In 2002, the music industry was introduced to Ashanti. With her self-titled debut album that produced a string of chart-topping hits like “Foolish,” “Happy,” and “Rock Wit U (Awww Baby),” this multi-award winning singer and songwriter has definitely cemented her place in the world of R&B and hip-hop. After a hiatus from music to focus on acting and other endeavors, Ashanti is back, fresh for 2014, with her new (and fifth) project, Braveheart, scheduled for release in February under her independent label, Written Entertainment. SoulTrain.com spoke with the R&B songstress about her new music, why she spent time away from the music scene, and how she has managed to hold steady in show business.
SoulTrain.com: Braveheart is your fifth album and your first full project in as many years. Musically speaking, would you consider this sort of your “comeback?”
Ashanti: It’s definitely been a long time since my last album and there are so many things that have changed for me. Getting my own record label and making decisions that are very crucial to my career took a lot of time and a lot of planning. It’s definitely been an absence from the music aspect of things, but I’m really excited about the project. I’ve learned so much about how the industry is completely changing and how you have to be so hands-on and how you have to stay current and continuously put out products. I’m just super excited, though!
SoulTrain.com: You stated that “things have changed” since your early days in the business and that the “industry is crazy right now.” Given this, where this latest project is concerned, what was your vision going in?
Ashanti: I think most artists just get in the studio and record records and when they hear a beat or a track that they like, they write to it and it just comes out of that feeling. After working, I get a sense of the direction I wanna go and being that I write my own records, it’s really about who I am and what I’m going through and my life experiences. When I sat down with Braveheart and I started to mold it into what it is now, it was just a life story, from top to bottom. And I think that’s what most artists look for—you want your album to be cohesive, you want it to tell a story. And I’m telling my story.
SoulTrain.com: As we all know, of course, you parted ways with your former label, Murder Inc., amid a federal criminal investigation. As you continue to move forward with your career and are recording under your own label, what are your thoughts now that this is all behind you?
Ashanti: I think in everyone’s life, you have to overcome obstacles. Going through things is like a character builder; you learn how strong you are, and it’s about surviving and adapting and learning how to deal with things. That’s a part of growing up and that’s part of being strong and surviving and knowing that everyone has to go through it. For me, I’m just blessed and thankful that I have an amazing family and an amazing team that has surrounded me from the beginning. I mean, I’ve gone through a lot; there are not a lot of females that have had their record label federally indicted [laughs] who are able to come back with their own label and still be able to put out music.
SoulTrain.com: Regarding Braveheart, you’ve said that it is “revealing more than you have on previous records.” How so?
Ashanti: I’ve grown as a woman and done a few things in the public eye. It’s really important to connect to people; people want to be a part of your movement and then you have to give them a reason to want to be part of your movement. Nowadays with social media, you have to share a lot—you have to be a little bit vulnerable and a little brave and you have to give them some insight. You have to give people a reason to want to champion you. I think the best thing to do is just be real about it. With me, I’ve never really been shy, but I’ve never really been one to just put all my business out there, either. Little by little, you’ve got to keep people intrigued and keep them interested, but again, it’s important to reveal who you are so that your fans identify with you and they have a reason to support and build that bond.
SoulTrain.com: The title of the album is based off the 1995 movie of the same name; you have mentioned that the movie’s plot is analogous for you in that you were once part of a major label and now you’re going the independent route. How did that all come about?
Ashanti: It happened very organically—it just kind of came to me. Braveheart is one of my favorite movies and I said, “This is what it is—this is my story!” I was in L.A. a few years ago and we were just brainstorming about everything with this project and how it was gonna move and things like that. It was at a point where I had seven offers from major labels and at the time, I had made the decision to walk away from them all, which was very scary. So I just started thinking about what the next steps were gonna be and Braveheart is a great analogy.
SoulTrain.com: You recorded over 60 songs; how did you narrow things down to decide what cuts would make it on the album?
Ashanti: We recorded a lot of records over a few years. I’d spend a few weeks in Miami and record with different producers, and then I’d spend a few weeks in L.A. and it was the same thing. In the beginning, it wasn’t really a set direction; it was just about recording hot records or records that I just wanted to get out. Sometimes, for me, if I feel something, I just wanna get it out of my system and write it. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll keep it. I might sell it to someone, but it’s just something that I want to creatively get out.
SoulTrain.com: Production wise, you worked with several producers including L.T. Hutton, Mansur, Rico Love and others. Talk about mixing things up for this album.
Ashanti: I think it’s important to stay current; I felt like meeting with different producers and unknown producers and big [name] producers. I have different flavors and sometimes people you might not know or deal with on a regular basis—those people pull creativity out of you. I felt it was important to spread things around but at the same time completing the thought so that it stays cohesive.
SoulTrain.com: In addition to recording music, you’ve also carved out an acting career; this past holiday season, we saw you in Christmas in the City, which was produced via your partnership with the Lifetime Movie Network. Will you be working with the network again in the future?
Ashanti: Absolutely. That is one of the best relationships because I love Lifetime—I’ve always been a fan. They empower women. They are very supportive and are about bringing innovative ideas to the table, so I’m definitely going to be working with them on some more projects.
SoulTrain.com: You are known for your hit collaborations with Ja Rule and Fat Joe; on this project, you worked with Busta Rhymes and Rick Ross. What would you say is the formula for a great hip hop/R&B record?
Ashanti: Chemistry, a hot hook and great melodies are all it takes.
SoulTrain.com: Last fall, you took home the 2013 Soul Train Award for “Best Independent R&B/Soul Performance.” Overall, how would you describe Soul Train’s impact on popular culture?
Ashanti: Soul Train is the source of our culture with music and dance and it’s so important that we always remember to continue to remind the younger generation of that.
LaShawn Williams is a freelance writer and entertainment enthusiast in Chicago. She is currently the Arts & Culture Editor for Gapers Block, focusing on theater, stand-up comedy, and dance. Follow her on Twitter at @MsWilliamsWorld.