Ari Lennox’s ‘Shea Butter Baby’ Examines the Death & Revival of Intimacy

‘Shea Butter Baby’ is a triumph in that it showcases all the ways R&B is adapting to a fresh wave of sorrow.
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Tinder has, in conjunction with other things, ruined dating. Dating has become a series of stake-less encounters and ghosting time bombs. We have grown into a generation of people starved for attention, who are scared to give and receive with reciprocity. There is no compromise in dating. Everything must be on our terms. While the dating landscape is now fraught and love seems like a fallacy, R&B music thrives under the pressure of a generation of wounded hearts.

Enter Dreamville’s silky songstress Ari Lennox. Since her 2016 EP, Pho, Lennox has been preoccupied with bridging the gap between classic soul and modern content. With influences ranging from the venerable Ella Fitzgerald and our beloved Lauryn Hill to writing that taps into the anxieties of today’s love-averse and newly stoic women, Lennox is the perfect woman to stand in as a voice for the dating-app-battered generation.

It’s all so simple because Ari is one of us. Ari Lennox fiends for closeness. At the same time, there’s a fear of getting too close; there exists a desire for vulnerability and a fear of the fallout of opening up. Ari is at once pining and retreating into her shell. This is what we immediately gather from her long-awaited debut album, Shea Butter Baby, on which lines about needing people (“New Apartment”), bad luck on dating apps (“I Been”), distant memories of the one (“Static”), and wishing she simply did not care for the attention of her partners (“Whipped Cream”) all coalesce to paint a picture of the modern death of intimacy.

Intimacy used to be a prerequisite for love, but with the proliferation of dating apps and social media, and the increased casualness of romantic encounters, intimacy is slowly dying out in lieu of double taps and swipes. It’s far easier to tweet at someone and get your human interaction for the day than it is to sit down with someone face to face and get to know them. And this is how intimacy dies—when it is tucked behind a screen and made, perceivably, accessible to everyone.

Lennox knows this, and the loss of humanity in romance and friendship permeates her album as she coos: “Can I trust you? / Where have you been? (Where have you been)” on “Speak To Me,” a song which laments establishing relationships at all. She makes falling for someone feel foolish and moot, but we struggle against the track because we cannot allow that to become truth. The sentiment is echoed on “Whipped Cream,” where Ari sings “I've been thinkin' of you / I've been keepin' you / Alignin' my soul / With the devil that it chose” as if closeness is a true punishment. Again, the album struggles against these moments to try and bring intimacy back.

With that, we see Shea Butter Baby skillfully tackling heartbreak for the digital era. “And I try, and I try, and I try, and I try, I try / But I’m havin' the worst luck on Tinder,” Ari emotes on “I Been.” Here, she mourns a lover who cannot keep their story straight, who lies to her and continuously reels her back in, so much so that she’s had to change her number 47 times. 

This is a grand moment for Shea Butter Baby, as the album bridges new school heartache with the old school sensibilities of untrustworthy and manipulative men. The album is suggesting that while the death of intimacy is a fresh strain of heartbreak, the problems themselves are nothing new. The record keeps us from feeling alienated in our sadness. A cad is a cad, no matter the era.

When there is love on Shea Butter Baby, though, boy does it sound worth it. Ari's most dynamic vocal performance comes on the titular single, which features a welcome guest spot from Dreamville head honcho, J. Cole. There’s something so moving about the tricking delivery Ari puts forth on “You lost in the shape of my hips,” as if we are equally lost in the shape of her inflections. When we achieve intimacy on this album, the record focuses on the tiny moments that make love worthwhile, like getting shea butter all over someone’s pillow.

Shea Butter Baby is not a morose album, but an honest one. Ari Lennox displays all the ways modern dating has failed us and jaded us, but it also showcases the wealth of goodness that comes with giving into love and letting those walls down. Where intimacy is dying, Lennox attempts to revive it, as on “Up Late,” which is fascinated with the smallest motions of love and passion. Or on the outro of “New Apartment,” where Lennox realizes she needs people in her life to make it a life worth living. Nothing and no object can supplant the warmth of another body, she muses.

The final plea of “Static” perfectly encapsulates the album, with Ari begging her love to not let “the static drown us.”It is a moment of pure vulnerability and she and her One attempt to find and foster love in a ruthless digital era. The song speaks to Ari’s ultimate desire to embark on a pure romance, while also struggling against the trends of modern online dating, asking for the white noise to wash over her. She ultimately chooses the voice of her lover over the static, signaling that Shea Butter Baby is about the death of intimacy, but just as well, is about the potential of its revival.

Shea Butter Baby is a triumph in that it showcases all the ways R&B is adapting to a fresh wave of sorrow. We’ve never seen heartbreak quite like this. The pain of swiping through a sea of frameless people is brand new, but luckily, we have an equally new and salient voice to guide us through these unprecedented woes. 

Dating may be ruined, but Ari Lennox is here with the soundtrack to make romance seem far less trying. It might even sound worth it.

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