NEW YORK – Ashanti (search) just keeps flourishing amid the flames.
In 2003, while her labelmate and frequent collaborator Ja Rule was floundering due to a bitter battle with 50 Cent, the R&B songstress released her blockbuster sophomore album.
Now, preparing to release her third album, "Concrete Rose," (search) there are heaps of problems at her high-profile record label, The Inc. Both the label and its founder, Irv Gotti, are facing a criminal investigation, and there have been arrests in connection with the probe.
But none of it has adversely affected Ashanti's popularity or marketability. She currently has a top 10 hit, "Wonderful," with Ja Rule and R. Kelly. Her album's first single, the rock-tinged "Only U," is rising on the charts. She's been tapped by Herbal Essences to be their pitchwoman. And she's segueing into Hollywood with "Coach Carter," due out next month, and a Muppet movie — about as wholesome as it gets.
Maybe she's managed to dodge the negativity because of her girl-next-door charm and her infectious smile. She showed it frequently during a recent interview as she laughed off criticisms, gossip, and questions about her love life.
AP: When you look back on your first album, how do you think you've grown?
Ashanti: There's definitely been growth, in every aspect — lyrically, vocally, performances. With the first album, although I had a lot of input, it was always up to Gotti. And with this one, we both have to compromise (laughs). (But) I absolutely trust Gotti. He's obviously been in the game longer, way longer.
AP: You've taken a lot of flak, from your frequent use of the word baby in songs to your voice. What's the worst criticism you've gotten that you think is unfair?
Ashanti: I don't know! (Laughs). What I hear — and I don't hear a lot anymore — what I've heard is, "Oh, she can't sing." "Oh, she can't dance." And then I'll hear, "She sings good in the studio, she's a studio singer but she can't do it live." The baby thing — I think that's kind of new for me. I think I heard it a few months ago, and it made me laugh because it was funny (laughs). 'Cause I do use the word baby a lot, but so what? So, and — what is your point? That's like the bulk of what I get.
AP: Ja Rule has suffered from a lot of criticism for more than a year, and 50 Cent and his clique even targeted you in his feud with Ja. Were you worried that it would affect your career?
Ashanti: I kind of got pulled into some of the negativity going on. As far as it affecting me, obviously, as a person, I'm like, "What? I'm a girl! I don't have nothing to do with this." But other than that, I'm like, I'm gonna do me. I held it down for my big brothers, and that was that.
AP: Did you wanna jump into the fray, or did you want to keep your head down low?
Ashanti: Well, there were a FEW times, when they kind of had to (say), "Listen, you're not a dude! You can't say that and you can't go and do nothin! You're five feet! Shut up!" Certain things will get under your skin especially when you know that it's wrong, and you know that you have nothing to do with it, and you know you're innocent. So yeah, there were times when I was putting my big coat on, and my Timberlands (laughs). But you've gotta take it with a grain of salt. It's part of the territory, and you can't let other people change who you are as a person.
AP: Has all the drama surrounding The Inc. been a distraction for you?
Ashanti: You can't let it distract you, because if you let every little thing distract you, you're going to deteriorate. You focus on what's important, and what's important is making hit records. That's what's gonna be out there. Just focus on your craft and be creative and come out with new heat.
AP: Are you worried at all about the future of The Inc. or Gotti?
Ashanti: I'll just say I don't want anything negative to happen. The guys are too good, everyone's heart is too good for any negative stuff to happen.
AP: How did you get into acting?
Ashanti: It's something that I wanted to experience just to know if I would like it or not. I did a couple of school plays in high school, and my drama teacher would always give me kudos and said that I should pursue it. It wasn't heavy heavy on my mind when I got into the industry, like, "I HAVE to do a movie, I HAVE to act." It was kind of something where I said later on, if the opportunities present itself, I'd wanna try it.
AP: Though you've been linked to Nelly, you've always denied that you have a boyfriend at all. People find that hard to believe.
Ashanti: Why? It's too hard right now. I'm never in one place for more than two or three days. There's a lot of stuff going on, and I don't want to be unfair to anyone because I'm not putting any focus into anything else but that album right now.
AP: You have a sister who sings. Is she going to come out with an album?
Ashanti: She is, actually. She's sort of more interested in acting first. She wants to experience that first. A long time ago — someone was interviewing her — and she was like, "I wanted to do the music thing, because since I've seen what my sister goes though, I don't want it!"