Shea Butter Baby
Ari Lennox definitely gotta have some nudes floating around out there. “New Apartment,” a brazen song off her fantastic debut, Shea Butter Baby talks up the joys of self-exposure (and coming into one’s own as an adult) with charmingly exhibitionist vibes: “I just got a new apartment/I’m gon’ leave the floor wet/Walk around this bitch naked/And nobody can tell me shit.” It’s an ethos not unlike that which she expressed on a recent episode of “Angela Yee’s Lip Service” podcast where, when asked by Yee about the contents of her iCloud Lennox said, “I like to take pictures of my ass in the mirror. I like that . . . um . . . yeah.” When asked whether she put her face in the photos — a practice presumably all but the most intrepid of us would want to avoid — she replied, “I don’t mind. I’m just like, What’s the point? Just show everything.”
On “Facetime” the first lady of Dreamville, the label founded in 2007 by J. Cole teases, over a balmy arrangement illuminated by cool water-droplet keys just ripe for an early summer First Friday on a rooftop somewhere during the liveliest and lushest part of the night after dusk, “Bet you wanna cop a feel/Bet you wonder if it’s real/Facetimin’ my baby tonight.” (The song paradoxically sounds like it will be a welcome staple on older adult contemporary stations like New York’s WBLS — she’s on that Vivian Green wave here, if it was complicated somehow — rebelliously — by Erykah Badu.)
Like “New Apartment,” “Facetime” invites us into Lennox’s bold interior life, though the former is a millennial anthem (for those newly free of roommates) that sounds paradoxically like it could be featured in a triumphant moment in the next season of “Insecure.” And speaking of boldness (and liking to watch), there was a woman several years ago in the building across from me who, come to think of it looked a bit like Ari Lennox and made it a point to openly prance around naked in front of her curtain-less window (this was, again, a black woman — where they do that at?) while on the phone; I imagine this song is her favorite, as I’m sure it’s also her free-spirited sisters’ on what’s left of artsy nude Tumblr.
Further layers of her are peeled back on “Broke,” which revisits the long arduous journey — Lennox was first signed back in 2015 so her debut was four years in the making — to success involving her and her significant other having to “take a trip on AmTrak ’cause we ain’t got no monies.” The stacked harmonies and finger snaps here imply a sense of tension and release in their odd interplay with the meditative Eastern bathwater plink of the track (emboldened by a verse from J.I.D), which is cleaved neatly (as if partitioned with a Chinese room divider) by the swell of working-class poignancy in Lennox’s soprano, underlined as it is by deep bass you can expect to hear bumping out five-years-ago-model cars all summer. (Without being in the least bit derivative Lennox puts you in the mind of SZA on this epic Karena Evans film of a confessional.)
Likewise, naked sincerity is in this case literally made relatable on the blusey “Up Late” where she schemes on a fly-out (“Fifth floor, give your ass a duplicate FOB, nigga”) with plans to leave her partner with his head on her chest and hands on her ass as she backs it up on him again and again with demands to tell her how he likes it. This sensibility is shared by anyone who’s ever talked cash shit to a soon-to-be fuck buddy in another state when it goes down in the DMs.
Remarkably, hers is a frisky Venusian temperament that invokes peak Janet Jackson. Of course vocally Lennox doesn’t much remind you of Janet; she’s, again, from the same tribe as Erykah. But not since The Velvet Rope have we seen a singer fully in her moment and at the top of her game, so self-assuredly in command of both her sexuality and artistry. As much is evident on the sandalwood-scented title track featuring her label head Cole. On a Spanish-guitar-accented groove Lennox croons, “Shea butter baby, fuckin’ up your pillow/Shea butter baby, fuckin’ up your sheets,” affirming her desire to be taken in flaws and all on this opus she describes as “just a lot of sex, soul, romance and hip-hop.”
Indeed, when Yee, the podcast host and popular radio personality pressed her about that infamous iCloud of hers, Lennox shrugged, “If it comes out it’s like, Well I looked really good.” Although she was talking about potential nudes, she just as easily may have been talking about how she presents as an artist. Consider these songs, her private snapshots a gift to you the listener by way of this generous body of work.