Ja Rule and Ashanti Tapped Millennial Nostalgia at the Ogden

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The fact that Ja Rule and Ashanti survived the early 2000s is a feat in itself. It was a strange time to be in music: The Internet really took off as a place for socializing and finding and sharing music, but it also left many artists and record labels who couldn't keep up with this shift in the newfound consumption of (and often not commodified) pop culture permanently buried in the '90s. Both artists came into the spotlight and made indelible marks on the charts during this time. When those particular charting hits — like "Put It on Me," "Mesmerize" and "Foolish" — were performed at the Ogden Theatre last night, it was clear that both Ashanti and Ja Rule had made the right decision and chosen the right time to re-emerge.

At around 7:20 p.m., Ashanti and Ja Rule came out on stage together, using their 2004 collaboration with R. Kelly, "Wonderful," as entrance music.  The duo got the show under way quickly; because the Denver date on their tour had sold out so quickly, a second show was added for that same night, meaning Ashanti and Ja would be doing the whole routine over again in less than two and a half hours. The event ran efficiently in a back-and-forth fashion, allowing for Ashanti and Ja Rule to take turns throwing down solo snippets of crowd favorites. The co-headliner scenario worked nicely and appeased the audience, making sure the half-versions of songs never stopped coming over the course of a little more than an hour.

Dressed in a black, fat-sequined leotard, a big belt and waves of silky blonde hair, Ashanti and her two dancers pumped through "Only U," before quickly being shuffled away to make room for Ja Rule. He put on reduced versions of "Can I Get A" and "Holla Holla," seemingly tripped up by having to rap over his own vocal tracks. It was a distraction that didn't make sense: When the DJ made breaks in the tracks that allowed the audience to sing along, Ja too was able to sing and rap on his own without the annoying background of his own recorded voice. Unfortunately, this didn't happen enough during the show, and the distracting backing vocals weighed down his part of it.

As the switch-off continued, Ashanti delivered favorites like "What's Luv?" and her Fabolous duet "I'm So Into You," with Ja inserting his bubblegummy "Livin' It Up" and "Put It on Me" in between. At one point, the lights went low and a stool was brought out for Ja to sit down and perform "Thug Lovin'," which he only got halfway through before Ashanti came out for her break-up ballad "The Way I Love You." This was followed by a very bizarre theatrical vignette starring one of Ashanti's dancers and another actor fighting, physically, while she sang her 2008 Busta Rhymes-shared song, "The Woman You Love."

Not long after, Ja Rule appeared again, this time making some political declarations (he supports Hillary, if you were wondering) and gave a mini-sermon on hip-hop's ability to bring a diverse group of people together. He also pointed out something that was key to the success of the night (and most likely the key to Ja and Ashanti's future career advancement): the age span of the crowd. Alongside the thirty- and forty-something fans, who were conscious during the duo's glory days, stood large groups of teens and early-twenty-somethings, everyone enjoying the stars of Murder Inc.'s heyday. When Ja Rule and Ashanti move past the nostalgia-tour trip, it's clear that there will be a listening audience waiting for new music. 

The best, of course, was saved for last. The longtime labelmates performed two of their mutually biggest songs, "Mesmerize" and "Always on Time," the Ogden Theatre morphing into a screaming chorus of voices who had been waiting to sing along to the hits all night. The duets were the highlight of the show, reaffirming what makes the Ashanti/Ja Rule pairing so right — her syrupy-sweet but strong-willed voice intertwining with his smart-alecky gruffness to create the timeless pop duet. (For a visual of just how well  her charming front and his rebellious persona work together, see their 2002 video for "Mesmerize," which reenacts "You're the One that I Want," from Grease.)

Even though Ja and Ashanti have been running this co-headlining tour for the past couple of months, it still felt like a dress rehearsal. The show was rough around the edges, but the performances themselves were not. If the two pursue making music in the fully digital age, it would be nice to see Ashanti and Ja Rule able to perform fleshed-out sets. The doubled-up tour was a great idea for this moment in time, but both artists had the material, stamina and continuing talent to perform longer, more robust sets. Ja Rule and Ashanti have officially made it to the post-aughts with their tried-and-true pop/hip-hop with an R&B twist, and it seems like there's plenty of room (and a sizable crowd) waiting for Murder Inc. to rule the radio again.

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