Taking a look back at the First Lady of Murder Inc.'s reign at the top of R&B and rap.
Last year saw plenty of people attempt to crack jokes over Ashanti’s appearance at the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards. What was a one-hit wonder doing there? Where’s Ja? A quick interview with the singer on the red carpet revealed all – she was in attendance for Jennifer Lopez accepting the 2018 Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, although she couldn’t resist throwing a little shade: "hopefully she'll be performing one of the songs I wrote for her," Ashanti told the host.
Ashanti on the red carpet at the 2018 MTV VMAs - Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images
As First Lady of Murder Inc, Ashanti’s pen game had to be great. She supplied the label with great hooks for hit songs-in-waiting and in some cases, gifted entire songs away to singers like J-Lo. In a post-Puffy landscape that took rap to a place where it shared symbiotic DNA with R&B and pop, the timing couldn’t have been better for Ashanti to thrive. Her run was incredible – even prompting an infamous New York Times review where an emerging Beyonce was unfavourably compared to Ashanti. While Ashanti hasn’t had the massive stretch of longevity that Beyonce has had (let’s be real here, who has?), let’s not forget how incredible her reign was at the top of the pop and rap charts, with Murder Inc in tow.
Ashanti didn’t just appear from thin air. She met Sean Combs when she was 14, nearly signing a deal with Bad Boy Records after he heard her sing a Mary J. Blige tune. The deal would fall through but she would later meet Irv Gotti and prove her songwriting abilities by writing hooks for artists he was managing before signing to his Murder Inc., in 2001.
Ashanti poses in the studio, 2002 - David Klein/Getty Images
“No one believed that I wrote my records,” Ashanti told Billboard in 2017. “[Murder Inc.] used to make me write at what used to be called Crackhouse Studios on Mercer and they used to make me write in front of them, because they were like, ‘There's no way.’”
She would team up with rappers like Big Pun, Fat Joe and Ja Rule after that, bringing a candy-sweet sensuality to their rugged rap records. It was a bold move that paid out for Murder Inc.; songs like “Down 4 U,” “Mesmerize,” “Always On Time” and “How We Roll” would hit big on the rap charts, establishing Murder Inc and their crew of rappers. These were songs that had street appeal but could work as pop songs too. Most importantly, they introduced Ashanti to the public. Her records with Ja Rule revived the idea of a rap/R&B duet that could actually work, thanks in no part to the two’s fantastic chemistry.
At the same time, she was also writing for Jennifer Lopez, providing "I'm Real (Murder Remix)" and "Ain't It Funny (Murder Remix)," which gave Lopez two top ten hits and gave her the cred she needed to pull a switch from her pop sound to something more rap-friendly.
Let’s talk about the fact that Ashanti’s coming out party happened to be her debut single “Foolish,” essentially a rewrite of Biggie’s “One More Chance” (Ashanti released an altered version of the song named "Unfoolish" that went even further and enlisted a ghostly guest feature from the man himself).
By 2002, Murder Inc had a chokehold over the music industry and a lot of that was due to the strength of Ashanti’s pen game. By the time “Foolish” came out, Ashanti had become an established presence on the Billboard charts, making it so “Foolish” would spend ten weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Ashanti broke history by reaching the Hot 100's top five with her first three charted singles – ”What’s Luv?,” “Foolish” and “Always on Time,” the first woman to do so. The last act who achieved Hot 100 dominance with their first three singles? It was the Beatles, striking hot with Beatlemania in 1964. Thirty-eight years later, Ashanti had this, plus four top 10 singles to her name in 2002-- all at the same time.
This culminated with the release of her self-titled debut in April 2002, which topped the Billboard 200 with a then-record-setting first-week sales of 503,000 units, the highest first-week sales of a female artist’s debut in history-- which got Ashanti in the Guinness Book of World Records. In its second week, it outsold Beyonce’s Dangerously in Love, spurring the now infamous NYT headline.
"Everyone wants to be the best right? Who doesn't? It's a competitive business, but I was rooting for her," Ashanti said of the “rivalry” between her and Beyonce in 2014. "I just think we did two different types of music. It was a friendly competition, from my end."
Ashanti holds her Grammy for winning Best Contemporary R&B Album, 2003 - Scott Gries/Getty Images
The dominance continued. Ashanti went triple platinum before the end of the year and she ended up scoring eight Grammy nominations between 2003 and 2004, winning Best Contemporary R&B Album win for Ashanti. In that time, she also received eight Billboard awards, two American Music and three Soul Train awards.
Her follow-up albums Chapter II and Concrete Rose later went platinum and after having sold over 27 million albums worldwide, Ashanti is easily one of the most successful solo R&B acts in history. Add to the fact she avoided the beefing that sank Ja Rule and the rest of Murder Inc., (as well as the more recent Fyre Festival scandal, which ostensibly sunk Ja Rule a second time), and we all need to come to our senses and realize that Ashanti is one of the best to ever do it, and equally, we need to remind ourselves that she came up without the backing of a group like Destiny’s Child or TLC. Thus, she managed to establish her credibility solo, in a way that was wholly different at the time, and in the process, opened up future lanes for artists like Kehlani, Rihanna and even rap crooners like Swae Lee and Tory Lanez who could switch up between aggressive and sticky-sweet styles effortlessly.
Is it time to secure Ashanti's legacy yet?