In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
There are so many funny things about Ja Rule’s whole career, so many little cautionary tales embedded in the whole arc. At a certain point, the silliness becomes the legacy. You can’t even talk about Ja Rule’s whole run without mentioning the obvious boondoggles. There’s the way that Ja’s label boss, never a street guy himself, put himself in serious legal jeopardy by getting involved with legendarily cold-blooded Queens street figures. There’s the way 50 Cent, an artist who will eventually appear in this column, yanked the rug out from under Ja, clowning him hard during every single twist and turn of their feud and making himself into a titan at Ja’s expense. There’s the whole glorious latter-day Fyre Fest episode. And then there are the smaller fuckups that turned out to have real consequences — things like what happened with The Fast And The Furious.
In 2001, when Ja Rule’s commercial takeover was still in progress, he took a role in The Fast And The Furious, a low-budget studio B-movie about LA street racers who steal shipments of DVD players from moving trucks. It was Ja’s second movie role, and he got paid only $15,000 for his work. Ja is really in only one scene of The Fast And The Furious. His character loses a race and then doesn’t get to have the threesome that he wants, and that’s all we see of him. But Ja was all over the movie’s marketing and its soundtrack, and his presence might’ve helped turn The Fast And The Furious into a surprise late-summer blockbuster.
Two years later, The Fast And The Furious got a sequel. The film’s producers wanted to give Ja Rule a key supporting role, and they wanted to pay him $500,000. By that point, though, Ja thought he was too big for 2 Fast 2 Furious, and he wouldn’t even talk to director John Singleton about the role. So Singleton reworked Ja’s part and gave it to Ludacris, a rapper who will eventually appear in this column. Through a series of improbable twists of fate, The Fast And The Furious became a globally dominant blockbuster franchise, and Ludacris became a key part of it. Last year, in F9: The Fast Saga, Ludacris and Tyrese flew a Pontiac Fiero into space. That could’ve been Ja Rule. Instead, Ja has become one of the only stars of the The Fast And The Furious who hasn’t returned for any of the sequels. These days, Ja’s not even getting cast into straight-to-Redbox action movies anymore.
In his moment, though, Ja Rule was a dominant figure — unstoppable until he was definitively stopped. For a couple of years, I couldn’t leave the house without hearing Ja howling about how every thug needs a lay-day. His voice was simply part of the atmosphere. In a strange way, Ja is a hugely important figure in rap history. Ja had a trademark: The song style that became known as the thug-love duet. (That’s probably not a term that we want to use anymore, now that right-wing goons have weaponized the word “thug.”) Ja would incongruously rasp out silly schoolyard melodies about love and lust while some woman with a much sweeter voice sang the same sweet nothings back at him. Practically all of Ja’s big hits fit into that category, and they played a role in shifting the rap/R&B balance of power. The first time that Ja found himself atop the Billboard Hot 100, it was alongside Jennifer Lopez on the “I’m Real” remix. “Always On Time,” Ja’s second #1 hit, was also the introduction of Ashanti, his true pop-chart soulmate.
For whatever reason, the combination of Ja Rule and Ashanti was money in the bank for a little while. Ashanti isn’t a showy R&B singer. She’s got a simple, matter-of-fact sweetness to her voice. Ja fundamentally cannot sing, even though he sang all the time, so it wouldn’t have made too much sense for him to duet with a classic gospel-trained R&B wailers. Instead, he needed someone to balance him out and match his energy, and that someone was Ashanti. On the “I’m Real” remix, Ashanti sang the demo, and she did Jennifer Lopez’s backup vocals; J.Lo was pretty much just doing her best Ashanti impression. “Always On Time” was Ashanti’s big debut, and it was the song that formally introduced the world to the Ja Rule/Ashanti pairing.
