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.
Ashanti must’ve felt like she’d been shot out of a cannon. In 2002, Ashanti was 21 years old, and she’d already been lurking on the music-business periphery for many years, going through multiple failed contracts before finally landing a spot as the designated hook-singer on a rapidly blowing-up rap label. Then, all of a sudden, Ashanti was everywhere. Before releasing a song of her own, Ashanti sang backup on a couple of chart-topping Jennifer Lopez singles, and she co-wrote one of them. Ashanti sang the hook on Ja Rule’s #1 hit “Always On Time.” She also sang the hook on Fat Joe’s #2 hit “What’s Luv.” (“What’s Luv” is a 3. It’s Fat Joe’s highest-charting single as a solo artist, but Joe will eventually appear in this column as a member of Terror Squad.)
For a little while in the spring of 2002, Ashanti was on three of the songs in the Billboard Hot 100’s top 10. Her chart takeover was sudden and immediate. She was the Beatles in 1964. She was the Bee Gees in 1978. She was Puff Daddy in 1997. And this was all happening as Ashanti was finally, at long last, debuting. Maybe it felt like a dream. Maybe it felt like it would last forever. I can’t even imagine what was happening in Ashanti’s head during those few months. Given all that buildup, it would’ve been at least a little bit shocking if Ashanti’s first single didn’t get to #1.
Ashanti’s first single did get to #1, and then it stayed there forever. “Foolish” topped the Hot 100 for an astonishing 10 weeks, ruling the chart deep into the summer of 2002. I was a senior in college when “Foolish” reached #1. By the time the song fell from that top spot, I took my finals, graduated, moved back home with my parents, and got a temp job putting Pfizer-branded disposable cameras into mailing packages. I put a lot of Pfizer-branded disposable cameras into mailing packages while “Foolish” played on the radio in the warehouse. Then I got sick of of putting Pfizer-branded disposable cameras into mailing packages, walked off the job one day, found another job selling shitty furniture in East Baltimore, and moved into my first apartment. I went to a lot of shows and made a lot of friends. I started dating a girl, and then I stopped dating her. And then “Foolish” fell out of the #1 spot. It felt like I lived entire lifetimes while that song was at #1. But nothing lasts forever, and “Foolish,” Ashanti’s debut single, would also be her last time at #1.
Irv Gotti, the Murder Inc. label head, didn’t have to worry about introducing the world to Ashanti when she was getting ready to release “Foolish.” He’d already done that. Ashanti had been on “Always On Time” and “What’s Luv”; she was practically already a pop star. So Gotti did something that was somehow lazy and audacious at the same time. He convinced Ashanti to sing over a beat that would’ve had huge and immediate resonance for Ashanti’s entire intended audience. Gotti built “Foolish” from a sample of “Stay With Me,” a lush and silky R&B 1983 deep cut from the Grand Rapids family act DeBarge. (DeBarge’s highest-charting single, 1985’s “Rhythm Of The Night,” peaked at #3. It’s a 9.)
DeBarge are a beloved act in the R&B world, but that’s not why Irv Gotti sampled “Stay With Me.” Gotti sampled “Stay With Me” because somebody else had already done it. In 1995, Puff Daddy used the same “Stay With Me” sample on his remix of Biggie Smalls’ “One More Chance,” and that song peaked at #2. Biggie would later score a pair of posthumous #1 hits, but that “One More Chance” remix was Biggie’s biggest hit when he was still alive. So when Irv Gotti jacked that “Stay With Me” sample for Ashanti, he was effectively sampling Biggie, even if he didn’t have to give Biggie a songwriting credit. At that point, the “One More Chance” remix was only seven years old, and Biggie had been in the ground for just five years. His loss was still fresh.
