You can spend 15 minutes with Ari Lennox and feel like you’ve known her for 15 years. Sipping Veuve Clicquot while her makeup is applied after a sold-out show at the 9:30 Club in June, Lennox stretches out her airy speaking voice when she agrees with a point that’s been made (“Yesssss”) and upon learning something new (“Wowwww”). The 28-year-old singer, who is preparing for a meet-and-greet following the performance, curses often for casual emphasis. And no matter the setting, she says exactly what’s on her mind.
“It is Chocolate City, forever,” Lennox tells the crowd during her show. “No matter what . . . even if we don’t all live here anymore.” The singer, who notes that she was born in the District but spent the first three years of her life in Fort Washington, Md., later adds that she wishes every show on the tour could resemble her hometown crowd — filled with faces she recognizes — complete with a knowing apology: “Sorry to say that out loud.”
Naturally, this uninhibited, endearing honesty comes across in Lennox’s music. Her debut album, “Shea Butter Baby,” was released in May and is notably frank in its observations and reflections. This quality has been Lennox’s forte since her 2013 EP “Ariography” and its follow-up, 2016’s “Pho,” which was released just before she signed to rapper and producer J. Cole ’s Dreamville Records.
But let’s not reduce Lennox, born Courtney Salter, to the “unapologetically black” or “carefree black girl” labels; she and her music deserve better. Instead, the public should revel in her unfiltered nature and the high level of craftsmanship that goes into her music. Those qualities are helping Lennox stand out in the modern-day R&B climate.
“The word I hear most often is ‘authentic,’ ” says Marcel Marshall, who works in digital marketing for Capitol Records and is a co-founder of the District’s Trillectro Music Festival, an event at which Lennox performed in 2016. “She came to L.A. and I literally had influencers hitting my line to get tickets. The fake wanted to see the real.”
Contemporary R&B is often criticized for lacking substance or being unoriginal, or even if it does pay homage, being devoid of whatever made its inspiration exceptional. Although Lennox agrees that R&B, in its current state, does imitate everything she and her peers listened to growing up, that’s not unique to her generation, nor is that something she minds.
“It is derivative of everything I’ve ever listened to,” she says. “But so is everything that came before it. Everything is derivative of something; we’re all inspired by someone. Prince, I’m sure, was inspired by someone.”
Lennox, however, has earned the acclaim of staunch R&B purists thanks to “Shea Butter Baby,” a meticulously crafted album that frames life in various states of success and disarray. It’s perfect in how it leans into Lennox’s imperfections. The smooth “I Been” and “Whipped Cream” find her resorting to weed, sugar and retail therapy when she’s stressed as she copes with romantic situations that have fizzled out. “I’m having the worst luck on Tinder/Ooh, why’d you have to be a big pretender?” she sings on the former. “You’ve been everywhere/And I wish I didn’t care” she admits on the latter.
“New Apartment,” on the other hand, treats an unfurnished home as not only a sign of self-sufficiency, but literal space for new possibilities. “BMO,” which flips the Galt MacDermot sample heard on Busta Rhymes’s spastic 1996 hit “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check” over hip-hop drums, is an up-tempo demand for sex. “Break me off/And gitchi gitchi yaya when the lights is out/I’m summertime crushin’, put that game on pause/And do it how I like it baby, nice and slow,” she sings on the song’s “Lady Marmalade”-inspired hook. “Up Late” touches on the same subject — sexual anticipation — but in a more sultry, jazzy fashion.
That’s helped Lennox earn the “soul” and “neo soul” classifications — labels she previously resisted because she believed they would inhibit her.
“When I was young and stupid, I was like, ‘Dang, if I’m referred to as a soul singer or neo soul singer, because I’m black, I know it’s probably not going to work.’ You have Adele and it works, and I feel like people might love Adele more than a lot of black neo soul singers, it seems,” she says.
