When Ashanti Douglas exploded onto the music scene in 2002, she was introduced to the world as the Princess of R&B, designated as such by her Murder Inc. mentors. Since then, the Long Island native has worn her bequeathed crown well, from singing hooks in Big Puns How We Roll and Ja Rules Always on Time, to flying solo with the female anthem Foolish, which artfully sampled Biggies One More Chance instrumentals.
Ashantis self-titled debut went multi-platinum, and her numerous overlapping singles toppled the charts, inhabiting the top five spots for weeks. She also appeared on multiple successful collaborations with artists like Fat Joe on Whats Luv, and even a posthumous match up with Notorious B.I.G. on Unfoolish, which all garnered steady radio play. Along with the success came drama, but 24-year-old Ashanti has remained poised amidst criticism of her vocal and performance abilities. She has continually dealt with comparisons to R&B heavyweights Mary J. Blige and Beyoncé, yet remains focused on her own path.
As Ja Rule prepares to reoccupy his vacant throne, Ashanti is set to prove that she truly deserves her tiara. The songstress spoke candidly with AllHipHop.com Alternatives to discuss her artistic and vocal evolution, as well as her upcoming album Concrete Rose.
AllHipHop.com Alternatives: Your album title Concrete Rose is very poetic. It reminds me of the Tupac song The Rose That Grew From Concrete. Is that where its from?
Ashanti: It was definitely inspired by that. [laughs]
AHHA: And what does it mean to you?
Ashanti: To me it kind of just means, like when you think of Hip Hop, you think of stuff kind of grimy, kind of gutter, kind of raw, sort of like concrete. And when you think of R&B, you think of something smooth, sensual, soft, something like a rose. And then with my music being hip-hop and R&B, its a Concrete Rose.
AHHA: You said this album is your best, but what separates it from the first two?
Ashanti: I dont know if you heard my first single [Only You] or not, but by the feel of the first record, you can tell that its a different sound. Its definitely different than Rock Wit U or Rain On Me. I think with us just working with various producers on thiswe reunited back up with Sev, 7 Aureliusand it was just a different feel, a new level, a year has gone by, I learned a lot more; so I think its definitely, already with the single, the direction of it you can tell that its a different level of music.
AHHA: Is the content still classic Ashantisongs about love and heartache?
Ashanti: Well, of course youre gonna get those. [laughs] Youre gonna get your classic love records, but on this one, I did something that I havent done before. I wrote something personal to me, I mean all my records have been personal but, this is something that I actually really really went through and it was hard to deal with. Its a record called Freedom and it was basically about you know how sometimes you know people and you have your circle of people and those are like your people people, and you love them and you think that they love you, and they been knowing you since you were small, and you think theyre in your corner Well unfortunately, those people that I thought was like that wasnt, and I had to find out the hard way. I just had to make my circle a little bit tighter, a little smaller. Im basically expressing what happened and I think a lot of people will be able to relate to it. I know Im not the only one that has gone through that.
AHHA: Is there a song on this album with the word baby in the title?
Ashanti: [laughs] Youre funny. Nah Theres songs that have the word baby in it, yeah of course, [but] I dont think any of the titles have the word baby in it. But, if it needed to have baby in it, Id definitely put it in there without hesitation.
AHHA: Most of your songs dont feature any artists outside The Inc. label. Why is that and is it intentional?
Ashanti: No, I mean its not intentional like that, but when you play the feature game, its a lot of headache, its a lot of hassle, a lot of extra checks that have to be cut. But on this album we got a few features [Usher, R. Kelly].
AHHA: Irv Gotti said that your second album Chapter II could have been better. Do you agree, and were you satisfied with that album?
Ashanti: I loved the second album, I dont know. When you go back and you listen to it a year or two later, I guess you think about other things that you could have done differently or could have been better or whatever, but I loved the second album.
AHHA: Your image has changed a lot since you first came out; youre more mature and sexier. Was that a natural thing for you or something planned?
