Ja Rule and Ashanti
While the younger generation of pop stars are busy being arrested for alleged assault and assailed for not knowing rap history, a hearkening for Urban music’s past has awakened what could be seen as a Golden Age fallacy. Here to confirm whether the past was as gilded as we like to claim was Murder Inc’s Ja Rule and Ashanti when the once indomitable duo took the stage in Santa Ana. Ja Rule took the stage promptly at 9:30 p.m. in a white T, blue work pants, and icy white Air Force 1 Lows.
Jumping right into the hits, Ja Rule was quick to raise the decade-old questions—originally prompted by 50 Cent—surrounding his street credibility in light of the gaggle of R&B hits in his catalog. He smiled at every turn and appeared just as happy as diehards who’d paid the $50 to see he and Ashanti, R&B’s princess of the early ‘00s. Deprecating himself after asking the young crowd to pull out lighters for a more solemn part of the show, Ja laughed at his likely scripted blip giving off a Denzel in Training Day chuckle. However, his vocal delivery hadn’t softened a bit, performing the anthem “New York,” now wearing all black, a leather jacket. Throughout the set, the Queens native, and his rough voice sifted through the venue speakers, muffling much of his lyrics. Those diehards in the pit and on the balcony picked up any existing slack, though. Ja acknowledged his “rowdy right side,” “loud left side” and “murderers in the middle” for their participation.
Ashanti, too, was there displaying exorbitant amounts of love to her fans. Following one of Ja’s stints on stage (the two spent most of the night going tit-for-tat), Ashanti’s return was preceded by her two dancers and a trio of chairs. If the chairs meant what they meant at parties during the duo’s heyday, some fun was to ensue. Surely, Ashanti brought three of audience’s luckiest fellas on stage to be blessed with lapdances. Frenzy ensued and shortly thereafter, three men bountifully leaped from the crowd onto the stage before being seated and blindfolded. A patron vocalized his desire of climbing to the balcony of the venue a la Tory Lanez during his recent visit in order to catch Ashanti’s attention.
One of the blessed, especially excited at the chance to get it from ‘Shanti herself, as Ja referred to her, began giving the chair a little seduction of his own. Soon he and two others would be under the spell of the “Foolish” songstress and her dancers. When it was over, the guys were given a chance to talk about who they represented. Likely shaken from having Ashanti on his lap like a MacBook, he mumbled something to the crowd. One of the selected played to the crowd and garnered cheers for representing “all of the Mexicans.” Lastly, the excitable and flamboyant one shouted out all the “big bitches” causing raucous before he shook and jiggled to the back. From concert to cabaret the unusually high show price for the venue was beyond worth it for those three.
Maybe the JAshanti duo is still just as poppin as it was back in the day.
The next segment of the show took on a much more somber mood. Ja Rule cautioned us that “life is very serious” as pictures of black leaders, victims and fallen celebrities came on and off a screen on-stage. “Rainy Days” played next. The graphics were now shots of New York and its residents post-9/11. Now somber, the venue’s vibe darkened. It was the nearest we’d get to Ja’s “Pain is Love” album, the title cementing Ja Rule’s affinity for meshing the street life with the passion lost among the riff raff. It was the space Ja occupied better than anyone since his idol, Tupac. Ja Rule removed his leather jacket to reveal his notable back tattoo piece; two crosses, a pair of wings below a halo. The crowd was then corralled into singing the “I Cry” hook adding to the “Kumbayah” effect.
Paired with Ja was Ashanti, whose soulful lyrical delivery during somber portion was heart-wrenching and perfectly on point. An interlude consisted of a domestic violence dramatization between a dancer and a male counterpart. Grasping the dancer by the throat for the majority of the interlude and into Ashanti’s stint where they acted in the background during her rendition “Rain on Me.” When the actor positioned his hands lower to grab the dancer’s behind, the crowd was as choked with emotion as the dancer was. The powerful imagery struck the audience as intended.
Theatrically, the show grew more intense as the violence continued and thoughts on domestic violence ran through patrons’ minds, shown through their expressionless faces. Ashanti belted lyrics all the while that must have been among the best the venue had ever heard. Her pitch rose peerlessly and she held notes of which I was unsure she was ever capable. As her voice grew more impassioned and unshakeable, her dancer, still in a heat, began fighting back before defeating her male assailant. The audience cheered triumphantly. It was a scene prime to return the show to the ardent plane where the duo thrived almost 15 years ago.
Ja Rule and Ashanti closed out the show sharing the stage. It was the moment that made the event invaluable and responsible for the nostalgia; the only Hood/Harmony duo to ever produce as much gold as did they. Where the drain of violence and sorrow had sapped some of the life from the crowd, the litany of Thug Passion smashes had the audience back on a high. Ashanti found herself enthused enough to bend over, back to the audience, in very high-cut bottoms. Rule was back to his grinning self schmoozing with audiences members at the venues sides. Lively again, the crowd synced; strangers danced and grew handsy. Even in 2016, the duo’s ability to incite the crowd was undeniable with Ja still ripped when shirtless and Ashanti’s vocals and sex appeal both aging like a fine wine. As the venue emptied, the guy who’d gotten the personal dance from Ashanti bleated “I didn’t get to grab it, though!”