Meet Ashanti, music's new chart-topper. The singer explains how after seven years and two failed record deals she became an unexpected pop-chart queen
Kirsten Dunst
Credit: Ashanti: Scott Gries/ImageDirect

R&B crooner Ashanti doesn’t have much in common with the Beatles circa 1963. But after scoring three simultaneous top 20 singles in recent weeks — plus a fourth as a songwriter — her chart dominance is beginning to approach Fab Four territory.

That’s Ashanti, 21, caressing the mesmerizing hook of Ja Rule’s ”Always on Time”; that’s also Ashanti singing the Tina Turner-inspired chorus of Fat Joe’s ”What’s Luv.” Then there’s her own single, ”Foolish,” which is No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100; and the J. Lo hit ”Ain’t It Funny,” which Ashanti cowrote (at No. 3).

And, oh yeah, Ashanti’s self-titled CD entered the album chart at No. 1 this week, scoring the highest first-week sales ever for a female artist’s debut release (fans snatched up some 502,000 copies). The Glen Cove, Long Island, native tells the secrets of her success, the origins of her style, and why she’s not interested in biting Alicia Keys’ sound.

So how did you manage to get three singles in the top 10 at once?
The setup was bananas. [laughs] It’s only by the grace of God, because it was never planned, and the timing was perfect. ”Always on Time” with Ja and the Fat Joe record — they just happened to come right after each other. It’s the work of God — and [label head] Irv Gotti. When it started, it was really overwhelming. I was like, Okay, is this really happening? I was just mesmerized. It was kind of hard to believe in the beginning because I had so many disappointments.

Before you signed your current deal with Murder Inc., you mean?
Yeah, it was really hard — it was a long, struggling journey. I was signed to Jive [at age 14] and it just didn’t work out because they were trying to put my career somewhere I didn’t want to be. I was not really the pop chick. I got out of that deal and a couple years went by; I was still going to school, being a regular person. Then I hooked up with Epic Records, and the person that signed me left, so I sort of got shoved to the side. Then I was networking, meeting producers, and my first official release on the radio was the Big Pun single [”How We Roll”], but the huge one was ”Always on Time.”

People have compared you to Mary J. Blige, but there also seems to be a little bit of Sade hiding in some of your quieter songs. Where do you think your style came from?
I love Mary, I love Faith [Evans], but I’m just kind of Ashanti, you know? It’s funny about Sade, because other people have said that. I think Sade is hot. I didn’t really listen to her, like I wasn’t some bananas, fanatic fan of Sade, but she had a lot of hot records. I didn’t do it on purpose, but I think [the comparison] is a compliment.

Your single ”Foolish” and the rest of the album share a theme of obsessive love Where does that come from?
It’s all about reality; it’s all about living life and what you’re going through. What I want to accomplish is to be able to articulate for people who can’t really express themselves. If they’re listening in the car and they can’t say anything, they’ll be able to put on track three. Then that person they’re with will know what they’re trying to say.

Given current trends, how did you end up pursuing hip-hop/soul rather than, say, more of a neo-soul direction?
It’s just the best of both worlds. Hip-hop/R&B means you got something to dance to AND something to sing. The neo-soul stuff? That’s not for me. I respect it and appreciate it but that’s just not where my heart is.