Jeffrey “Ja Rule” Atkins had one request for Saturday night’s sold-out crowd: “I want you to imagine what life would be like if Murder Inc. was on top again.”
It didn’t feel so long ago that I was a freshman in the halls of Sonora High, wearing my pristine white shell-toe Adidas, baby blue clothing and silver hoop earrings — and carrying a binder with a clear front pocket that allowed me to proudly display Ja Rule’s latest XXL magazine cover. Rule had just released his Grammy-nominated album, Pain Is Love, and was all over the radio with Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Real” remix and “Always on Time,” featuring up-and-coming singer Ashanti. The year was 2001.
Back in real time at Club Nokia, Ashanti — dressed in a show-stopping gold embellished one-piece — opened the show by announcing: “I put my [debut] album out 14 years ago, and I’m still here.” Ashanti released her fifth studio album, Braveheart, in 2014 and has been performing over the past year. Her set featured a mix of newer singles (“Early in the Morning,” “The Woman You Love”) and vintage singles (“Happy,” “Foolish,” “Rock Wit U (Awww Baby)”). It was clear the crowd wanted the early-days Ashanti. The sing-along factor went high and low as she blazed through her new-and-old setlist for over an hour.
It was a little past 10:30 p.m. when the crowd got what they came for: a night of Rule’s throwback hits. With the help of Murder Inc. label boss Irv Gotti as his hypeman, the Queens rapper rapidly moved through his catalog, performing singles such as “Down Ass Bitch,” “Thug Lovin’” and “Livin’ It Up.” The pace of the performance felt rushed, not because he had so many singles to perform but because at 11 p.m. the doors were slated to open for Ja Rule and Ashanti’s second show.
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Last month, Rule and Ashanti sold out Club Nokia the day tickets went on sale. A second show was quickly added, scheduled for the same night, to meet demand.
Ja Rule and Ashanti didn’t take the stage together until after 11, and judging from the reaction of the audience it was the best 20 minutes of the night. The duo transported Los Angeles back to the early 2000s with “Down 4 U,” “Wonderful,” “Mesmerize” and the one single everyone wanted to hear, “Always on Time” (the irony). As fun as it was for the crowd, the duo’s playful set must have been a major frustration for the people waiting outside for the second show to start.