Sunday 13 January 2013

Whatever Happened To RnB? - Ashanti

Remember when Lauryn Hill ruled the charts and Lil Kim was the Queen Bee of female rappers? In this weekly feature, I’m going to take a look back at some of the best RnB artists of yesteryear, sharing their signature videos and underrated hits, as well as looking at what they’re up to nowadays. Previous posts have focussed on Jamelia, Macy Gray, Tweet and the classic Mary J.Blige album My Life. Today, it’s Ashanti's turn!

Hey Ashanti!

After a number of record deals went sour, Ashanti finally made it big in 2002 as part of the Murder Inc family and has since become one of the biggest female RnB singers of the past decade, earning numerous accolades throughout her career. The beautiful multi-talented artist writes the majority of her material and has also appeared in a number of different films and television shows over the years. Ashanti may not have the most powerful voice in the world but its sweet tone and range helped her unofficially gain the title of 'Princess of RnB and Hip-Hop'. Let's take a look back at the beginning of Ashanti's career, before she even released her debut single.
The first time I heard Ashanti was on 'The Fast And The Furious' soundtrack, singing the slow groove track 'When A Man Does Wrong'. It was a great showcase for the star and her voice sounds awesome on the song. Check out this little heard gem below.  

"It's been seven long hours since you left me babe, sitting here."

What really set her career off however were two hip-hop duets with established rap stars that both blew up around the same time. The success of these singles alongside her debut single made Ashanti one of the most talked about stars of 2002. She even broke records with these tracks by becoming the first woman to place three songs on the top ten of the Billboard chart. It's impossible to talk about Ashanti without Ja Rule popping up so first up is 'Always On Time', the first of their many collaborations. It's a classic hip-hop track and it still holds up well today. 

"We share something so rare, but who cares, you care babe."

'What's Love' is the second duet that Ashanti recorded around this time and although I prefer Ja Rule as a rapper, this collaboration with Fat Joe is definitely my favourite song out of the two. The chorus shows off Ashanti's sweet sounding voice and I love her breakdown verse near the end of the song. But seriously, what is Fat Joe's appeal?

"When I look in your eyes there's no stopping me."

In 2002, Ashanti released her debut album (simply titled 'Ashanti'), which received three grammy nominations and became a triple platinum seller.

The first single released from the album was the monster hit 'Foolish', which spent ten weeks on top of the billboard charts and became Ashanti's signature hit. The mid-tempo track is a perfect showcase for Ashanti' voice, which sounds both sad and vengeful in equal measure. Watch the music video below, which stars Hollywood actor Terrence Howard alonsgide the entire Murder Inc crew it seems, including Ja Rule, Charli Baltimore and of course Irv Gotti. 

"See my days are cold without you, but I'm hurting while I'm with you."

Ashanti followed up the success of 'Foolish' with another Murder Inc collaboration, 'Down 4 U', which featured on the labels compilation album that was released the same year. The track features raps from Ja Rule, Vita and Charli Baltimore, with a killer chorus from Ashanti but for me, it's not quite up there with the previous two collaborations. Seriously, this girl gets around! 

"I wanna be your chick, I wanna be down for you."

The second single from the 'Ashanti' album was the track 'Happy', which wasn't as big a hit as 'Foolish' but still kept the momentum up for the albums promotion. I've always loved this song and I think it's one of the best singles from the beginning of Ashanti's career but I wish it had a bit more attitude to it.

"Boy you got me feeling so good, you take all my pain away from me."

Final single 'Baby' failed to make much of an impact on the charts and you can kind of see why when you listen to it. The song is nice enough but the chorus is far too repetitive and doesn't really go anywhere.

"See, I could never feel alone with you. I gave up everything I own for you."

There were much better songs on the album which could have been released, including the seven minute long track 'Rescue', which describes a woman trapped in her environment, longing to be freed by her partner. Sure it's long but the lyrics are beautiful and the production really helps to tell the story. 

"Now you're here, come on out, the rain soaking wet, body glistening. Finally we could do something so rescue me."

Finally, I wanted to share my favourite song on 'Ashanti' called 'Voodoo', which is about a woman becoming tempted to commit adultery, despite being in a loving relationship. The chorus is deliberately restrained and yet still has a raw emotional edge to it and I love soft backing vocals. Such a tune.

"Because I never felt like this, (I don’t want to be wrong cause I like it)."

Just in case people might forget who she was, Ashanti continued her barrage of singles and collaborations on the charts throughout 2003. One of my favourite tracks released during this time is from Ja Rule's album 'The Last Temptation', which featured not one but two collaborations with the RnB starlet. First up is the hit single 'Mesmerise', which was criticised by hip-hop fans for its commercial appeal yet still became the most successfull song from the album. Yes it is quite commercial and the video is just stupid on every level but there's something about this track which I kind of love still.

