Ari Lennox might have suffered from a lack of self-belief in the past, but it’s something she’s now resolved. "I’m so glad I stopped running from neo-soul. I’m so glad I stopped running from who I am to the core," she tweeted after the release of her debut LP.
The Dreamville signee has clearly been on a journey since the release of her 2016 EP ‘Pho’. In an era of continuous releases and non-stop musical performances, she’s remained cool, calm and collected, evolving as a performer, giving herself time to reach a decision about her sound, and to find confidence in her love of neo-soul. J Cole's protégé has finally unveiled the results of this with ‘Shea Butter Baby’, which aptly tackles the theme of self-belief.
Entering as quite the renegade, Lennox begins the journey over a smoky soundscape. Instantly transporting listeners to an incense-heavy café, the vocalist reminds us of her distinctive tone as she demands short-term company: “Boy I don’t wanna get your feelings broke.” As the album’s first course – ‘Chicago Boy”– concludes, it’s clear her newly mature perspective will permeate the project.
This confidence grows, and by ‘New Apartment’ Lennox has fully harnessed her groove – and she’s being loud about it. Over a sample of iconic musician and instrumentalist Hubert Laws’ ‘Land of Passion’, she demonstrates some of her best vocal runs of the record, passionately narrating her experience of becoming a homeowner – a rite of passage into adulthood. Standing as one of the LP’s instant standouts, the track is littered with a blend of groove and jazz that’s irresistible,
Lennox’s artistic depth and quality has always been clear to see, but part of the appeal of ‘Shea Butter Baby’ is its lingering commercial appeal, that’s crying out to be explored. This can be seen early on, when ‘BMO’ leaps centre-stage and demands chart attention. Again borrowing from earlier eras, the ‘Space’ sampled [Galt MacDermot] number proves instantly infectious, and has quickly become a fan-favourite on social media. It’s the perfect spring mid-tempo cut, and provides more than enough sass, innuendo, and funk-fuelled energy to engage wider audiences.
The issue of navigating relationships is a foundational crux of R&B, and Ari Lennox channels and tackles both the good and the bad of this. At her most vulnerable – which is arguably on ‘I Been’ – the artist slows it down and keeps things relatable. Somewhere between the purple haze, Tinder references and dodging lies, the 28-year old manages to impart some wisdom to her female fans: “Life is too short to be blocking your blessings like that.”
Lennox learns that no relationship is worth emotional trauma and transforms into a contemporary empowerment leader. In an era defined by ‘situationships’, ‘I Been’ serves as a valuable reminder that toxic environments shouldn’t be tolerated.
Perhaps the most endearing aspect of ‘Shea Butter Baby’ is an authentic innocence that threads through it – the subtle interludes that feature in the space between songs lay bare Ari Lennox’s passions, fears, desires, and intentions. They allow listeners to get to know the singer and her universe, evoking an undeniable form of humility – something that makes the soloist captivating.
‘Shea Butter Baby’ manages to meld contemporary R&B with other sounds like soul, funk, and blues, all while introducing us to the Ari Lennox of today – and the inspirations that guide her every move.
Words: Nicolas Tyrell
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