Ashanti is ready to fight.
She’s had a lot of training for it lately - going up against murderous crows and flesh-eating zombies in last year’s hit movie “Resident Evil: Extinction”; going up against a music industry infrastructure that didn’t support her last album, and, by association, going up against federal prosecutors who tried (and failed) to take down her label’s chief executive and producer Irv Gotti, who was acquitted on all money laundering and racketeering charges. And now, with her new album “The Declaration,” the Princess of Hip-Hop Soul wants to take back her rightful place in the kingdom.
|Ashanti’s new album “The Declaration” marks a new direction and several breaks with her past. Here’s a look at where she came from: ASHANTI (2002) The hits: “Foolish,” “Happy,” “Baby” The vibe: When she arrived on the scene, Ashanti, with help from Ja Rule and Irv Gotti, didn’t follow pop trends, she set them, mixing gruff hip-hop with sweet soul singing for a pop audience. Sales: 3 million CHAPTER II (2003) The hits: “Rock Wit U (Aww Baby),” “Rain on Me,” “Breakup 2 Makeup” The vibe: Ashanti’s interests take her and her team to new areas, including dance pop and even a bit of Motown-tinged pop. Sales: 1 million CONCRETE ROSE (2004) The hits: “Only U,” “Wonderful,” “Turn It Up” The vibe: Though it had a more streetwise feel and plenty of possibilities, her label’s legal problems hampered the promotion and it ended up not living up to its potential. Sales: 1 million|
“When you get pushed into a certain position and your back’s against the wall, you’re either gonna sink or you’re gonna swim,” she says, leaning forward on the conference room table at Universal Motown’s Manhattan headquarters. “I choose not to sink.”
It’s been four years - nearly an eternity in the constantly churning, here-today, gone-by-lunch world of R&B - since Ashanti released her “Concrete Rose” album to good reviews but lackluster sales, and she had been itching to return to the studio for quite some time. However, her team at The Inc. was in the middle of its own fight, not only in the long federal trial, but in the board rooms of various music companies as well.
“I had a blast filming `John Tucker (Must Die)’ and I had a blast filming `Resident Evil,’ but I said, `You know, I gotta get back to my passion. I gotta get back into the studio,’” she says. “I want to write. I want to be creative. I want to get my juices flowing. I said, `I have to do it.’ I was able to get out and experience and learn so much. I did a lot of growing up. I’ve learned so much about myself, so much about the industry and the behind-the-scenes and the politics - everything that goes into it.”
So instead of waiting for The Inc. team to be available, Ashanti assembled a new one, working with outside producers for the first time in her career. The list of her collaborators for “The Declaration” is like a who’s who of today’s charts - from LT Hutton, who worked on the first single “The Way That I Love You” and Akon and Nelly on “Body on Me,” to Polow Da Don, Pharrell, Babyface, Jermaine Dupri and Rodney Jerkins - but it was still a bit unnerving for the singer-songwriter.
“When you get accustomed to something, a pattern, and you stray away from it, it’s very scary,” she says. “Not only am I coming back after four years, I’m coming back without all my team players and everything that I trusted for so long. Everything was not peaches and cream.
“Going in, I knew a lot of magnifying glasses were going to be pointed in my direction as far as the decisions I was making and how the music was sounding,” she continues. “I learned that it’s good to try something different and if I don’t like it - hey, it stays in the studio. But at least we can try, take a stab at it and see what happens.”
One lesson she learned from all the new collaboration took her by surprise. “All the producers - every one of them - said, `Wow, we didn’t know you were this cool. You’ve been sheltered a lot. A lot of people didn’t get a chance to experience who you were or enjoy your personality,’” Ashanti says with a laugh. “It was good for me ... I’m in an amazing place now and I wouldn’t take it back for the world. You couldn’t pay for the experience that I’ve learned in the past three or four years.”
She even decided to include a song she didn’t write on the album - that it came from superstar songwriter Diane Warren made it a little easier to handle.
“I’ve always respected her - she’s like a hit machine, like you put a quarter in her or something and boop! it comes out - she’s amazing,” Ashanti says. “She came up to New York and played some stuff and a couple of records were great, but they weren’t great for me. I wanted to make sure that I could relate and that it was believable for me, being that I didn’t write it, and that never happens. Then there was this one record `Shine.’ It described where I was at that moment in time.”
In the ballad, Ashanti sings: “They’ll try to make you feel that you’re not good enough ... They’ll try to take you try to break you down. Remember you were born to shine.”
Though “The Declaration” is the first Ashanti album he wasn’t involved in, Gotti says he’s proud of what she accomplished. “It shows her growth as an artist in taking control of her career,” he says. “Music is her backbone. She knows that everything bounces off of her having a good music career. That’s where her passion lies.”
Nevertheless, in the current state of the industry, even stars like Ashanti, who still holds the record for the biggest opening week for a female artist’s debut album (504,593 copies sold) and is tied with The Beatles as the only artist to have three singles in the Top 10 simultaneously, have to worry. The fact that her first single “The Way That I Love You” hit No. 2 on the R&B charts last month lessens the anxiety but doesn’t remove it.
“Obviously I’m nervous, but I’m excited,” Ashanti says about the album’s release Tuesday. “I want to do well, but I know that it’s not 2002. The climate is completely different ... I think it’s important to keep your own signature because that’s how you got all the love from the people. But being that it’s been four years, it is so important to add something to that. You have to stay relevant. You have to try different things.”
And, as she points out on “The Declaration,” you have to be willing to fight.