Fashionably Late: A Belated Review on Ari Lennox's Shea Butter Baby

 Evan Dale // Dec 4, 2019 

Few individuals in music have had a more noteworthy year than Ari Lennox. She’s been everywhere. A huge role player in what has been one of the most influential projects in recent memory: Revenge of the Dreamers; further appearances across a range of the year’s most mentionable collections: Chance the Rapper’s The Big Day, Wale’s Wow… That’s Crazy, BJ the Chicago Kid’s 1123, Bas’s Spilled Milk, and VanJess’s Silk Canvas; all the while headlining a multi-continental tour, it’s almost easy to look past the fact that 2019 is also a year marked by the release of her debut solo album.


Shea Butter Baby came out in May and in the months since, has earned its way into the heart and acclaim of any and all fans and publications of hip-hop, R&B, Neo-Soul, and beyond. It’s a masterpiece – and like the definition suggests – such projects don’t come around too often. 


The DC soulstress has been Dreamville’s resident R&B vocalist since 2015, and she released her debut EP, Pho, the next year. But, between it and Shea Butter Baby, only a handful of singles and a barrage of Dreamville-oriented features slowly trickled a glimpse to the world into the range of Ari Lennox’s aesthetic. By the time May came around, she was well-known, but what she was capable of was still largely to be seen and heard. 


Shea Butter Baby changed all of that. And quickly. From the moment it begins, a signature vocal delivery strewn with quirkiness and an utmost one-of-a-kind texture puts on exhibition what years of J. Cole understudy is capable of teaching in songwriting; how years of features shapes an artist as a collaborator; how years of practice has refined Ari Lennox’s sound into one of the more unique and sought after in all of music. 


All of it comes into play in Shea Butter Baby, and not a moment in the album’s 45-minute run time is wasted. 


It opens subtly enough. A jazz horn and the strokes of a harp introduce an Ari Lennox realm underscored by the deepest of basslines and highlighted by the silkiest vocal register in music. In between, provocative penmanship and organic instrumentation makes the spectrum of her music relatable, natural, and still, yet to be explored by anyone else quite in the manner that she’s capable. Chicago Boy’s main taglines refer to getting lost in the sheets and fucking before Ari’s got to catch a flight. But something in the way she says it all – sings it all – separates her from decades of over-sexualized R&B artists and instead invites listeners to relatable sensuality and raw poetry at a time in history when honesty and openness sur the subject need not be masked by over-the-top thematic exploration and unattainable descriptions of sex and sensuality reserved solely for rock stars. Don’t get it twisted – Ari is an absolute rock star – but she makes music for the everywoman and everyman to fuck to. And Shea Butter Baby is its soundtracking score. In the opening track’s closing moments, the first of several monologuing runs gives a disclaimer that things are about to get so fuckin’ freaky. And Ari Lennox doesn’t fail her listeners as it all progresses. Musically, sexually, inventively, and influentially, it’s full steam ahead. 


BMO (Break Me Off) may definitely come to be the most anthemic babymaker of 2019. When it’s all said and done, the track may also be the most well-rounded display of Ari Lennox’s talent throughout Shea Butter Baby’s entirety. Founded by its anthemic hook, Ari Lennox spends the rest of BMO’s duration playing with a hip-hop cadence in verse and emerging with one of the more timeless sex anthems of the modern R&B cloth. Think Birthday Sex, think Motivation, think B.E.D.Too Deep, and Red Light Special; think BMO. It’s that good.


But her talent is more wide ranging than existing solely as an engine for sex anthems. Broke and Shea Butter Baby deal more with self-confidence, relationships, and love than anything else and put in full frame just how strong her collaborative ability has become with friends and Dreamville team members, JID and J. Cole. 


To it, Shea Butter Baby as a whole is also America’s greatest 2019 Neo-Soul project. The lines between the styling and that of R&B are certainly blurred and difficult to distinguish, but Ari Lennox’s affinity for organic instrumentation in opposition to an electronically-driven sound that has come to dominate American R&B’s mainstream scene, makes her debut much more closely adhering to a project like D’Angelo’s Black Messiah and Solange’s When I Get Home than it is to something like Leven Kali’s Low Tide. There isn’t a superior sound, but hers gives a UK-dominated field of jazz-inspired, instrumentally driven soul music a run for its money. 


Speak To Me in particular, with its vibrant keyboard melody, feels particularly like its being played inside a dimly lit London jazz club while Ari draws all of us to drunken emotionality with a powerful voice delivering even more powerful lyricism. 


New Apartment is a feminine exhibition of strength and independence the likes of which has marked the careers of some of soul music’s most important woman. The track bubbles over with a whole lot of Aretha Franklin ferocity that may one day be looked back on as a precursor of a career just as important and influential on subsequent generations. It even ties in another key monologue in the track’s closing moments exploring humbleness and trying to avoid putting too much emphasis into belongings, and putting forth more effort towards the people in one’s life.


Truthfully, each song on Shea Butter Baby is as important and as innovative as the last, and each could be dissected at length. Sex, femininity, strength, love, relationships, loss, fame, and balance are all explored. As are Neo-Soul, hip-hop, R&B, and jazz. It’s a rare kind of project that’s as transcendentally artistic as it is socially important. And it, even as a debut, has solidified Ari Lennox’s position as one of the most important artists in modern music.