When it comes to the inspiration behind her debut album Shea Butter Baby, Ari Lennox doesn’t coat her answer with elaborate vernacular. As we’re thrift shopping in Brooklyn’s popular L Train Vintage, the singer-songwriter is honest and thoughtful as she flips through abandoned designer gowns and heavy leather jackets. Without taking a beat between finding a perfect graphic tee to match her black jeans from Topshop, she confesses, “The common denominator is ni**as, but it’s just mad sh*t about my life.”
As Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s 1967 classic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” plays over the store’s speakers, Ari smiles with delight at the idea of love in all forms. There’s not enough room for bitterness as the singer embarks on a journey of self-realization with Shea Butter Baby. The soulful LP is playful in nature but intentional, as Ari courts possible love interests on tracks like “Chicago Boy,” “Broke” with J.I.D. and “Speak To Me.” There are also moments of ultimate self-care like the DIY tune “New Apartment,” where growth is discovered in the most simple scenarios (“No longer afraid of the dark/Cus that light bill changed my heart/made a ni**a act smart”).
But the most stripped moments of the album are interludes, which happen to be moments from her Instagram Live sessions. The use of a higher pitch is akin to Cole’s alter ego “Lil Cole” used on his tracks like “Forbidden Fruit” and “Brackets,” adding wonders to Ari’s take on the design. Professions of loneliness, emotionally abusive relationships and good ol’ freak sh*t remind the listener how genuine and raw Ari (born Courtney Salter) is.
“People will appreciate who you are when you’re naturally being who you are,” she says. Since the days of the Washington, D.C. native belting covers on YouTube, Ari has mastered the art of being yourself. Releasing her first mixtape Five Finger Discount in 2012, the singer toyed with styles inspired by André 3000 and Janelle Monae, keeping her kinetic vocals all her own. This was later felt on the Ariography breakout, “La La La.” Just a few moon cycles later, fate would place her on Omen’s “Sweat It Out” and on the radar of J. Cole, who made her the first woman and sanger signed to Dreamville Records.
I just wanted to make it clear that I’m here with a message.
“I was surprised people actually loved it as much as they do ‘cause I was just playing around,” she says of her studio debut EP PHO. Released in 2016, the seven-track project polished Ari’s sound, keeping her homegirl aura intact. The process wasn’t without struggle. “I recorded it on a cheap mic and on a cheap laptop,” she recalls of her early DIY days. “My homeboy Mez mixed it to angelic heights but I recorded it on trash mics and I was drunk [on] half of the recordings. (Laughs) I’m always going to take an experience and a fire beat and marry it all together with adult melodies. I try to paint, just like Frank Ocean paints with his lyrics. I try in similar ways to paint my life into these songs.”
The arrival of the buzzy single “Whipped Cream” felt like the victory for Ari, given the wide gap in her discography. Between 2016 and 2018, the singer toured with Cole for his 4 Your Eyez Only Tour and hit the festival circuit for performances at Trillectro and Soulquarius. While work was steady, her heart wasn’t, causing a few roadblocks in her life path.
“I don’t see how I can ever be happy doing music again. I don’t want to write and I don’t want to listen to any beats,” she tweeted in August 2018. ”I don’t want to perform. I think I’m literally done. Never thought I could feel that way but I do.” The doubt seems to be universal for women in today’s R&B terra. Just before the release of her Grammy-nominated album CTRL, SZA similarly issued a stream of consciousness on social media about stepping away from music. Black women in soul music have always faced several barriers while getting to the surface (ie: Phyllis Hyman and Vesta Williams), but in the mad dash for streaming milestones, quick singles and racially ambiguous acts are pushed to the forefront, leaving black women singing the blues in the background.
People will appreciate who you are when you're naturally being who you are.
For Ari, her doubt rests on the hands of time. “Things didn’t happen as fast as I thought,” she admits. “I’ve been trying to be a singer ever since I was 2 years old and I’m a whole 27 years old now so it’s like, things can happen or they can’t. It’s a humbling experience every year, every day. ‘Will the people see it? Will they get it?’ That’s where the doubt is. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.”
