Revisited: Ja Rule + Ashanti reunion on Valentine’s Day

Today, February 23, marks 15 years since Ja Rule and Ashanti’s went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was Ashanti’s first No. 1 hit and Ja Rule’s second. It’s a classic jam that has endured the test of time tremendously.

Last February, I went and covered the reunion of Ja Rule and Ashanti at Club Nokia (now know as The Novo) in downtown Los Angeles, the second of two shows of theirs that would take place that night. I wrote this for a now-defunct website, and since the URL doesn’t exist anymore, I thought this was as good an excuse as any to repost it.

Ja Rule and Ashanti mesmerize with Valentine’s Day reunion
February 14, 2016

It’s past midnight as Saturday becomes Sunday morning. A line stretches the perimeter of L.A. Live, the large-scale entertainment and dining center in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, for a show at Club Nokia. It has just begun to move despite the 11 pm door time.

The surprise isn’t that all this excitement is being generated by a concert in Los Angeles during GRAMMY weekend — it’s who the performers are that’s generating this kind of buzz. Hip-hop clocks were turned back in time as Ja Rule and Ashanti announced they were reuniting for a series of special Valentine’s Day shows on the West Coast.

The 21st century began with Queens rapper Ja Rule’s ascent up the mainstream charts. His hook on Jay-Z’s “Can I Get A…” was an introduction to his signature gravelly voice and from 1999 to 2002, He recorded an album a year that included four top ten Billboard Hot 100 tracks.

Ashanti’s trajectory was similarly expeditious. Irv Gotti brought her on to sing hooks on some of his Murder Inc. label artists’ songs. Her vocals on Fat Joe’s “What’s Luv?” and Ja Rule’s “Always on Time” came out about the same time and were two of the biggest blockbuster anthems of 2002.

The line outside Club Nokia would have you believe Ja Rule and Ashanti had maintained successful recording careers over the last decade but those familiar with the pair know that isn’t the case. Ja Rule saw his career take a downturn after a public beef with 50 Cent and a prison stint for gun possession – though he recently appeared at Jennifer Lopez’s Vegas residency for his verse on “I’m Real.” Ashanti has enjoyed more success as an actress than as a musician in recent years.

Nostalgia is worth a lot these days, especially as those who were in their youth during these two performers’ heyday climb deeper into adulthood. Tickets went so fast for the initial they added the 11pm show. Two extra shows in Pomona for that week were added. Tickets on the secondary market approached $100 each.

It’s a little after 12:45 when Ashanti finally takes the stage. While waiting in line a few hours earlier, I scrolled Twitter to get a sense how the first show went. While the performance was met with solid reviews, people got irritated as they sensed that Ja Rule was late to arrive and Ashanti tried buying him some time — a perfect irony given their biggest hit together was titled “Always on Time”.

But Ashanti was a force on stage all on her own. She’s clearly retained the things that made her successful more than a decade earlier. Her dancing was on point — even if her backup dancers weren’t as in tune. Her vocals shined and she looked fantastic on stage. Former Murder Inc. label head Irv Gotti served as hype man.

The theme of the night would be how you forgot the number of hits these two spawned in such a short period. Ashanti dusted off “Foolish” and “Rock Wit U” to unanimous appreciation. At one point she sat down three guys on stage — one of which was lucky enough to have Ashanti dance on top of him while singing “Girlfriend.”

Between sets, I talked to a few couples while my date for the evening grabbed drinks at the bar. One pair told me one of their first dates was at a festival called Zootopia in New York in 2003, where they saw the two perform together. The music of Ja Rule and Ashanti represents a special time in their lives.

It was about 1:45 AM when Ja Rule finally graced the stage. A clip of an old Dave Chappelle standup bit about Ja Rule gave me the sense the rapper is at peace with his current place in pop culture.

Ja Rule ran through the hits — starting at the beginning with “Holla Holla” and closing with his much-anticipated duets with Ashanti on “Mesmerize” and “Always On Time.” There was no rust and the crowd still knew all the words.

If the world supposedly forgot about Ja Rule and Ashanti, they neglected to tell the thousands of people that were at Club Nokia that night singing every lyric.

“This that vintage shit!” Ja Rule shouted before closing things down at nearly 2:45 AM. “This that Murder Inc. shit, we back!” Though the show started much later than anticipated, people left feeling they got their money’s worth.-

If this weekend of shows was a trial run for these two, it has to be considered a success. I wouldn’t be shocked to see them appear on some festival bills – or even a Vegas residency.

“I’m planning to put a 10-12 city U.S. tour together for starters,” Richard Murphy of Emancipated Talent Management & Consulting told me via e-mail. “Fairs and fests are definitely on the radar for this package as well as an international run.”

Sentimentality is highly valued on the festival circuit — even moreso when the performances come off as crisp as Ja Rule and Ashanti’s did on Saturday night.