“Sometimes it just feels like if you’re white, people tend to love on you a little harder. So at first, I was scared to be ‘neo soul.’ But then, one day, I was like, ‘I can’t shake it, it is who I am to the core. I’m not a fake b----, I’m going to do what makes me happy.’ And luckily, I stuck to that, because I look around and there’s a place for me.”
Elite, who produced the majority of “Shea Butter Baby” in addition to serving as an executive producer, says Lennox is probably ascribed those labels because she fits the mold better than her peers.
“We take people and treat them like puzzle pieces, like, ‘Oh, this fits,’ ” he explains. “I think she’s a mixture of a lot of different genres, but I think neo soul and soul are very much included in that mixture.”
Additionally, Elite pinpoints Lennox’s genuine artistry — particularly her songwriting ability — as distinguishing factors.
“There’s no studio tricks or crazy effects on her voice. So when you see her live, you know she sounds just like the record because that’s really how she sings in the studio,” he says. “There are other people who can sing, but there’s that, coupled with the fact that she writes her own material, but it’s extremely transparent and honest. All her lyrics are so free of fear. She’ll really say exactly what’s happening in her life, what happened the other day — even if it’s embarrassing or funny.”
That transparency shines through in the moments between the music on her debut album. Several songs feature pitched-up, slightly distorted outros where Lennox gets candid about everything, including arrogant men reminding her of the crushes she had on them during childhood and making sure her garbanzo beans are thoroughly cooked. True to form, these segues showcase Lennox’s openness.
“If you’re part of my job, label, go right now because it’s about to get disgusting,” she says following the album-opener, “Chicago Boy.” But funnily enough, the decision to capture these moments came from her label.
“I’m really insane on IG Live, I act a ratchet mess,” Lennox says with a laugh, referring to Instagram’s live-streaming feature. (Reference her freestyle in response to producer Jermaine Dupri and his controversial criticism of women in hip-hop for further evidence.)
“Apparently, Dreamville had been spying on me all year and recording all of my live streams,” she reveals. An intern sorted through the recordings and matched her comments with the album’s themes, and then Lennox and Elite edited the best matches.
These outros help to sew “Shea Butter Baby” — and its naked emotion — together. Considering how raw, yet fluid, the previous 40 minutes of music are, Lennox says concluding the album with “Static,” an ode to her struggle with anxiety, was an easy decision. “I just felt like it should end with my biggest truth,” she explains. It’s a personal victory at the end of a journey marked by success and failure.
One person Lennox is soberingly honest with, and about, is herself. She’s convinced that she wouldn’t have been able to thrive in R&B during the 1990s or early 2000s because of the robust amount of immensely talented soul singers who were around at the time, such as Teedra Moses or fellow DMV singer Amerie.
“I really feel like Teedra Moses should be just as big as Beyoncé,” she says of the singer-songwriter, perhaps best known for her 2004 single “Be Your Girl” and its radiant house remix by Canadian producer-extraordinaire Kaytranada. “Her writing, singing, energy, soul and frankness. . . . But I just feel like perhaps [she came out] at a time when there were so many other soul singers that people slept on her.”
Lennox credits J. Cole and Dreamville for giving her the freedom to flourish by doing her own thing — such as covering “Say Yes,” the quiet storm radio essential by 2000s English soul duo Floetry, during a sold-out show. “I really feel like it’s because of [them] that I have this platform that other people who maybe never listened to Floetry can come to my show and hear me doing Floetry,” she says.
Unsurprisingly, Lennox still doesn’t feel as though she’s “made it” — not even after seeing a video of two-time NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant, who grew up in Seat Pleasant, Md., showing his mother the “Up Late” video. But coming back to the D.C. area and getting the glowing response she received during her local show? That’s a personal victory.
“I never could have imagined when I was going to school every day at Duke Ellington [School of the Arts] and feeling like I was the worst singer in my department,” she says. “Feeling like my teachers wouldn’t give me a solo. I just look back and think, ‘Damn, that is f---ing’ crazy. I’m here now.’ ”