Ashanti Shequoiya Douglas, the daughter of a singer and a dance teacher, comes from the suburban Long Island town of Glen Cove. (Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust” was the #1 song in America on the day that Ashanti was born.) Ashanti was always interested in showbiz, and when she was in middle school, she served as an extra in the movies Malcolm X and Who’s The Man? In the late ’90s, Ashanti had short-lived deals at Jive and Noontime, but she didn’t release any music on either label. When the Queens producer Irv Gotti started his Murder Inc. label, Ashanti became a supporting player. Gotti wanted Murder Inc. to be a rap label, and he didn’t want to sign an R&B singer. But Ashanti kept coming around, making herself indispensable by singing hooks whenever Irv needed one. In 2001, Ashanti got her first big break singing the hook on Big Pun’s Irv Gotti-produced posthumous single “How We Roll.” She wasn’t in the video, and she didn’t get a feature credit, but she was all over the song. (Big Pun’s highest-charting single, 1998’s “Still Not A Player,” peaked at #24.)
Eventually Ashanti wore Irv Gotti down, and he signed her to Murder Inc. Ashanti appeared on the Fast And The Furious soundtrack, sang those “I’m Real” backup vocals, and added some breathy notes to Murder Inc. rapper Cadillac Tah’s 2001 street hit “Pov City Anthem.” “Always On Time” was the big rollout moment for Ashanti. Irv Gotti is credited with producing “Always On Time,” but the song started out as an instrumental track from Irv’s regular Murder Inc. collaborator 7 Aurelius. Aurelius had given a CD of tracks to Ja Rule, and he was surprised when Ja picked out the beat that would become “Always On Time.” Aurelius had sent the same beat to Brandy, a singer who’s been in this column a few times, but Ja really wanted the track, and he wrote a song for it quickly.
“Always On Time” is probably the definitive Ja Rule song. That’s not because it’s the best thing that Ja ever did — it’s not — but because it best illustrates the whole approach that made Ja so successful in his moment. The backing track isn’t even remotely hard. Instead, it’s soft and playful, full of simple acoustic-guitar flourishes and pizzicato riffs. Ja, co-writing the song with Irv Gotti and 7 Aurelius, came up with a simple, sticky chorus melody, and someone at Murder Inc. decided that Ashanti, rather than some big-name guest star, should be the one to sing it. In October 2001, when “I’m Real” was still on the top of the charts, Ja released his third album Pain Is Love, which is full of light and fluffy singsong tracks. “Always On Time” wasn’t the album’s first single. Instead, Ja led the LP off with “Livin It Up,” a flossy club track that he recorded with the R&B singer Case. “Livin It Up” was a hit, and I mostly remember it as the one where Ja parties with Pauly Shore in the video. (The song peaked at #6. It’s a 6.)
Ja released “Always On Time” as the second Pain Is Love single, and the timing was right. Apparently, the people of America, reeling from the 9/11 attacks and bracing for the coming war, just wanted to hear Ja Rule’s quasi-romantic bellow. “Always On Time” plugs right into the Ja Rule/Ashanti dynamic. She’s all feather-light sweetness, while he plays the role of the horny, guttural scamp. The song is structured as Ja talking to a lover, telling her that she should keep him around even though he’s never faithful and even though she’s apparently got a restraining order against him: “Stop the complaints and drop the order restraints/ Our sex life’s a game, so back me down in the paint.”
On “Always On Time,” Ja doesn’t want to be locked down, but he feels a connection to this one particular person, and he seems to just think she’ll keep coming back forever. He specifies the type of sex that he wants: “Thug style, you never thought I’d make you smile/ While I’m smacking your ass and fucking you all wild.” He thinks back on the time when she keyed his Benz and informs her that it’s “money over bitches.” He also makes sure to point out that he’s out there with a lot of different women: “I got two or three hoes for every V/ And I keep ’em drugged up off that ecstasy.” He knows that this girl is messing with other people, too, but he thinks that they have a special bond anyway. So “Always On Time” is a love song, but it’s a messy and uncommitted love song, a love song without anything resembling tenderness or devotion. It’s a love song from an asshole.