There’s something almost devious about that sample choice. In 1997, Puff Daddy had become an unstoppable pop force with a series of singles that relied on instantly-familiar samples. In 2002, Irv Gotti used the Puff Daddy strategy to take a sample that Puffy himself had already used, feeding on nostalgia for the nostalgia-based Bad Boy era. Ashanti didn’t think that was a good idea. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Ashanti remembers what she told Gotti the first time that she heard the beat: “Come on, Irv. That’s Biggie Smalls. I don’t want to come out as a new artist with one of Biggie’s classic records. That’s a lot of pressure.” Gotti reassured Ashanti that he knew what he was doing, and he asked her to ignore her misgivings and write a song to that beat. He also gave her a concept.
Ashanti wrote “Foolish” from the perspective of a girl whose boyfriend treats her like garbage. She knows that he’s doing her wrong, but she still can’t tear herself away. She’s sad when she’s with him, but she’s sadder without him. She’s trapped. Ashanti never says what this guy is doing that’s so bad, but she implies that he’s cheating. There’s a line about “when I’m home, I’m always alone, and you are always gone.” Maybe the boyfriend is a workaholic. Maybe he’s just emotionally unavailable. But since the song is light on specifics, it’s probably going for the tropes that everyone already knows, and the cheating lover is a classic songwriting trope.
Even though the storytelling on “Foolish” is fuzzy and indistinct, it still lays out a recognizable scenario. Ashanti never resolves anything, and we don’t get any pat lessons about standing up for yourself. When the song ends, Ashanti’s narrator is in the same place where she was at the beginning. I like that. Everything doesn’t have to be a lesson. Plenty of people have found themselves stuck in situations like that one. But Ashanti doesn’t describe that situation with any depth or intensity. Instead, she lays it all out in the most generic terms: “See, my days are cold without you, but I’m hurting while I’m with you/ And though my heart can’t take no more, I keep on running back to you.” (I try to keep myself from getting persnickety about lyrical choices, but we really all deserve better than a chorus that just keeps rhyming “you” with “you.”)
Ashanti’s voice doesn’t really bring those lines to life, either. Unlike the R&B stars of the ’90s, Ashanti was never a vocal showoff. On “Foolish,” she goes light on the theatrical vocal runs. Instead, she’s all vibes. On the chorus, she’s a multi-tracked squeak. On the verses, she’s a little raspier and more conversational. But Ashanti never sounds emotionally raw, even when she’s describing heavy circumstances. Instead, she does her best to float over the track, doing a version of what the late Aaliyah was able to pull off so effortlessly. For me, Ashanti’s greatest strength is her sense of rhythm. I like the little pauses that she sometimes throws into her delivery: “When I get the strength to leave [beat] you always tell me that you need [beat] me.” It’s not enough.
It’s a bold move for “Foolish” to use the same sample as Biggie’s “One More Chance,” but boldness isn’t enough, either. There’s this sound on both “One More Chance” and DeBarge’s “Stay With Me” — a high-pitched synthesized swooshing thing. It’s the kind of windchime effect that TV shows used to use to signal that you’re about to see a dream sequence. On “Stay With Me,” that effect is buried pretty deep in the mix. On “One More Chance,” it’s louder, but I never really noticed it, and it definitely never bothered me. Maybe that’s circumstantial. Maybe Biggie’s booming baritone was enough to balance it out. But on “Foolish,” where Ashanti’s voice is already so light and high-pitched, that swooshing sound always jumps right out of the mix. It’s given me literal headaches. I can’t fucking stand it. Ashanti’s voice can work great in the right circumstances, but she cannot share space with a sound like that.
The swooshing sound is an active irritant, but it’s at least noticeable. Most of “Foolish,” on the other hand, is weightless and insubstantial. It never sticks with me. Even when “Foolish” was sitting at #1, even when I was hearing it all the time, the song itself never sunk its teeth into me. I’d get the initial buzz of recognition from that Biggie sample, and the rest of the song would just evaporate. Mostly, I’d be lightly disappointed that I wasn’t hearing Biggie instead. Maybe that’s why Murder Inc. released “Unfoolish,” a remix that added one of the verses from Biggie’s 1997 R. Kelly collab “Fucking You Tonight.” Ashanti included “Unfoolish” on her self-titled debut album, and she recorded new lyrics for the song, talking about finally standing up and leaving this bad relationship. In that context, those stapled-on Biggie lyrics don’t make any sense at all.