"I've been going head crazy for your love."

My favourite of the two collaborations though is this remix to 'The Pledge', which was released as a single and also featured a rap from Nas. It's much darker than 'Mesmerise' with a harder hip-hop edge so naturally, it didn't fare as well on the charts but the track gave Ashanti more credibility among hip-hop fans. Love it.

"Murdah I.N.C. You know that I can't see myself livin without you, bein without you, breathin without you baby."

2003 also saw the release of Ashanti's sophomore album, titled 'Chapter II', which became another platinum selling album and gained the singer another three grammy nominations.

This album release also saw a shift in Ashanti' image, which moved away from the 'girl next door' persona to a more sexy look. It's hard to say whether this was a calculated move on the labels part or if it was actually just Ashanti trying to assert more control over her own career but either way, it doesn't matter when it results in gorgeous videos like the one for 'Rock Wit U (Aw Baby)' that you can watch below. The song was a big hit for Ashanti and it's easily one of my favourite singles of hers, although that may partly be because it reminds me so much of Janet Jackson. 

"Aw baby when you kissing me, aw baby when you loving me."

Second single 'Rain On Me' showed a more serious side to the RnB singer, with a Hype Williams directed video that brought the hard hitting lyrics about abusive relationships to life. Ashanti's voice sounds great on the song and her vocal ended up receiving a grammy nomination for 'Best RnB female vocal performance'.

"I'm lookin' in the mirror at this woman down and out."

The first two singles from 'Chapter II' were moderately successful but third release 'Breakup 2 Makeup' didn't make much of an impact on the charts. I'm also not a huge fan of the song and just like the previous album, I think there were better songs that could have been released for the third single. Make up your own mind though by watching the video below, which also features rapper Black Child.

"Now I'm gone thinking about the past and wish that we could just go back."

The following year, Ashanti released yet another studio album, her third, titled 'Concrete Rose'.

'Concrete Rose' didn't perform as well as previous releases, both critically and commercially, although lead single 'Only U' is possibly my favourite song that Ashanti has ever recorded and it became her biggest hit in the UK to date. I also love the music promo directed by Hype Williams, which features the singer performing in a futuristic noir setting. 

"Boy you stay inside my mind, ain't no denyin' that. And only you could do them things that got me comin' back."

The next single released from 'Concrete Rose' was the mid-tempo 'Don't Let Them' and its poor performance on the charts led to it also becoming the last single release. I can kind of see why it didn't exactly set the charts alight as the production is quite bland and the chorus kind of just passes you by. Make up your own mind though by watching the video below.

"Say that you want me. Say that you'll never leave me."

After working her ass off in the early 2000s, Ashanti took a hiatus until 2008, when the singer released her fourth album, 'The Declaration'.

The song 'Hey Baby (After The Club)' was originally touted to be the lead single but in the end, it was only included on certain editions of 'The Declaration' as a bonus track. Instead, 'The Way That I Love You' was given the video treatment but was only a minor hit internationally. I like the song, with its emotive lyrics and promo but it's not as strong as previous lead singles that Ashanti has released.

"After all of this time that we tried, I found out we were living a lie."

Second single 'Good Good' is a great little RnB song about having everything that your man could want and I have to say that I much prefer this to the more serious lead single. I also like the video, although I feel that it's much more risque than it needed to be. But who's going to eat that ice cream sundae now Ashanti's been sitting on it eh?

"Let him run with his boys, let him play his little games, let him drive his caddilac, don't worry he'll be back."

After suffering numerous delays, 2013 will finally see the release of Ashanti's fifth studio album 'Braveheart', which is also her first recorded for the label Written Entertainment.

Lead single 'The Woman You Love' is a great comeback single, full of attitude and a brilliant guest rap from Busta Rhymes. I'm not quite sure about the video though, with its acting sections combined with random space effects. Judge for yourselves.

"Hey baby, tried to believe but I'm tired of being tired."

Follow up single 'That's What We Do' is a collaboration with fellow RnB star R Kelly that was released for download at the end of 2012. No music video has surfaced as of yet and sadly, not much promotion seems to be going on for the 'Braveheart' album in general. The duet hasn't exactly blown me away but as I've only heard it for the first time today, it may be a bit of a grower.

"I’ma curse out that hoe, and let her know to stay away from you."

Hopefully 'Braveheart' will be a return to form for Ashanti, although I worry that it will do little to raise her profile in the music scene following the lacklustre reception that the first two singles received. Ashanti needs to have a banging third single if fans are going to sit up and take notice again but with the right material, I think the Princess of Hip-hop and RnB may still have a shot.

Do you think 'Braveheart' will see Ashanti back on top? What's your favourite album of her career? And do you have a favourite song that I haven't mentioned? Let me know by liking, commenting and sharing below. And come back next week for another edition of Whatever Happened To RnB?

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