Ashanti: Well, to be honest, I think its a little bit of both. Its natural that youre gonna get older, youre gonna get a little bit more mature. But being in this game, you have to be conscious of what youre doing. Its like you cant just be sitting around, you gotta want to do it. You gotta [say], You know what, I want to do this. I want it to be like this. So in that sense, I think its still a little bit of both.
AHHA: Theres a rumor floating around that you and Nelly are an item.
Ashanti: Nah, me and Nelly are just friends.
AHHA: You enjoyed immediate success with Murder Inc. when you did Always on Time with Ja Rule and then your hit Foolish. How did you deal with that?
Ashanti: It was kind of overwhelming. I never really got a chance to sit down and soak it all in until probably the end of that year, the beginning of the following year, because it was sooo much, so fast. And with me, personally in my life, Ive had a lot of let downs via my first two record deals - it would have to take a lot to convince me, so it took a while for it to kind of sink in. But when it did sink in, it was a wonderful feeling.
AHHA: Also when you first came out, Irv and Ja deemed you the Princess of R&B. How did you feel about the title at that time?
Ashanti: It was something that just kind of got started around the label because I was the only female R&B [artist] and it kind of just got out there, so I dont know. I mean it was cool; I guess it was a compliment.
AHHA: With that label though, people were comparing you to Mary J. Blige, who is the Queen of R&B. Do you think that was reasonable?
Ashanti: I mean, youre gonna get your comparisons regardless, you know, whoever you are. If youre a chick and youre in R&B music or youre in music period, youre gonna get your comparisons. [But] its all about the music.
AHHA: Some people have also questioned your vocal skills as far as live performances. How do you react to that?
Ashanti: A lot of people lip sync. I found that I was really one of the few that was singing and trying to dance all at the same time and the two just wasnt happening. It just wasnt coming out right. [laughs] So now I found out whats going on. And you gotta be in shape, you gotta have that air level up there in order to hit them notes and be pumping and dancing and jumping all on the stage and all that.
AHHA: Ive seen a few of your recent performances and your dancing is much better. Did you consciously work to improve as a result of the criticism?
Ashanti: Not necessarily as a result of the criticism, it was just time. You gotta be ready; you gotta just have it. [laughs] It wasnt that it was never there. It was always there, its just you gotta be ready. And with this one, the third album, Im ready to let it out.
AHHA: The story about R. Kelly and your sister Shia [that Ashantis mom was suing Kelly for offensively touching Shia] was completely false. When did you first hear about it and how did you react?
Ashanti: I got a page - I was asleep cause I was in the studio the day before. I got a page early afternoon from somebody. And I was like, Whaaat? The whole story sounded crazy. Anyone that believed it, I challenge their mentality. [laughs] But Im glad its over with.
AHHA: Youre now getting into acting with The Muppets Wizard of Oz and Coach Carter coming up. Acting seems like a natural progression for many artists, but what made you want to get into it?
Ashanti: If the opportunity is there, why not? [laughs] You gotta open up many doors, whatever opportunities come to you cause you never know whats gonna happen.
AHHA: As far as collaborations, what artist who is no longer alive would you have loved to work with?
Ashanti: Well technically, since Puff [P. Diddy] let us get a [Notorious] Big verse, we did that. Technically, I did the record with [Big] Pun. I mean I love Pac; I would have loved to work with Tupac.
AHHA: What do you want for Christmas?
Ashanti: What do I want for Christmas...I would love to be home on Christmas Day and chill out with my family. I dont know as far as gifts - Im pretty content.
AHHA: How do you feel about the new batch of R&B girls like Ciara and Keyshia Cole, and where do you see your place in the R&B world?
Ashanti: I think everyone has their own lane, you know. I think that people are able to say stuff like, Oh, thats a record that such-and-such produced, but she wouldnt do that. Maybe Ashanti would do a record like that, but nah she wouldnt do a record like that. Thats not her. So I think everybody is trying to carry their own.