Music

Ari Lennox, Dreamville’s First Lady, Isn’t An Underdog Anymore

In this installment of Ari Lennox’s artistic journey, age/sex/location, her honest and relatable second album sheds light on the tribulations she had to conquer to get to a healthier and more confident headspace.

Last week was the rollout for Ari Lennox’s second album, age/sex/location, the follow-up to her brilliant debut, Shea Butter Baby. Dreamville and Interscope, the two labels responsible for the neo-soul singer’s weeklong rollout — which took place in New York City and Lennox’s hometown Washington, D.C. — are getting some well-deserved acknowledgment from Lennox as we’re seated inside downtown NYC’s Blue Ribbon Sushi Izakaya on a warm summer afternoon a few days after the release of the album.

“[Dreamville] heard my cry of wanting an organized, lovely, cohesive rollout,” she said, having recently regained her voice after briefly losing it during her rollout. “I love them.” With her makeup immaculately done and wearing a trendy Maisie Wilen two-piece set — pairing exceedingly well with her nearly 36-inch curly black hair — one might mistake Lennox as a model for New York Fashion Week, instead of one of contemporary R&B’s most important singers.

The idea of releasing an album after Shea Butter Baby seems ambitious. It was put on a pedestal by R&B fanatics following its release in 2019; three years later, tracks like “Shea Butter Baby” and “New Apartment” are now some of her most beloved songs, with Ari fans bellowing out the lyrics during her live shows. Uniquely packaged with the singer’s innate musicality and her passionate songwriting, Shea Butter Baby didn’t just make Lennox an R&B darling, but a notable figure in D.C.

This was evident during an appearance at Ivy City Smokehouse last week, where Ari — with manager Matty P., Dreamville co-founder Ibrahim Hamid, and Keinon Johnson, Senior Vice President of Urban Radio at Interscope, in tow — Lennox hosted the event. After Lennox briefly addressed the crowd made up of fans and photographers, a Go-Go band performed covers of “Shea Butter Baby,” “Whipped Cream,” and even her collaboration with Jazmine Sullivan, “Sit On It.” As the night turned into an infectious jam of Go-Go and R&B, it became clear that Ari has come a long way from releasing music online as an independent artist. She’s no longer the underdog — she’s the first woman to sign to J. Cole’s Dreamville, and is now a beloved hometown hero ushering in the next stage of her career.

Photo Credit: Mikael Selassi

Over the last several years of the pandemic, Ari has been steadily working on age/sex/location. Alongside Elite, who executive produced the record, she enlisted a team of producers, songwriters, and musicians — J. Cole, Bryan Michael Cox, Johntá Austin, Kelvin Wooten, Michael Bearden, Jai’Len Josen, Ron Gilmore, and DZL — to create something that sounded and felt soulful.

“I think the text message with Cole was a little misleading,” she said, referring to the text message exchange between her and J. Cole that hinted at what the album was going to be about. “Basically, what a/s/l is, [it’s a] transitional space. Toward the end of a/s/l is me finally becoming aware of how I can grow as a human, what I can do to protect myself from negativity, and now it’s just like the journey has begun.”

The end result is a sultry and self-assured album that shows her moving past being with romantic partners she knows aren’t right for her. It also has more radio-ready tracks than her debut, something Ari said was one of the main goals for the new album. Calling it “all soul” and describing it as “another part of her,” age/sex/location not only showcases the confidence Ari has found in this transitional stage she’s in, but also the trust she has for the dream team she worked with, too, helping her trim the 80 songs she had to the 12 that ended up on the project.

“This time around, I’ve been more free and a lot more OK with not being in control,” she said as she got into the collaborations on the album. “Because [with] Shea Butter Baby, it was my entire vagina in that damn freaking album. That’s probably why I felt a way about certain awards not happening for it.” 

One of the first tracks I bring up is “Boy Bye,” a sexy duet with an easygoing beat that sounds like it would go off in a jazz club like New York’s Blue Note. 

“Me and Lucky [Daye] just started creating melodies on the spot,” Ari said with a smile. 

