After a four year break, R&B diva Ashanti is back, dropping her fourth studio album, "The Declaration" (out June 3rd). On the new project, the Only U singer worked with many producers she's never worked with before - Rodney Jerkins 'Darkchild', Jermaine Dupri, Bryan Michael-Cox, Babyface (among others). The record was hit with many pushbacks, as it was originally planned for a summer 07 release, but it's finally hitting stores this Tuesday. Out of all the Ashanti albums, this is her most personal, "I've experienced life, I've experienced death, I felt pain I've never felt before." - an emotional Ashanti 'declares' over a thumping drum in the albums intro. "When they ask me, what am I declaring - I'm declaring - me." Which is then preceded by the albums leading single "The Way That I Love You." The songs haunting piano and lyrical delivery give the track more flavour, more uniqueness, and even though Ashanti nails it vocally, we've heard this all before on her previous efforts, the wronged-by-her-man, screamish anthems. Still, this is most definitely one of the better ones. The next two cuts, "You're Gonna Miss" & "So Over You" draw you in with their infectious beats and hot summer vibe. Many have criticised Ashanti for the albums basic "beat one beat two" production, but it's something we actually appreciate. This year, a lot of artists have went production-overkill, which really puts a damper on the tracks. So we actually side with her on this move. Simple, in some cases is more effective - and in this case, it is.

The next three tracks "Struggle," "Girlfriend" and "Things You Make Me Do" (with Robin Thicke), are without a doubt the best tracks on the album. On Struggle, the emotion in Ashanti's voice is beautifully expressed, making the track seem more real and raw. The listener believes Ashanti has gone through these emotions, preparing to fight for her relationship, even though it's headed in a down whirl spiral. Girlfriend (our favorite), is total old skool R&B at it's best. Upon listen, we really didn't expect this from Ashanti, which made us like the album even more. "Boy, If I was your girlfriend, I would let you touch everything that I am.", a whisper-voiced Ashanti sings through the seductive old skool beat. Things You Make Me Do is purely sexual and sexiness at it's peak. Herself and Robin bounce of each other with hot sexual chemistry, making this sensual cut one of the best on the record.

The following two tracks "In These Streets" and "Good Good" are also raised bar winners. On In These Streets (produced by Babyface), Ashanti proves she's not just a pretty face and that she can actually hold a note (something she's gotten a lot of flack for throughout her career). Even though the song tends to drag (it's running time is 4:24) it's still a worthy contender. The Jermaine Dupri produced "Good Good" is a solid yet typical JD track. "When my man leave the house I know he's coming right back - I got that good good." A confident Ashanti boasts over the summer-style beat. The albums second single "Body On Me" featuring hit-maker Akon and boyfriend Nelly has summer-hit written all over it. Though the songs chorus is enjoyably catchy, Ashanti's input seems more of a featuring rather than her own track. The next 2 tracks "Mother" and "Shine" is were the album falls short. Mother is a nice enough ballad, but it holds nothing that will make the listener want to play it back, same goes for Shine. When the song starts, it has major potential. The background music and piano are similar to that of Christina Aguilera's smash "Beautiful," but when the chorus hits, it leaves us feeling underwhelmed and unfulfilled. It doesn't take long for things to bounce back though, closing track "The Declaration" is possibly one of the best R&B thumpers we've heard all year. It's gritty production, haunting background music and in your face attitude displays just how confident and more sure of herself Ashanti is this go-around, something we all want to see in her. As they say, leave the best till last.

This is the first Ashanti record we have enjoyed from start to finish, so she gets points for that alone. Lyrically she brought it, vocally she brought it, and on the production side, she brought it. This is one fine R&B album that you'll most likely love and put good use to in the car on a hot summers day. The only criticism we would give Ashanti is that she still lacks personality when she's signing. She needs to own her tracks more and bring more energy. Luckily the albums hotness makes up for that.

4.5