For the past few years, hip-hop fans have spent a lot of time comparing TDE and Dreamville, two respective labels/collectives that both feature some of the industry’s premier talents. In light of the smashing success of TDE’s lone songstress, SZA (whose highly-acclaimed 2017 album Crtl ended up going platinum), and in the spirit of the two label’s unspoken competition, many eyes — including mine — turned to who many deemed her Dreamville tether, the neo-soul prodigy Ari Lennox.
The DC native, who signed to Dreamville in 2015, caught most people’s attention on the song “Backseat,” off the label album Revenge of the Dreamers II (and eventually, her debut Dreamville EP Pho). The song itself reminded me of Erykah Badu’s “Didn’t Cha Know,” due to the similar tone of each song’s jazzy samples; and not unlike the Queen of Neo-Soul, Lennox sings with a touch of elegance and soul, her silky soprano bolstered by that same natural vibrato that has made Badu’s music so ethereal.
After a quiet 2017, the 28-year-old singer returned in 2018 to fan the flames of her own hype, releasing of multiple teaser tracks including the dreamy singles “Whipped Cream” and the titular “Shea Butter Baby” — the latter of which has made significant strides on R&B radio and was featured on the Creed II soundtrack.
So Ari Lennox’s debut album Shea Butter Baby has arrived, nearly three years after her Dreamville debut, to the pleasure and, I imagine, the relief of Lennox and her burgeoning fanbase, who finally get to bask collectively in the spotlight that her hard work and exceptional music rightly deserve. Shea Butter Baby is an injection of sensual, soulful vibes, whose high points harken back to vintage neo-soul but still remain decidedly her own. And in a world of R&B that’s grown increasingly loud, bassy, and closer in sound to pop and hip-hop, Lennox’s reversion is both invigorating and refreshing.
With just two features on the whole, Lennox decides to make her buttery smooth voice the focal point for most of the album’s 44-minute runtime. But what sticks out just as impressively as Ari’s gorgeous harmonics is her ability to make the listener really feel what she’s feeling and vibe along with her, thanks in part to the incredibly emotive nature of her songwriting. Because of this, evocative/provacative ballads like “Up Late” and “I Been” hit with an added weight of sensuality, and songs like “Broke” — a couple’s reflection on the hard knock life — and “New Apartment” — an indulgence in the freedom that comes with having an apartment to oneself — showcase an artist who remains remarkably relatable and down-to-earth.
Dreamville co-founder Ibrahim Hamad, who helped discover Lennox back when she was an aspiring artist working a job at Public Storage, described Lennox after her first studio sessions for Dreamville: “…seeing her writing and recording on the spot, I knew this is something different. This is true, raw talent.” If Ari Lennox’s new album Shea Butter Baby is anything, it is a more crisp view of what both Hamad and J. Cole saw in the now-rising R&B star.
Enjoy Shea Butter Baby below.