Ari Lennox Is Searching for Intimacy on "Shea Butter Baby"

The Dreamville-signee's debut is a captivating journey.

Ari Lennox has arrived at the perfect time.

From the self-love teachings of SZA's CTRL to the body-positivity and confidence-boosting braggadocio of Lizzo, Lennox's charismatic debut, Shea Butter Baby, seems to solidify that we're in the midst of a glorious R&B evolution. In the last few years, the genre's biggest breakout stars—as with many genres in 2019—have mostly been women, many of whom have used music as a platform for therapeutic teachings of self-assurance and sexual independence. Lennox is no exception. "I just got a new apartment; I'm gon' leave the floor wet. Walk around this bitch naked, and nobody can tell me shit," The Dreamville-signee croons on "New Apartment." On "Pop," Lennox describes a slow-burn intimacy with a respectful lover, rather than a drunken one night stand: "If I pop this pussy for you tonight... Won't you make a promise that I'm gonna be your wife?"

This shift towards female empowerment in R&B is a refreshing reset for a genre historically plagued with tropes of female objectification. While Lizzo is quick to get fired up and shit on an unhealthy partner—"Jerome, Jerome, take your ass home and come back when you're grown"—Lennox seems to take a breath, turn inward, and, rather than direct blame, analyze her human tendencies. "Online shoppin' and robbin my chance of survivin' I've been late on rent, what was I thinkin'?" she sings on "Whipped Cream." "I'm goin go to the gym, squat real low for a man."

Her music is meant to be a tourniquet—not just in heartbreak, but in everything that causes us to question our worth. "And I try, and I try...but I'm havin' the worst luck on Tinder," she sings on "I Been." In the track's expansive spoken outro, Lennox takes a minute just to connect. "Please don't be in a situation where that person's tearing you down mentally, emotionally, physically," she says. "We've heard it a million times. I think emotional abuse is way worse than physical, sometimes, 'cause that just fucks up your whole mind."

Shea Butter Baby's search for intimacy is embedded in a varietal soundscape. The project's instrumentation seeks to be an amalgamation of modern and old school formulas and, for the most part, it works. "Static" earns comparisons to Lauryn Hill, while "Up Late" carries the neo-soul influence of early Erykah Badu. Last summer, Lennox tweeted: "I'm more than my talents, ask me how I'm doing." In retrospect, the tweet could serve as a kind of mantra for Shea Butter Baby, and while the album paints a picture of who Ari Lennox is, it's clear that the singer's search for growth does not end here. And while, at times, it may seem like Lennox doesn't know what to say, ("Sleepin' all day, chiefin', roll it, video games 'bout to lose it") that may be the most human and stirring aspect of her artistry.

Shea Butter Baby isn't an album for the newly broken-hearted or angry; it's an album for the in-betweeners, for those who are alone with their thoughts, reflecting on their tendencies, and deciding whether it's time to do the painful work of growing. Listeners can take comfort in the fact that Lennox is on that journey with them. Just don't go asking her what it all means.

Mackenzie Cummings-Grady is a creative writer who resides in the Brooklyn area. Mackenzie's work has previously appeared in The Boston Globe, Billboard, and Metropolis Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @mjcummingsgrady.

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