The “Foolish” video attempts to tell the story laid out in the song’s lyrics, but we don’t get the “Unfoolish” ending of Ashanti’s triumphant departure. Instead, Irv Gotti directed the clip, and he turned it into an unintentionally funny riff on Goodfellas, with Ashanti in the Lorraine Bracco role. She’s the mob wife, and Terrance Howard, the future Oscar nominee and Empire star, is the flashy gangster who wins her heart. (This was around the time that Howard was in Hart’s War with Bruce Willis; he wouldn’t land his breakout role in Hustle & Flow for another three years.) Terrence Howard is the Ray Liotta figure in the “Foolish” video, but we never see him engaging in any actual illegal activity, other than maybe the moment where he throws a lamp at Ashanti and misses by a mile. Instead, the gangsterism is almost entirely implied — just Terrence Howard wearing nice suits and hanging out with his friends Ja Rule and Irv Gotti. I guess Ja is supposed to be the De Niro character, which is pretty funny.
Terrence Howard cheats on Ashanti, and that, rather than any criminal-hooligan stuff, seems to be why she throws him out of the house. He goes and crashes with his friends Ja Rule and Irv Gotti, who finally tell him that he has to go home. I remember “Foolish” as one of those videos where the dialog constantly cuts in, turning the actual song that it’s supposed to showcase into mere background music. Rewatching it now, I can see that I got the wrong impression; other than a way-too-long opening scene, the dialog rarely intrudes. Still, the moment when we hear Irv and Ja sincerely telling Terrence Howard to go home is almost jarringly silly. Those guys were in there with an actual actor, and they could not hang. In the last shot of the video, we see Ashanti hugging Terrence Howard, welcoming him back into her life. So much for “Unfoolish.”
Ashanti’s self-titled debut came out in April 2002, a couple of weeks before “Foolish” crashed its way to #1. The album sold a half-million copies in its first week — the most that a debuting female artist had ever moved. Ashanti followed “Foolish” with a much better single. “Happy” is a giddy love song built on a lush Gap Band sample and an airy synthetic flute-whistle, and it peaked at #8. (It’s an 8.) “Baby,” a third single, made it to #15, and Ashanti was triple-platinum by the end of the year. That same year, Ashanti also sang the hook on Irv Gotti’s fluffy “Down 4 U,” which was somehow both a love song and a posse cut and which peaked at #6. (It’s a 4.)
Ashanti continued to crank out hits for a while. Just over a year after that first album, Ashanti released her sophomore LP Chapter II, and its breezy lead single “Rock Wit U (Awww Baby)” peaked at #2. (It’s a 5.) That same year, Ashanti also sang on another #2 hit, Ja Rule’s “Mesmerize.” (That one is a 6.) But Murder Inc. was just easing into its flop era. Chapter II stalled out at platinum, and Ashanti’s chart presence faded. My favorite Ashanti song is “Only U,” the sexy, riff-rumbling lead single from her 2004 album Concrete Rose, but that song peaked at #13. As lead artist, Ashanti hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since 2008’s “The Way That I Love You” peaked at #37.
While things were falling apart at Murder Inc., Ashanti’s relationships with the other label figureheads became strained. Ashanti and Irv Gotti had reportedly been dating while she was on her hitmaking streak, even though Irv was married at the time. In my column about Jennifer Lopez’s “Ain’t It Funny,” a song mostly written by Ashanti, I talked about how I was there at Irv’s money laundering trial in 2005. Ashanti showed up on the first day of that trial, and I don’t think she stayed for the whole day. When Ashanti left the courthouse, an assistant held a coat over her head while she ran from photographers. Later on, Irv told Page Six, “When the feds hit, she ran like the cockroaches when you turn the lights on. She was ready to get the fuck off of the Murder Inc. label, and she was ready to abandon me, the person who made her.”