The sonic shift happened for Ari sooner than expected. After the success of “Whipped Cream,” “Shea Butter Baby” featuring Cole arrived shortly after on the Creed II soundtrack, bringing her to center stage. Her sultry twang and the commands of banging near trash cans is an unfiltered mood we all aspire to reach, while her bossman’s guest verse is another win for his latest bout of features. Working with the Dreamville creator comes easily for Ari (he also produced the fluid “Facetime” during their first session together in 2016), but sometimes, the creative challenge simmers.
“It’s really cool [working with Cole] but it depends,” she admits. “It can be ‘Here’s a beat, do whatever you want with it.’ So I just go ham and be free, or he might just be like, ‘I got this and wrote this down. Do you think you can just sing over it and do some adlibs?’ That’s the easiest. I love that like, ‘You know what you want and I can just do what I gotta do.’”
In the Dreamville crew, the artists are more of a family unit than a record label. This was seen during their inaugural festival in Cole’s home state back in April and most recently at Ari’s weekday listening for Shea Butter Baby in New York (May 6). Dreamville president Ibrahim “IB” Hamad and EarthGang arrived early to cheer on their soul sister along with Ari’s manager Justin LaMotte and creative director Paris Cole. Labelmates like Omen (who co-produced “BMO”) and J.I.D. have done the same from the digital sidelines. Ari says the Dreamville family is also quick to send love and attention to one another. “He’ll ask, ‘Are you alright? How are you doing?’” she says. “It’s vice versa. I’ll ask him. He’ll ask me. It’s the same way with everyone in the crew. That’s all we can do and talk to each other when we can. It’s just love. It’s good vibes. Really good vibes. The energy is that real.”
Because of Dreamville’s familiar and comforting nature, Ari is free to take creative leaps and bounds. “I just wanted to make it clear that I’m here with a message,” she said of making the album title Shea Butter Baby. “I just want people to get hip. This is what black women and natural women, in general, have to go through, your pillows will get f**ked up, somebody will get mad, you know? This is what we do to make sure our hair is healthy and moisturized.” In addition to her layered lyric style on the album, Ari listed each song on her album with different hair types. The album cover is also a homage to Diana Ross’ 1970 release, Everything Is Everything.
“I want to eventually graduate to Diana Ross vibes, but right now I’m just a casual bi**h,” she says about her “ratchet glamorous sweetie-patootie” style. “My favorite style inspirations are between Rihanna and Diana Ross. Diana is so glamorous with the sh*t and both of them are glamorous and took a lot of risks. I didn’t realize that Diana was getting naked, real sheer and naked in some of her fits. I want to be that chick one day but for now, I like nice graphic tees and my Topshop black jeans. I also like a nice sexy satin dress with an open toe heel. So it’s between those two fits really, those styles.”
During our thrift store run, Ari finds pieces that match her aesthetic. It’s been more than an hour and her cart is filled with vintage threads. One number is a silky purple dress with gemstones that would make and any Golden Girl blush. There’s also an edgy denim dress that she can bust a stiff twerk to. Her fashion sense has matured over time as she name drops lines like House of CB and Laura Dewitt. Like her fashion ambitions, there’s so much more Ari wants to conquer. While naming some of her favorite soul sisters in the game like Teyana Taylor, Ella Mai and Queen Najia, Ari believes the tides are changing for women in R&B.
“I think it’s in good hands. I think there are some things I can contribute to [R&B] as well,” she says. “Queen Najia, she’s fire as hell. There’s beyond hope with people like Queen Najia. I love that she’s just herself. I’m trying to get a baby and a man very soon. That’s goals. She’s just living her life and there’s no f**king rules, she’s killing it and killing half these artists out here. She’s blessed.”
In the meantime, Ari hopes her discography provides comfort for fans while bringing the feels of Teedra Moses and Alicia Keys. “I feel lucky that I finally have something that’s making people say, ‘Wow,’” she says. “I just get to be happy doing what I want to do. As long as I’m happy making the songs I’m making, it will be fine. That’s all I need to be rich. I just need my nice $200,000 home in the middle of nowhere in Atlanta and my two Akita dogs and I’ll be fine. Whatever I got to do to get that, I’ll be good.”