Ari Lennox Credit: eva zar

With the May release of her unflinching debut, Shea Butter Baby (Dreamville), D.C. native Ari Lennox establishes herself as a vital voice in contemporary R&B. On album opener “Chicago Boy,” she muses about a guy she meets by chance in a Chicago CVS and the sexual escapades that ensue: “Might, might bend it over / Love you like Sosa,” she sings over sultry jazz instrumentation. And this is all before she ends the song with a spoken disclaimer about how “fucking freaky” things are about to get. “Freaky” is undeniably accurate—on the next track, “BMO (Break Me Off),” she immediately gets into the nitty-gritty of her desires—but it doesn’t capture the full scope of what Lennox does on Shea Butter Baby. She colors the highs, lows, and in-betweens of being a Black woman in her 20s with lyrics about looking for love on Tinder, taking cheap trips on Amtrak, and enjoying the freedom of drinking from Dollar Tree wineglasses in her own crib. On “New Apartment” she sings, “Pop my woo-hah in the sky /
’Cause nobody here to judge my life.” And if somebody decides to judge anyway, she doesn’t hold back: “Get the fuck on / If you got somethin’ to say / Hey, uh, fuck that shit that you talkin’, uh / Get the fuck out my apartment, ayy.” The harshness of her admonishment contrasts starkly with her soothing singing, but that sort of juxtaposition is on brand for Lennox: “I’ve just always been very blunt,” she said in an interview with DJBooth. “I’ve always been too blunt. I’ve always been too honest.” The only sugarcoating she does comes in the form of that buttery voice, which she uses to invite us into the intimate sketches of her life she creates with Shea Butter Baby. At tonight’s show, she’ll bring her fans even more directly into that space.   v

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