For the love of R&B: Ashanti

I once tried to start a regular feature on this blog “For the love of R&B”, in which I would gush about how amazing ’90s and early ’00s R&B was. The section has been neglected greatly, but yesterday was Ashanti’s 35th birthday and I’ve been listening to her a lot lately and man, she has some jams. Accordingly an R&B post revival was in order, in appreciation of the one and only Ms Ashanti Douglas.

Even just from a cursory skim of her Wikipedia, it is immediately clear that Ashanti is one dope lady. When she was 17, she was unsigned but singing Mary J. Blige covers to P Diddy and Biggie (Diddy wanted to sign her but wasn’t able to). Whilst studying in New York, she started hanging round the Murder Inc. studio (an off-shoot label from Def Jam) with platinum-selling artist Ja Rule and the gang. On one particular day in 2001, she came in to find they were working on a new track for J-Lo, following on from the success of Ja’s delicious ‘I’m Real’ Murder remix. The beat was playing in the background, but Ja Rule was busy playing video games. Irv Gotti – the head of the label – asked if Ashanti might like to give it a go and the 21-year-old ended up writing the bulk of the lyrics and providing backing vocals.

From there, things were increasingly on the up. Those distinctly sweet vocals found themselves on Fat Joe’s amazing ‘What’s Luv’ and, of course, Ja Rule’s ‘Always On Time’ (both of which incidentally made my list of great male-female R&B/hip-hop collabs ), followed up by the astounding ode to being too afraid to leave a terrible relationship, the striking ‘Foolish’. These releases all came around the same time, and in fact meant that Ashanti was the first artist since the Beatles to have her first three consecutive chart entries debut in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 at the same time. It was a testament to how perfect her delicate yet powerful sound was for the time, and also how hilarious and wonderful her music videos were. Watching the acting and imagining the filming and direction and general conceptualisation of this video makes me really happy:

To say “the rest is history” is lazy… but pretty much? Ashanti had some other bangers, won a Grammy, she did that odd, summery Murder Inc single of Down 4 You (which I obviously bought). She did some acting, released further solid tunes (‘Only U‘, anyone?), she went out with Nelly for nine years (which I only found out yesterday – they’re my new dream R&B/hip-hop couple in spite of no longer being together). Her album last year had some pretty decent tunes on it too, but ultimately the halcyon days were those early 2000s vibes with Ja Rule and the Murder Inc crew. Ja Rule is out of prison now though, so maybe there is hope of a reunion. Until then, enjoy R&B’s former princess.

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