C.R.E.A.M.” Even though that wasn’t my life, I did grow up during the time when that song was a hit in real time. I came of musical age in the 90s and aughts. I was present and accounted for during the heydays of many golden eras, to include the time when Ja Rule wasn’t a laughing stock, but was the hottest thing smoking. And during that time—the Murder, Inc. era—Ashanti blossomed. Ashanti Shequoiya Douglas hit the scene under the Murder, Inc. umbrella and her first few albums were filled with bangers. Just two days ago I ran my whole household through an Ashanti primer by playing non-stop Ashanti hits.
Even though the New York Times wrote a piece in 2003 that I’m sure they have framed in their entertainment pod as one of their greatest misses, at that time, Ashanti was poised to be a huge star. And she was quite successful for many, many reasons. Keyshia Cole, who hits the scene in 2004, is also a star. Both women had a string of hits. Enough for a Verzuz? Eh, maybe. But as artists, they were big enough, successful enough and known enough to show up on a Verzuz stage and let the songs do the work.
Here’s the thing: neither of them are “good” singers. They were successful singers, but good? Eh. I realize this is super subjective, but there is a category of singers that includes Whitney and Mariah and then there are singers who are like Amerie, Ashanti, etc who are stars, but probably more vocalists, bringing their unique talents to the masses. There’s a whole generation of this in the late 90s and early aughts. Even Aaliyah might fit here. The multiple “A” artists are totally coincidental, by the way. I joked on Facebook that Keyshia Cole is the singer version of Meek Mill and nobody needs an explanation on that. Ashanti though, is a very interesting bridge. For instance, Ashanti’s entire vocalizing is very much wistful, softer toned singing, a la Janet Jackson, whom I love dearly, but wouldn’t be on anybody’s vocalist Mt. Rushmore either. There is this very light-toned, almost whispery, but strong enough to be a force on every record. Again, Ashanti has her lane, and she’s good in it, and she is a good songwriter. You don’t get to be successful in music without it. Point is, in my generation, we made Ashanti a star because she should have been. With super successful solo albums and features aplenty, Ashanti is certified. And what’s important to note here is that not only was Ashanti a star, I actually liked her singing enough to want her to win.
I knew who Jhene Aiko was before I realized I knew who she was. She was on Kendrick Lamar’s Overly Dedicated project and a smattering of other projects in the early 2010s. By the time she’d released her own solo debut, Souled Out, in 2014 I had mostly heard of her because of the vibe music she made but because folks I knew didn’t think she could sing very well. Now, if I’m being completely honest, early on, I probably felt the same way. In fact, as this current mash-up of trap&b took hold and music shifted to a vibe-centric, airy-vocalized stylings I’m sure most of the artists who sang in this vein probably caught a lot of “what is this mess?” flack.
Except I actually like Jhene Aiko’s vocals. I’m thinking I’ve come around on this. For instance, I genuinely like her album, Trip. Whenever she shows up on songs, I find myself thinking, “this is alright.” Plus, she is responsible for one of the greatest song lyrics of all time—and I don’t mean this with even a hint of hyperbole—when she said “I might let your boy chauffeur me, but he gotta eat the booty like groceries” on Omarion’s song “Post To Be” (a great song). I wrote a whole article about the absurdity of this lyric, but it works so well even if it doesn’t. For what it’s worth, that article is probably my favorite thing I’ve ever written; I’m not sure how I feel about this or if this is the kind of thing that makes your parents proud, but I really enjoyed writing that article.
Anyway, at some point, I definitely took shots at Jhene Aiko’s vocal stylings. In the “eatin’ booty like groceries” article I even mentioned that she ironically titled a song “The Worst” and even now I’m not sure why I did that. Is she a great singer? I suppose that depends on who you ask. But, she is effective as hell at performing her songs and getting her emotions across. Plus, my generation, including me, made Ashanti a star singing very similarly. So how is it that we could enjoy Ashanti so much, even while poking fun on occasion, and then turn around and give artists like Jhene (who are very successful so she probably couldn’t care less) the blues over their vocals? So many mid-90s artists were literally vocalists as opposed to strong singers.
Jhene, my bad for any shots I took. I like your music. I even like your vocal stylings. I even like the songs I’ve clowned. Perhaps my tastes have changed and I’ve matured. Or maybe I got caught up in the rapture of love and social media clownery. Who knows? All I know is that I’m better now and while thinking about a potential Verzuz between Ashanti and Keyshia Cole, I realized that I’m championing a sound and vocals (I’d love to see that Verzuz) where if you swapped out the name I’d be quick to be like, “whew chile, the ghetto.” I’m a fan and I’m wrong and for that I apologize.
P.S. I love the song “Jukai” from Trip. At the 2:13 mark, you did that shit!
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