Photography by Eva Zar
In the opening notes of ‘Chicago Boy,’ the first song from Ari Lennox’s debut album Shea Butter Baby, the artist immediately puts the listener at ease as the combination of soothing saxophone and her buttery smooth vocals brings her audience into a beautiful, nostalgic trance. At the end of the song, Lennox cleverly juxtaposes this carefully curated mood with a wonky, autotuned warning, telling her listeners, “I need to know if you guys are really ready to be my friend because it gets gross, it gets real, it gets terrifying,” as the jazzy instrumentals slowly fade into the background. Not many artists would be able to marry the sophisticated and the silly so seamlessly in one track, but here lies the genius of Ari Lennox: she cannot be pinned down.
Ari Lennox’s album Shea Butter Baby was released last week to great anticipation and enormous praise. Although the artist was signed onto J. Cole’s record label Dreamville in 2015, the DC-based R&B musician has been consistently releasing music since 2012. Shea Butter Baby is the first full work we’ve seen since her debut EP, PHO, which dropped in 2016.
Ari’s latest work demonstrates incredible artistic growth. PHO stands alone as an impressive debut collection with standout hits such as ‘Night Drive’ and ‘Backseat’ demonstrating the heavily percussive and upbeat style that characterised the artists’ early years. In Shea Butter Baby Ari comes into her trademark sound more fully, elevating the old-school jazz and R&B blend anticipated in earlier songs such as ‘GOAT’ to the forefront of her work, using her chill instrumentation and fluid vocals to create a vibe that is uniquely serene. The artist’s impressive vocal and artistic range allows the varied collection to work together perfectly: Ari switches from ‘Broke’, a traditional R&B up-tempo hit featuring artist J.I.D to the slow and sensual ballad ‘Up Late’ with complete ease. Everything about this album says smooth, from the title to the transitions between numbers.
“Using chill instrumentation and fluid vocals she creates a vibe that is uniquely serene”
One of Ari’s strongest skills as an artist is her ability to blur the lines between genres, creating music that’s at once universal and timeless. In one of the strongest numbers in the album, ‘Static’, Ari utilises brass instrumentals in the opening refrain which continue into the background, even as the song morphs from ballad to bop and its percussive beats come to the forefront. The artist’s use of saxophone in both the opening and closing numbers of her collection imbue her work with a certain nostalgia; not only do the songs radiate a sense of comfort and warmth, but Ari deliberately alludes to the past through this intentional musical motif. Throughout the album the artist calls upon elements of classic jazz, traditional 1960s R&B, and 90s neo-soul, saturating each genre with a surprising contemporary spin to create music that both nods to the past and looks to the future.
Ari further uses this collection to introduce her audience to the delicate vulnerability behind her music. The artist’s unflinching honesty is seen throughout every aspect of her work – from her raw vocals in both recorded and live performances, to her impressively candid lyrics. In ‘Facetime’ the artist depicts the all too familiar story of a girl struggling with her long distance love, while in ‘I Been’ she admits to getting high to forget about an ex-lover. Ari’s storytelling is powerful in its simplicity – through honest and relatable lyrics, the artist connects to her listeners through radical vulnerability and a rare truthfulness.
“Ari connects to her listeners through radical vulnerability and a rare truthfulness”
Ari’s unique storytelling is further illustrated through her music videos. The artist released several gorgeous music videos in conjunction with this album, including one for the collection’s title song, ‘Shea Butter Baby’. However, her most impressive visual work can be seen in the video for the album’s most popular song, ‘Whipped Cream’. Originally released as a single in 2018, ‘Whipped Cream’ immediately enticed listeners with both its infectious beat and powerful message of a young girl unashamed of her loneliness and incapable of escaping the spectre of a past love. The accompanying video is equally stunning; several close up shots of the artist and her on-screen love interest add to the intimacy of the video, which culminates in a trippy, dreamlike kiss between the two that makes us question the reality of their relationship just as Lennox clearly is. The artist uses these videos to further pull the audience into her world and share real, relatable stories about the ins and outs of black love.
To listen to Ari Lennox’s new album is to lather up in shea butter yourself: smooth, warm and comforting, this collection is healing for the soul.
Shea Butter Baby is out now on all digital streaming services.