Categories: MusicOriginals

Ari Lennox & Summer Walker: The Yin & Yang of R&B

Though the two are very different, Ari Lennox and Summer Walker stand out in the upper echelon of R&B because they share the most honest versions of themselves.

In today’s music industry, artists have to constantly market themselves, while relentlessly churning out music that resonates with their fanbases. And within that cutthroat climate, D.C. vocalist Ari Lennox and Atlanta’s Summer Walker have figured out a winning formula. Though the two are very different, their commonality is their ability to connect with listeners due to their sharp songwriting that leads with emotion. While Lennox’s sound has more soulful roots, Summer shells out music that uniquely blends elements of ‘90s R&B.

Ari Lennox and Summer Walker are the yin and yang of female R&B. Sonically, the genre has transformed in the past three years largely due to the contributions of these two artists. Outfitted with different vocal styles, Lennox and Walker are proof that R&B’s mainstream has room for two styles of music-making. Soul with mid-’70 elements and trap soul can co-exist as long as both artists continue sharing their most honest versions of themselves. 

Still Over It, Walker’s exceptional sophomore album excavates the singer’s final feelings on the years she spent with her ex-boyfriend, producer London on da Track. She isn’t barred by feelings of embarrassment any longer, she stands in her femininity while acknowledging how she regrets allowing herself to be mistreated in the name of love.

The major themes that show up in Still Over It are aggression and resentment. During the album’s rollout, she shared that the tracklisting appears in chronological order so her experiences can be interpreted like a timeline.  

“Bitter” prepares listeners for the writing that follows. In this reflective song, she writes of the anger that often manifests into her life due to negative Shade Room commenters and former salacious companions of her ex. “Ex For A Reason,” with JT from City Girls, is the most interesting song on the album. The track is off brand for Summer; it’s uptempo rather than downtempo and lyrically it’s primed for Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.Reciprocate” has a lullaby-like quality in the track’s chorus and between verses one and two she switches back and forth from soprano to alto. Heavy drums accentuate the probing lyrics that focus mainly on creating a healthy bond that works for Walker and her partner. 

“All I wanted was for you to stay, it’s the bare minimum for me,” Summer sings with conviction. She adds, “I don’t wanna throw it all away/But you gon’ have to reciprocate.”

Summer’s trajectory has left chartered territory and a blueprint for rising singers to study. Millennials and Gen Z are two groups primed for lyrical ballads with trap elements. And two up-and-coming singers have clearly studied the Atlanta songstress: Louisville, Kentucky native Marzz and Fort Worth, Texas’ Dee Gatti. Marrz’s straightforward songwriting is reminiscent of Summer’s first project Last Day Of Summer similar to Walker she also pulls from her own experiences. As for Dee Gatti, she has previously shared that Summer is one of her influences. Despite being an emerging singer, the vulnerability she shares in her songwriting was enough for her to have gotten on the radar of producers who’ve worked with SZA and Don Toliver. 

A self-described underdog, Ari Lennox’s debut album, 2019’s Shea Butter Baby, is equipped with candid storytelling and honest lyrics. “I want my music to be soulful and nostalgic, but I have to talk about what I’m going through,” she shared in an interview with DJBooth back in 2019. Lennox has also said that she created the album solely for Black women who she believes are not “appreciated” or “loved enough.” 

Working closely with the album’s executive producer Elite, Ari was able to pinpoint her voice in music with this project. The title track is lusty and emotionally driven. Hip-hop and soul have a moment as J. Cole appears for a feature, but Lennox drives the song forward as she explicitly lays out her sexual aura. “Shea butter baby, fuckin’ up your pillow,” she sings effortlessly during the song’s chorus. 

On “BMO” Ari’s voice is striking, but so are the lyrics. In this upbeat track which is crafted to emphasize her vocals, the catchy chorus emphasizes the sincere tone utilized throughout the song. Though sonically different, Walker’s “Tonight,” from her debut Over It, is equivalent to “BMO.” Both of these songs have sexual undertones and share their perspectives on being pleased by their partners, “Tonight” and “BMO” also have melodic choruses.

New Apartment” samples Hubert Laws’ funky “Land Of Passion” which allows Lennox to fully lean into her neo-soul sound. The instrument-led chorus and Lennox’s soothing cadence are an ideal match. There’s also a richness found within Ari’s voice throughout this entire song.

“Leavin’ my curls in the shower/And no more missin’ the hot water/Pop my woo-hah in the sky. ‘Cause nobody here to judge my life,” she sings. 

Lennox also shines on “I Been.” As soon as the song begins, her passionate voice is blended perfectly alongside soulful horns and bass which point to why this is a standout on Shea Butter Baby. Walker’s “Broken Promises” was written in the same vein as “I Been.” This song is comparable as it also blends the singer’s voice with instruments. 

Shea Butter Baby is an invigorating record that legitimized Ari’s relevance in the R&B market. Her lived experiences and ability to share them in story form is also what drives forward her artistry, and this album conveyed that perfectly. Lennox’s forthcoming album is highly anticipated by her fans who are constantly inquiring about its release. 

Soul and funk elements that appear throughout Lennox’s music are tell-tale signs that she’s studied titans such as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Her sound could be described as classic, but it’s also derivative of where R&B is presently, the genre is shifting, moving, and still figuring itself out. Ari is a romantically-centered lyricist who often is contemplative in her lyrics, and so is Baby Rose who is a contemporary that also is transforming into an act that’s impossible to ignore. Born in D.C., the Atlanta-based indie singer is a captivating vocalist that releases soul-inspired cuffing music. Baby Rose’s voice has led to heavily streamed singles like “Show You” and “In Your Arms.” Her lyrical capabilities are also her strong suit, thematically she writes of internal growth and leaving someone who isn’t serving you. She looks to Nina Simone and Amy Winehouse as sources of inspiration, two legends who she said, “really had stories to tell and… used their music as an instrument. Their writing came first and their voices carry.” Rose believes she does the same. 

Relatable storytelling is where Summer Walker and Ari Lennox’s music intersect. In an era where millennials often turn to music to take a break from the world, both of these artists are providing sincere and emotional songs that have placed them in the upper echelon of the R&B industry. The level of vulnerability they both stoop to is another similarity that can’t be diminished. For both Ari and Summer, love is messy, imperfect, and even disappointing at times. This commonality when combined with their vocal styles, songwriting and production is the perfect storm that has forged a path for future generations of music-makers. 

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Banner Graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer

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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