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"Always on Time" • Ja Rule feat. Ashanti (by Mike Barthel)

Ashanti arrives to sing the hook. The studio is vacant, though smoke lingers in the air. They knew to vacate for her, the rapper and the technicians and the hangers-on, though they never discussed it, were never obligated by any contract. It just seemed obvious. And so they vanished. Poof poof. Leaving space for her.

As the track booms through the studio monitors, the space they’ve left for her voice is obvious, too, the mids swept out and the bass boosted, a skeleton for her to hang her notes on, to stitch a melody together. When she’s finished, there’ll be a new body on the song, a shop-window mannequin, wearing clothes that aren’t hers, making someone else money. Giving the appearance of a relationship.

She is an actor in a game where the goal is to be real. They’ll always ask why her and Ja Rule didn’t get married, because this is what they always do: they mistake the performance for the reality. They want the story to be a real one. They want true crime. But sometimes songs are just pretty and sweet. That's powerful enough.

In a few years, the cops will raid the offices of her label, Murder, Inc. Parents and late-night hosts will wonder how artists could work like that, always in the shadow of violence, even though only the name is violent. But in twenty years, any whisper of danger will have melted away, and on their way to school dropoff, moms will sing along with the hook of “Always on Time” remembering what it felt like to be unencumbered. To feel like Ashanti’s voice, floating light and free above the fray.

That’s what they’ve left Ashanti to do in the vacant studio: to look into the future, to find the notes that will sound sweet today and in twenty years, when none of us are dangerous anymore, when we’re all just characters in some young person's story. When these young will listen to our songs and think: life was so much simpler then. They never hear the struggle, never hear the danger. They never understand. We didn’t understand, either, didn’t think we could ever be this soft.

The dads will sing along to Ashanti too, in a high, thin countertenor, near enough to the notes to feel their resonance across time, the voice of their childhood choir director in their head, breath control, gentlemen, breath control. They never sang this way when they were younger. They were the ones making the smoke, vacating the studio for the singer to work. But today the dads hear Ashanti and Ja Rule’s voices together and they feel the warm glow of a relationship—the one that Ashanti was paid to conjure—and think that maybe they'll plan a nice date night; maybe they won't just take the kids for Mother's Day and let mama have some alone time, maybe they'll plan an activity for the whole family, with pictures together in the bright springtime sun, her head on his shoulder, the kids in flowered dresses and jackets and ties. They'll put it on the wall for the kids to be embarrassed about when they're 17. To disabuse them of the notion that they've always been hard.

This is why the rapper and the technicians and the hangers-on have left Ashanti alone in the studio. As she's done before and will do again, she is creating something new, and creation requires privacy, requires solitude. The first time they put her in a vocal booth, closed the door and swept all other sound away, Ashanti felt a rush of power, there in the dark, like a god floating in the void, free to raise mountains or sink cities. Now she makes money for people named after murderers and brings love to people she'll never meet. Not quite godlike, but power enough. The hook is a little time bomb, a sweetness that helps hard people become soft. Lets them age without losing themselves; provides a guideline to follow through the years, a ping, never changing, never ceasing. If the song hasn't changed, they'll think, then neither have I.

But right now Ashanti feels none of that. She shuts the door against the booming sound and plants herself in the recording booth, one hand against each wall as if she's completing a circuit. And when the track begins again in her headphones, she sings the hook, and then she sings it again, and again, and again.

Mike Barthel's fiction has been published in Fatal Flaw, The Offing, Jake, Tower, and Memoir Mixtapes. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his family. He has always been soft. He is at work on a book about Miley Cyrus' "Party in the U.S.A." and can be found on Twitter @michaelbarthel and on Bluesky


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