Ari Lennox might be the most endearing soul singer, period. Her humbleness is striking, but it also warms your heart. Lennox, 28, never expected her debut album, Shea Butter Baby, to ever come out, but now that it's here, she also cannot believe people actually like it. Imagine that.
“I feel shocked that so many people think it’s good!” Lennox beams over the phone. “I never thought that could happen. I was so worried that people wouldn’t understand, but it looks like people really do love soul music.”
We do, Ari, we really do.
Shea Butter Baby is a modern triumph with wonderful old school sensibilities. The way Lennox finds a pocket left of center and skews a track around her inflections is admirable, but it’s also a sonic treat. Her technical skill places her as an obvious student of Fitzgerald and Badu, but with a modern pen unlike any other. According to Lennox, too, this meeting of eras is a conscious choice. In fact, it’s how she keeps her music uniquely her own.
Along with that uniqueness comes the truth that Ari Lennox is honest—perhaps too honest—as she admits. And yet, basking in her truth is a virtue that carries much of Shea Butter Baby, on which Ari preaches empowerment and love of self in the face of a sour dating game and wounding society. This is why, to her, “New Apartment” is a crucial track, because it centers freedom and mental wellbeing over all else.
An early favorite, “New Apartment” was actually one of two tracks Ari had to fight to get on the record. According to her, label head J. Cole wasn’t feeling that track, nor “Facetime,” but thankfully Ari convinced him to trust her.
“‘New Apartment,’ I don’t think he quite understood, but I think once he sees all these beautiful women and Black women just really killing it at the shows, I think he’ll finally understand it was so necessary,” Ari explains.
“First and foremost, this project is for Black women,” Ari concludes. “This is for the Black woman because we just don’t get enough love and I want little girls to look at me and I want them to say: ‘I’m proud of my Blackness. I’m proud of my skin. God made no mistakes when he created us.’”
DJBooth’s full conversation with Ari Lennox, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: You’ve gone through a lot to get the album into fans’ hands. Now that it’s out, does it feel like a weight off your shoulders?
Ari Lennox: Yes! It feels like such a weight has been lifted. I’m finally free, but it also feels weird, because I never thought it would ever come out, honestly.
How does it feel to see fans react, then?
I feel shocked that so many people think it’s good! I never thought that could happen. I was so worried that people wouldn’t understand, but it looks like people really do love soul music.
You have a lot of classic vocal influences, but your songwriting has very modern themes. Is that a conscious choice to bridge the two disciplines?
I think it started as a conscious choice, for sure. Now, I just want my music to be soulful and nostalgic, but I have to talk about what I’m going through. I have to do it in a way where it’s coming from me, and not from somebody else.
The real win of this album is how honest and specific your songwriting has become.
I’ve just always been very blunt. I’ve always been too blunt. I’ve always been too honest.
Is that a virtue?
I think it’s very positive. It’s so easy to put on a mask and not be real about what we’re feeling and who we are. But it’s the only way you can free yourself.
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What’s the most important song on Shea Butter Baby?
“New Apartment” was probably the most important. It’s for freedom. It’s for women. It’s for first-time apartment renters. It’s different, it’s so unique and it comes from my soul. It’s super important for people to move out when they can and experience their own world and their own space. It’s important to celebrate that.
I’m really taken by the outro of “New Apartment,” where you realize you need people—not things—to make you happy. When did you come to that conclusion?
Every time I’d get an apartment, I’d spend thousands and thousands of dollars. I would make it really nice. It’s beautiful to have those pieces, but I found myself very lonely at times. It’s good to have that inner peace, but it’s good to have a few connections with people because someone else’s energy can really help you if you’re feeling dangerously low or anxious. Now, I don’t put too much emphasis on going all out on decorating my apartment. Especially because I’m always moving, and things can get too expensive. What I’ve found most exciting is spending time with family.
There’s also a lot of romantic push and pull on this record, which makes me wonder, does love scare you? Or just the process of finding love?
Wow, that’s deep. Love kinda does scare me, but I’m in a relationship right now, so it can’t possibly scare me that much, ‘cause I’m very happy and I love ‘em very much. I think the process of finding it scared me more because at times I found myself very desperate and doing things that ultimately did not help me in the long run. While Tinder was very lovely at times, it seemed like I kept running into people who were interested in one thing, and not anything serious. Same thing with the club. Those aren’t the best avenues to find your husband. Some people get lucky, but I never did [laughs].
How instrumental was Dreamville in helping you to literally deliver this album? Like supporting you, helping you be honest, etc.
Dreamville… They were just always available. Cole was always giving suggestions about how we could elevate these beats. Tracklisting. Then I had [Ibrahim "IB" Hamad] doing the same thing and trying to help me organize the tracklist in the best, most beautiful way possible. Always providing studio sessions for me to finish it. There was never a cap on the budget. They just wanted to make sure this album was perfect, so they invested emotionally and financially, which was such a blessing. They constantly booked opportunities for me to meet with different producers. I was able to meet with so many amazing people, like Masego and Christo. J.I.D, same thing with Elite. Dreamville was super instrumental in this roll out. It wouldn’t exist without them, in any way.
Even somebody from Dreamville, a guy named Matty [McNeal], he’s the one who used to call me Shea Butter Baby. He would call my fans Shea Butter Babies, so the name kinda just stuck and the title of the song… Everything about this album is Dreamville, to the core.
Best advice Cole gave you for the album?
Don’t be afraid to save the best records for the album, and let other songs that are just as beautiful but just don’t quite fit, don’t be afraid to let them have their own space. There were certain songs that I really loved, that I was like, “It has to be on the album!” but now that I think about it… This album is perfect. Cole was right! To some extent, because there was certain songs that he did doubt. I’m glad I trusted him for the most part in not putting a couple songs on the project.
What songs did you fight for?
I don’t wanna put him on blast, but fuck it. I fought for his own record, “Facetime.” At one point, he didn’t think it was good enough. He’s wilin’ because that’s one of my favorite records on the project. “New Apartment,” I don’t think he quite understood, but I think once he sees all these beautiful women and Black women just really killing it at the shows, I think he’ll finally understand it was so necessary.
Who is your ideal Shea Butter Baby listener, and what do you want them to take from the record?
First and foremost, this project is for Black women. I feel like we are not represented the way we should be worldwide, but specifically in America, I feel like they sleep on us. They sleep on us in our natural form, with our natural hair, and our natural noses. The natural Black woman, or even if you’re natural under your weave, this is for you. Or, even if you’re aspiring to be natural. This is for the Black woman because we just don’t get enough love and I want little girls to look at me and I want them to say: “I’m proud of my Blackness. I’m proud of my skin. God made no mistakes when he created us.”
Overall, this album is for the woman. Women owning their power, owning who they are, owning their sexual power. It’s for women.
If you could go back to day one of recording, what advice would you give yourself?
The only thing I would, if I had to, change, is how many times I went to the club! There were so many times where I went to the club, and I acted a hot mess, and I embarrassed myself or I lost my phone, or I got into an argument, or I took a trifling person home… I just, I would take back those moments [laughs].