Did you ever consider that diva spelled backward is avid? Certainly, avid is the word that captures fans' love of their vocal heroines' every trill and melisma. But avidity cuts both ways: It's also possible to avidly hate the whole diva phenomenon, with its attendant showbiz kitsch, trite tunes, and tendency to oversing.
Generally, I'm in the latter camp (I'll avidly dive toward my radio to change the station when certain Whitney, Mariah, or J. Lo tunes come on). Yet I feel charitable about Chapter II, the second solo CD from R&B chanteuse Ashanti. This has to do with my respect for the fact that she writes much of her own material -- a state of affairs to be applauded at a time when prefabricated trifles by male divas-in-training Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard have reached Nos. 1 and 2 on Billboard's Hot 100. But it's also to do with how Ashanti, the musical moll of Irv Gotti's Murder Inc. label, can guest on records with thugs and hardcore hip-hop types and still sound genteel. That beauty-and-the-beast scenario is in full effect on ''Shany's World,'' in which Ashanti sings wordlessly and mellifluously while a clownish rapper named Chink Santana talks trash, calling out to his ''dawgs'' and touting Ashanti's talents like some ghetto carnival barker.
The production (by Gotti) is refreshingly old school. ''Rain on Me'' gives off a blaxploitation soundtrack vibe, while ''Rock Wit U (Awww Baby)'' transcends its cliched title by recalling Minnie Riperton. ''The Story of 2,'' graced with a dramatic piano motif, sounds like a genetic splicing of Carole King and Aretha Franklin. ''Feel So Good'' is one of those summer feel-good songs with horns and the type of groove that would go down swell with ribs and root beer at your family reunion. On ''Then Ya Gone'' (which also features Chink Santana), Ashanti even muses on mortality: ''Never forget this and be clear/We don't know how long we gonna be here.'' Word.
So is this the diva album for people who hate divas? Let's not get carried away; ''Chapter II'' is too mired in tired R&B conventions to achieve true magnificence. Maybe by the time she reaches ''Chapter III,'' Ashanti will get all weird on us. One can only hope.