Then, there’s “Queen Space,” which features Summer Walker. The second collaboration between the two singers, the track is a great example of how Ari and Summer are the yin and yang of modern R&B. Despite different vocal approaches, their goal is always to share their personal lives through their lyricism. The smooth beat, which was produced by Elite, Dre Pinckney, and Ron Gilmore, provides a calm space for Lennox to share her relatable lyrics. “There’s something I am sure of / I deserve something purer / my love is a privilege,” Ari sings, with Summer emphasizing what Ari’s speaking to: “Can’t seem to stay away from it / Come in, I’ll make you wait on it / If you’re missin’ me then just say something / But I don’t wanna tell you what to feel.” 

“Summer is my sister,” Ari said of Summer. “I feel like we contribute very well to soul, to R&B, to neo-soul.” 

Out of the 12 songs on the album though, “Mean Mug” is an outstanding example of Lennox’s growth as an artist. It’s slow but steady, packed with a pleasing beat that allows Ari to lean into the distinct sound of her voice. Her rich and warm tone throughout the song is striking, and the way she sings “There’s a magic in your eyes” for the hook, lingers with you well after the song has come to an end.

Photo Credit: Mikael Selassi

The journey Ari has been on to create something like age/sex/location has been filled with lessons she’s learned through heartbreak, learning to cope with her anxious attachment style, moving past an award snub, and becoming “bad bitch Ari,” as I referred to her during our conversation.

Getting to this stage in her life has been a work in progress. Ari’s previous stylist pushed her to experiment and get out of her comfort zone, as well as made her more aware of her size. “It kind of kick-started me realizing I don’t look the way I used to look in high school,” she said. “But I was a little fucking baby. Life happens, you get thick.”

She oozes confidence in the most recent photos she’s been sharing ahead of the release of age/sex/location. One reason is her weight loss, but it’s also partially due to her new stylist NYC-based Scot Louie, who’s most known for his stunning work with Ryan Destiny, Latto, Kehlani, Regina Hall, and Keke Palmer. Lennox said that her weight loss comes from being more active at her home in Maryland and hiking regularly. “I’m outside more, doing things outside, and seeing nature, which has helped me mentally and emotionally,” she said. Aside from that, she shared that she’s kind of given up on dating (although she did reveal that she went on a nice date while she was in New York), has been enjoying NYFW, and is basking in the release of her new album.

The day Ari’s album arrived, her team hosted another listening party in D.C. at Maketto, a Cambodian/Thai restaurant that’s also a communal marketplace and cafe. There, she was wearing a glittery Natalia Fedner two-piece set with her hair bone straight, surrounded by family, friends, and her management team. Specialty cocktails, pork belly bao buns, tuna tartare, and oysters were being served for most of the night. Much later in the evening, after taking a few portraits, Ari made her way downstairs, where fans excitedly greeted her. Joining Little Bacon Bear, a local DJ/host at a DJ booth, she told the crowd that it was imperative for her to do her album rollout in D.C., before offering some affirming words that are meant just as much for herself than they are for those in attendance. 

“There’s nothing wrong with being single,” she said. “It’s a beautiful journey, singleness.” 

In real-time, Ari is pushing herself musically and personally, and age/sex/location is a direct reflection of that. Now, with the hardest part of this new journey out of the way, the singer is ready to make some new accomplishments, immediately sharing that she wants to have a timeless hit record like some of her influences. 

“I’m hoping to get a massive, astronomical hit record,” she said. “Just a song where I’m being myself, but every single person on this earth can relate,  whether they hate it or love it. I want that ‘Thriller,’ Michael Jackson…That ‘Respect,’ Aretha Franklin. I want that ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You,’ Mariah Carey.”

Photographs by Mikael Selassi

Stylist: Scot Louie

Makeup: Ty Hubert

Robyn Mowatt

Robyn Mowatt is a Staff Writer at Okayplayer where she covers culture, music, and fashion. You can see what's on her mind on Twitter at @robyn_mowatt.

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