Maybe Ashanti really did just use Irv Gotti, and maybe she did distance herself from him the moment that the Murder Inc. association no longer seemed advantageous to her. Or maybe Ashanti looked at what was happening in the trial and realized that Irv Gotti had her around some extremely dangerous people when she was 21 years old. Either way, Irv Gotti announced that Ashanti’s split from Murder Inc. in 2009. By that time, the Inc. was all dried up anyway.
Sometime around 2003, Ashanti started dating Nelly, and the two of them stayed together for about a decade. In 2008, Ashanti guested on Nelly’s song “Body On Me,” which peaked at #42. (Nelly will appear in this column very soon.) In the late ’00s, Ashanti also took some supporting roles in movies: Coach Carter, John Tucker Must Die, Resident Evil: Extinction. She also played Dorothy in the 2005 made-for-TV movie The Muppets’ Wizard Of Oz and in a 2009 New York production of The Wiz, but she never really developed anything that I’d call an acting career. The duets with rappers kept happening. Ashanti guested on Plies’ 2009 single “Want It, Need It,” which peaked at #96. (Plies’ highest-charting single, the 2008 Ne-Yo collab “Bust It Baby (Part 2)” peaked at #7. It’s a 4.) After that, Ashanti went more than a decade without appearing on the Hot 100 at all.
Unlike her old duet partner Ja Rule, Ashanti never really came off as a clown. Instead, she came to represent a time that seems vaguely innocent in retrospect. Innocence was always a key part of Ashanti’s appeal; she was the fresh-faced R&B kid on a label full of rappers who thought of themselves as mobsters. As a result, I think a certain feeling of nostalgia now surrounds Ashanti. Maybe that’s why Ashanti recently had another moment on the Hot 100. In 2020, Ashanti appeared on “Nasty,” a DaBaby album track that also featured Megan Thee Stallion. Thanks to streaming, that song peaked at #50, even though it never came out as a single. (DaBaby and Megan Thee Stallion will both appear in this column eventually.) Right now, there’s a whole generation of musicians who associate Ashanti’s music with their childhoods. That kind of nostalgia never fully fades, and it means that Ashanti can always come back. Maybe she will. I wouldn’t be mad if she did. “Foolish” is still a bad song, though.
BONUS BEATS: Dance producers love sampling Ashanti’s voice — possibly because of that nostalgic connection and possibly because her voice always had a certain ghostly quality. Here’s Burial’s 2006 track “U Hurt Me,” which is built from a “Foolish” sample:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Canadian producer Jacques Greene’s 2010 track “(Baby I Don’t Know) What You Want,” which makes heavy use of a chipmunked-up “Foolish” sample:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The Memphis rap star Moneybagg Yo’s 2021 hit “Wockesha” is built on a sample of DeBarge’s “Stay With Me.” By rapping over that sample, Bagg evoked memories of both Biggie Smalls’ “Stay With Me” remix and Ashanti’s “Foolish.” Ashanti appeared on the “Wockesha” remix, singing bits of “Foolish” on the hook and getting a verse of her own. Here’s that remix, which also features Lil Wayne:
(“Wockesha” peaked at #20. Moneybagg Yo’s highest-charting single, 2020’s “Said Sum,” peaked at #17. Lil Wayne will eventually appear in this column.)
THE 10S: Jimmy Eat World’s gloriously good-hearted group-hug emo anthem “The Middle” peaked at #5 behind “Foolish.” Don’t worry what the bitter hearts are gonna say; it’s a 10.
Tweet and Missy Elliott’s deeply horny future-funk purr “Oops (Oh My)” peaked at #7 behind “Foolish.” I’m still so high, hypnotized, in a trance from this song. It’s another 10.
Another deeply horny song, Truth Hurts and Rakim’s Bollywood-sample fuck-wail “Addictive,” peaked at #9 behind “Foolish.” It’s so contagious, returns my pages, it’s got me anxious, it’s what I’m waiting for. It’s yet another 10.
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.