I have to say that I find Ja’s whole persona to be pretty gross and unappealing. But Ja was able to get away with that stuff on “Always On Time” because radio edits hid the most objectionable lines and because he delivered all of his vocals in a cutesy, gravelly singsong. There’s a strong contrast between Ja’s harsh growl and his playful melodies. His delivery on “Always On Time” is pretty expert. He keeps switching his flow up, finding tiny hooks. You can definitely hear Ja drawing heavily on what 2Pac and DMX had already done, but he brings a lightness that those guys almost never had. His voice cuts hard against Ashanti’s soft innocence in a way that serves the song. There’s charm there, but I got sick of it real quick.
In the “Always On Time” video, we never really see Ashanti as a love interest. Instead, she seems like a friend. She’s not the girl of the song, and when she sings the hook, she’s just expressing Ja’s whole point of view. Instead, the clip shows Ja in a bunch of different quasi-porn scenarios. Ja blows out a tire while driving on the highway, for instance, and wouldn’t you know it? The tow-truck driver turns out to be a sexy lady! Ja escapes from the two sexy ladies who just served him a bowl of Fruity Pebbles by jumping into a boat that’s driven by a different sexy lady. When Ja is playing a show and the sexy ladies in the audience stampede toward him, someone throws down a rope ladder, and hey! Look at that! It’s a sexy lady in a hot air ballon! This shit is so cartoonishly stupid that I can’t be too mad.
“Always On Time” cemented Ja Rule’s star status, and it also turned Ashanti into a big name right out of the gate. A few months after the song hit #1, Ashanti started putting out her own songs, and she did really well for herself. We’ll see both Ja and Ashanti in this column again soon, but we won’t see them together. Still, the pair kept making songs, and their duets remained huge for a little while. Later in 2001, Ja and Ashanti joined Charli Baltimore and Vita on Irv Gotti’s Murder Inc. posse cut “Down 4 U,” and that song peaked at #6. (It’s a 4.) In 2003, Ja and Ashanti restaged the “You’re The One That I Want” scene from Grease in the video for their song “Mesmerize.” It turned out to be the wrong time for Ja to be that goofy, with 50 Cent breathing down his neck and all, but “Mesmerize” still made it to #2. (It’s a 6.)
Even as the Murder Inc. empire was crumbling, Ja Rule and Ashanti still made hits together. In 2005, for instance, Ja released “Wonderful,” a song that featured both Ashanti and the cursed R. Kelly, and that single made it to #5. Today, Ja and Ashanti still do shows together, and the combination of their voices will always evoke a particular time. The Murder Inc. era made me grumpy as hell when it was happening, and I really don’t love most of those songs, but the on-record chemistry was real. Ja Rule and Ashanti made sense together in 2002, and they’ll probably always make sense together.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the former Ashanti collaborator Fabolous using the “Always On Time” hook, and the hook from an Ashanti song that’ll soon appear in this column, on a 2016 mixtape track that happens to be called “Ashanti”:
(Fabolous’ two highest-charting singles are both from 2003, and they’re both Ja Rule/Ashanti-style R&B-singer duets. The Tamia collab “Into You” — which featured Ashanti on a remix — and the Lil Mo collab “Can’t Let You Go” both peaked at #4. “Into You” is a 5, and “Can’t Let You Go” is a 3.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Afrobeats star Wizkid sampling “Always On Time” on his 2016 leak “Aphrodisiac”:
(Wizkid’s highest-charting single as lead artist is the 2021 Justin Bieber/Tems collab “Essence,” which peaked at #9. It’s a 6. As a featured guest, Wizkid will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The British singer Raye used the “Always On Time” hook for 2017’s “Decline,” which featured the Nigerian singer Mr Eazi and which became a top-20 hit in the UK. Here’s the “Decline” video:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the video for “Link Up,” a 2019 single from the UK rappers Geko, Stefflon Don, Deno, and Dappy that uses the twinkly acoustic guitars from “Always On Time”:
(None of those four rappers has any Hot 100 hits as lead artist, but Stefflon Don got to #66 as a guest on Halsey’s 2018 track “Alone.”)
The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.