Fame is a fickle lover; just ask Ashanti. About a decade ago, she was the hottest artist in R&B. Her debut album Ashanti hit the number one spot out of the gate, going gold in its first week by selling 504,593, a Guinness Book of World Records feat (at the time) for most albums sold by a female artist in her debut.
The gravy train kept on rolling, as she won eight Billboard Awards, a Grammy and two American Music Awards. Her single “Foolish,” which has sold at least 7.2 million copies to date, hit number one on six Billboard charts simultaneously. She also became the first female artist to have three singles land in the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, matching a feat first achieved by The Beatles.
To date, Ashanti has sold more than 15 million albums. In April, a decade to the month her debut album was released, she will unleash her fifth and latest album, Braveheart.
With a Busta Rhymes-assisted version of her latest single, “The Woman You Love,” steadily gaining airplay, Ashanti is hoping to make a return to the top of the pop stratosphere. But, despite Ashanti’s record-setting accomplishments, she’s never been particularly respected as an artist. Her early success was greatly fueled by her membership in the Murder Inc. family, led by producer Irv Gotti and rapper Ja Rule, during a time when they had the charts in a stranglehold.
Even as she rode high on the charts, there were loud rumblings that she could not actually sing or perform well. In fact, when it was announced that she would receive the Aretha Franklin Entertainer of the Year Award at the Lady of Soul Awards on the heels of her record-setting debut, controversy erupted, with thousands signing a petition protesting the honor. Many argued that Ashanti was nowhere in the neighborhood of receiving an award bearing the Queen of Soul’s name.
Ashanti’s brand survived, scoring more hit singles, including “Rain on Me,” as well as roles in the films like Coach Carter and Resident Evil: Extinction. Then, in the midst of Murder Inc.’s trials and tribulations, she began to fade into obscurity. In the latter part of the 2000s, her relevancy on blogs had more to do with an alleged love affair with rapper Nelly than with her music.
Last year, she started to reemerge with a single for the Hollywood film Dream House in September 2011, and even joined the likes of Michael Bolton and Philip Bailey on the David Foster & Friends Overseas tour a month later.
David Foster, if you recall, composed Earth, Wind & Fire’s “After the Love Is Gone,” Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire,” as well as Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” with his then-wife Linda Thompson from The Bodyguard. He actually produced the mammoth songs “I Will Always Love You,” and “Run to You.”
When Ashanti performed on Good Morning America the Monday following Whitney Houston’s untimely death, she undoubtedly felt confident in performing “I Have Nothing” because Mr. Foster had already given her the heads up. Some people dug it, and some people didn’t. But Ashanti’s problem has never been purely about talent.
As we’ve seen in recent years, having technical singing prowess like Whitney Houston, Patti LaBelle or Gladys Knight is no longer a requirement in the music industry. Also, Ashanti has written songs, including her most successful single, “Foolish,” and her latest album will be on her own label, Written Entertainment, so she does have some talent, and is plenty ambitious.
Her main problem is she doesn’t come across as either of those things. Her harsh New York accent and “just there” vibe isn’t compelling. She has studied dance, yet she appears stiff when she performs. She’s obviously got some smarts, because a woman doesn’t accomplish all she has in the music business without them. Yet, when she’s interviewed, there’s no hint of intellect. She comes across more as a singer who got lucky than someone who was destined for the spotlight or earned her keep.
In previous years, she’s broken through with great videos that have featured high-profile co-stars such as Terrence Howard in “Foolish” and Larenz Tate in “Rain on Me” at the right time. That’s not the case with her latest offering. Not only does the audience not know the gentleman in “The Woman You Love” video, but Ashanti herself is perplexing.
What is going on with that braid resting across her forehead? On GMA, she also rocked this curious look and, despite the negative feedback, stuck with it for the video.
And what was that tie-dyed cat suit she wore on GMA? Although the lyrics to “The Woman You Love” suggest a very real tale of a woman doing her earnest to win the love of a man who just isn’t feeling her, the video appears to be embracing a galactic theme, with Ashanti’s wardrobe co-signing that idea.
Given that Ashanti burst onto the scene as part of the gritty Murder Inc., going Disney-like now is probably not the best move. It’s understandable that she’d want to distance herself from Ja Rule, who is now serving time in prison, but this is going too far.
The harsh truth is very few people were clamoring for an Ashanti comeback. She just didn’t elicit the sort of devotion that far-from-prolific stars like Lauryn Hill, Maxwell or D’Angelo. Too many people didn’t exactly miss her, so she’s fighting an uphill battle. Her dated hairstyle and dress only makes it harder.
Yes fame is a helluva drug, but some artists need to know when to say enough is enough. In Ashanti’s case, this comeback just hasn’t received the “always on time” response she’s hoped for.
Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @rondaracha