Ashanti looks ahead to new sound, bigger risks

Chris Azzopardi
Special to The Detroit News

This story was originally published Sept. 1.

Ashanti’s solo success as one of R&B’s most ubiquitous names with early aught jams like “Foolish” and “Rock Wit U (Awww Baby)” was no joke. But is it safe to say that her sweet voice and girl-next-door image also softened songs by the era’s mega-rappers?

“I mean, I’m not mad at that,” she says, laughing. Regarding her frequent collaborations with hip-hop notables, including Ja Rule, the 35-year-old notes, “We used to call it the ying and yang with my vocals and Ja’s raspy voice. It was a nice, little balance.”

Ashanti, though, was no sidekick — at least not for long. Though she appeared on a glut of songs before her solo career took off, including her first No. 1, “Always on Time” with Ja, she eventually became a hot commodity of her own. Her eponymous 2002 debut song sold 503,000 copies in its first week — enough for her to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records for “Fastest Selling Debut (Female) Artist.”

“Being able to be in the Guinness Book of World Records and break history — it’s very humbling and I’m super blessed,” she says, “and I attribute all that to building and continuing to build the brand.”

Initially discovered by Sean (Diddy) Combs’ Bad Boy Records, the Ashanti brand was first established when the budding performer was just a teenager. The Bad Boy deal fell through and Ashanti later signed to Murder Inc. and Def Jam Records, which released her Grammy-winning debut in 2002.

Looking back, Ashanti admits, she felt “a little sheltered.” Consequently, “I had to learn to grow.”

Musically, sure. But Ashanti’s journey meant also leaving Murder Inc. and, like many performers who’ve gone indie for financial and creative purposes, launching her own record label, Written Entertainment.

“It was time to grow into something and be more hands on,” she says. “I own my own masters, my licensing. It’s very different, but it’s very easy to get music out there without having to give so much of your percentages to a major label.”

Ashanti is preparing her second release under her label while on tour, which brings her to MotorCity Casino Hotel’s Sound Board on Saturday. The singer says the show will span her five-album catalog and draw upon early fan favorites.

“I just like to have a good time,” she adds.

Ashanti says she doesn’t get as nostalgic about her past hits as fans do when she performs them. But sometimes, “If I’m on a plane or on a drive, I may pop in one of my albums and then it’ll be like, ‘Gosh, I remember when I wrote this’ or ‘I remember when the speakers blew out on this song.’ It’ll bring out certain memories. ”

For her, it’s also a reminder that she’s moved on from the rookie she was 15 years ago. Her upcoming album will present a “new, fresh, creative” version of the Ashanti we came to know when she first stormed the Billboard charts. Expect, she says, “a side you’ve never seen and risks I never thought I would take.”

Chris Azzopardi is a Canton-based freelance writer.

Ashanti

8 p.m. Sat., Sept. 3

MotorCity Casino Hotel Sound Board

2901 Grand River, Detroit

$37-$50

soundboarddetroit.com