Ashanti was first noticed by Irv Gotti because of her vocal skills. Ashanti initially asked him to produce a few demo songs for her to record so she could say she had some strong tracks by the big time producer but Gotti had a different idea. He asked her to pen hooks for his rap artists and to perform with them in duets. Ashanti provided the melodic response to their call. Ashanti was first featured as a background vocalist on rapper Big Pun's song "How We Roll". In the same year, Ashanti was featured on fellow labelmate Cadillac Tah's singles "Pov City Anthem" and "Just Like a Thug". She also appeared on the 2001 The Fast and the Furious soundtrack as a featured artist on Vita's 2001 hip hop remake of Madonna's "Justify My Love" and on the solo track "When a Man Does Wrong". She was featured on Fat Joe's "What's Luv?" and Ja Rule's "Always on Time". "What's Luv?" and "Always on Time" were released simultaneously and became two of the biggest hit songs of 2002. Ashanti became the first female to occupy the top two positions on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart simultaneously when "Always on Time" and "What's Luv?" were at numbers one and two, respectively.
Following the success of her collaborations with Ja Rule and Fat Joe, Ashanti released her debut single, "Foolish", which contains a sample of the 1983 song "Stay with Me" by DeBarge (also utilized by The Notorious B.I.G. in his 1995 single "One More Chance", and by Big L in "MVP"). This is her biggest song to date, spending ten weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. She became the second artist (after The Beatles) to have their first three chart entries in the top ten of the Hot 100 simultaneously. Ashanti's self-titled debut album, Ashanti, was released on Irv Gotti's Murder Inc. record label in April 2002. It debuted at number one on the U.S. Billboard 200 albums chart. The album has been certified triple platinum in the United States and sold six million copies worldwide. Ashanti wrote the album's twelve tracks, most of which were written on the spot in the studio. 2002 saw the birth of the careers of many new R&B artists and 'rivals' against Ashanti including Amerie, Tweet, and Nivea. Ashanti's dominance of the R&B world was certified as she had a song in the top ten of the R&B/hip-hop charts every week from January to November 2002. Ashanti's follow-up singles, "Happy" and "Baby", were not as successful as her debut single but peaked inside the top ten and top twenty in the U.S., respectively. During mid-2002, Ashanti appeared on Ja Rule's "Down 4 U" with labelmates, female rappers Vita and Charli Baltimore. The song appeared on a Murder Inc. compilation titled Irv Gotti Presents The Inc. Ashanti's debut album earned her many awards, including eight Billboard Music Awards, two American Music Awards, and a Grammy Award in 2003 for Best Contemporary R&B Album. She was nominated as Best New Artist and "Foolish" was nominated in the Best Female R&B Vocal Performance category. FHM credited her as the "Sexiest Woman in Music" in 2002. She also received a Comet Award and two Soul Train Music Awards that same year.
Ashanti became the subject of controversy when it was announced that she would receive the Soul Train Aretha Franklin Award for "Entertainer of the Year", a high school student took offense and started an on-line petition against her, explaining to The Seattle Times that she was too new to deserve the award. Nearly 30,000 people agreed with him, signing the petition. Many said that established artists such as Mary J. Blige and Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott or critically acclaimed singers like Alicia Keys and India.Arie were more deserving of an award that carries the name of a musical legend. Despite the petition, the Soul Train committee and Don Cornelius stuck by their decision and Ashanti. Ashanti was applauded by her musical peers as she entered the Pasadena Civic Auditorium to accept her award and she was supported onstage by legendary singer Patti LaBelle, who stated "she's a baby and we have to support our babies." In September 2002,
Ashanti and her sister Kenashia appeared on the first DisneyMania CD, which was released under Walt Disney Records and features contemporary Disney songs. Ashanti and her sister sang "Colors of the Wind" from the Disney film Pocahontas. By early 2003, Ashanti had performed at every major award show there was: Soul Train Awards, Grammy's, BET Awards, MTV Awards and the American Music Awards. In 2003, Ja Rule and Ashanti collaborated on another hit song, "Mesmerize", the music video for which was a parody of a scene from the film Grease. In February 2003, the self-titled debut album had her win her first Grammy award for Best Contemporary R&B album. On May 2, 2002 Ashanti received the key to the city of Glen Cove, New York (her hometown), and the day was named Ashanti Day; Ashanti also received a key to the city of Atlantic City, New Jersey (she was crowned princess of hip hop and R&B).
In July 2003, Ashanti released her second album, Chapter II, which debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 with first week sales of 326,000 copies in the U.S.. The album went Platinum, selling over 1.5 million copies in U.S. The album's success was somewhat eclipsed, however, by all the negative drama surrounding the Murder Inc. camp at the time (i.e., the FBI investigation and the G-Unit feuding). Chapter II's first single, "Rock wit U (Awww Baby)", became a hit, peaking at number two on the Billboard Hot 100. Its video, which showed Ashanti in a bikini frolicking on a beach and riding an elephant named Bubbles, was nominated for two 2003 MTV Video Music Awards. A remix of the song contains interpolations of Michael Jackson's "Rock with You". The second single, "Rain on Me", reached the number-seven spot on the Hot 100 and number two on the Hot 100 R&B Songs chart. Chapter II was nominated for a 2004 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary R&B Album, and "Rock wit U (Awww Baby)" and "Rain on Me" were nominated in the categories of Best R&B Song and Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, respectively. At the end of 2003 in November, Ashanti performed at The American Music Awards and was nominated in two categories. In the "Rain on Me" mini-movie music video-directed by Hype Williams and co-starring Larenz Tate-Ashanti portrays a troubled young woman in an abusive relationship. Her song and lyrics combined with William's visuals to impart the power and horror of the cycle of domestic violence. Ashanti partnered with LidRock to distribute this mini-movie using LidRock's unique platform. This promotion, in conjunction with heavy rotation on MTV, BET and other music video programs, brought the film and her cause to the attention of millions of fans. It also helped to raise money for the cause, with proceeds from the $5 mini-disc going toward helping to stop domestic violence. She received a Lifetime Channel Achievement Award for her message speaking out against domestic violence. Ashanti was scheduled to join Mariah Carey on the U.S. leg of her Charmbracelet World Tour, but due to scheduling issues, she, instead, became the opening act for R. Kelly's five-date tour in mid-2003 instead. In May 2003, Ashanti appeared on VH1 Divas and performed her single "Rock wit U (Awww Baby)". She also participated in duets with Stevie Wonder (who later gave her the nickname Little Libra) on "Do I Do", and the Isley Brothers on "That Lady". That same year, she began dating rapper Nelly.
In November 2003, Ashanti's Christmas album, Ashanti's Christmas. The album containing 10 Christmas songs, six classic covers and four she wrote herself. To coincide with the release Ashanti premiered a "Christmas Medley" video for the album. While on BET's 106 & Park, Ashanti said the concept of the Christmas Album came from a guest spot she did on Steve Harvey's radio show. While playing a game with Stevie Wonder, he began playing Christmas medleys on the piano and Ashanti began singing them, giving her label head the idea to push for a Christmas album. Ashanti went into the studio to record the album during the summer of 2003. Ashanti's Christmas was released that October and sold just around 100,000 units in the U.S.