D.C.’s Ari Len­nox: ‘True, raw tal­ent’

Singer-song­writer finds home on Dreamville la­bel

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSIC - BY BRI­ANA YOUNGER style@wash­post.com

“It feels too good to be back home,” Ari Len­nox tells a sold-out crowd at U Street Mu­sic Hall on an un­sea­son­ably warm night in Jan­uary. The show was her fifth in the area in as many months since re­leas­ing her de­but EP “Pho” in Oc­to­ber. But for the past five years, she’d been away from the place she called home.

Like many of the DMV’s ris­ing gen­er­a­tion of break­out singers — Grammy-nom­i­nated crooner Gal­lant and fu­tur­is­tic vo­cal­ist Kelela among them — Len­nox got her big break out­side the District. She’d just started a job at Pub­lic Stor­age in Char­lotte when she was con­tacted by Dreamville Records, a la­bel founded by rap­per J. Cole and his man­ager, Ibrahim Hamad. It was a mo­ment as­pir­ing artists dream of: a trip to Los An­ge­les for a few stu­dio ses­sions with Cole, who was work­ing with fel­low su­per­star Ri­hanna at the time. Still, she hes­i­tated.

“She was ex­cited, but at the same time, she was kind of mak­ing ex­cuses about her new job . . . I was kind of con­fused,” Hamad said, re­call­ing their ini­tial phone call.

“I didn’t [care] about that job,” 25-year-old Len­nox ad­mits. “Re­ally, it was the plane. I’m still get­ting over that. I get mad re­li­gious when I’m in the air be­cause it’s so su­per­nat­u­ral to me. It was my first flight in a long time.”

She wound up tak­ing a Grey­hound bus back to Char­lotte to avoid the stress of an­other plane ride. That gave her plenty of time to re­flect, but also worry. She felt that Cole didn’t seem ex­cited about her, and she was un­sure if she’d made the right im­pres­sion. Hamad was im­me­di­ately con­vinced, though.

“Those cou­ple of days in the stu­dio, see­ing her writ­ing and record­ing on the spot, I knew this is some­thing dif­fer­ent,” said Hamad. “This is true, raw tal­ent.”

Whether out of ne­ces­sity or by hap­pen­stance, many of the area’s artists ul­ti­mately leave to pound the pave­ment in New York City or Los An­ge­les. In R&B, es­pe­cially, the need to tie one­self to a place is vir­tu­ally nonex­is­tent; home towns are sim­ply foot­notes to big­ger sto­ries. Nev­er­the­less, Len­nox takes great pride in be­ing from Wash­ing­ton, a city that was home to singers such as Mya and Amerie, whom Len­nox cites as ma­jor in­flu­ences. She says it’s an honor to be from what she calls the “coolest city in Amer­ica,” cred­it­ing it for tough­en­ing her up.

D.C. “teaches you how to hus- tle. I re­mem­ber try­ing to be pop­u­lar as a singer here — it was so hard,” she says in the green room at U Street Mu­sic Hall. “I’d be at th­ese dif­fer­ent clubs pass­ing out my busi­ness cards and fliers. Then the club would end, the light would come on and all my busi­ness cards would be on the floor.”

The old “you never know who’s watch­ing” cliche has turned out to be a re­cur­ring theme in her life. It was the case for DJ Ko­mari, who met Len­nox when they were both stu­dents at Wil­son High School (one of sev­eral schools she at­tended). Be­fore he be­came her DJ, his ear­li­est me­mories of Len­nox were of her voice in their 11th-grade mu­sic class and of her and her fliers around the clubs. It was also the case when Dreamville rap­per Omen stum­bled upon her mu­sic via the In­ter­net.

Len­nox’s as­cen­sion is a tes­ta­ment to both per­se­ver­ance and the tan­gi­ble im­pact of tech­nol­ogy. In the mu­sic in­dus­try, the In­ter­net can be­come a real-life rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the tor­toise and the hare. Go­ing vi­ral yields im­me­di­ate re­sults — a fan base that rises ex­po­nen­tially within days and, in some cases, can re­sult in a record deal. But many artists who lean too heav­ily on that method find them­selves with short-lived fame; vi­ral isn’t al­ways vi­able. Con­versely, there’s sus­tain­abil­ity in the slow build. In this way, Len­nox has found a per­fect home with Dreamville.

J. Cole may be the quin­tes­sen­tial ex­am­ple of what or­ganic suc­cess in the In­ter­net era looks like. He re­leased a slew of mix tapes that even­tu­ally earned him a deal with Jay Z’s Roc Na­tion la­bel in 2010, and all four of his al­bums since have held the No. 1 spot on the Bill­board 200 chart.

Though still early in her ca­reer, Len­nox has fol­lowed a sim­i­lar path. She be­gan up­load­ing cov­ers to YouTube and, later, orig­i­nal songs to Sound­Cloud. Her cov­ers gar­nered some at­ten­tion, but not enough to book any se­ri­ous shows. In 2013, she re­leased her “Ari­og­ra­phy” EP — a seven-track show­case of her ma­jes­tic voice and can­did song­writ­ing. This EP even­tu­ally caught Omen’s ear and in­spired him to reach out for a col­lab­o­ra­tion that would lay the ground­work for her in­tro­duc­tion to Cole.

“At the end of the day, I was get­ting re­ally close to quit­ting,” Len­nox con­fesses. “I was start­ing to ac­cept that maybe I’m just go­ing to be a Sound­Cloud singer, and that’s when Dreamville came and saved me.”

That frank­ness con­veys through­out ev­ery facet of her pre­sen­ta­tion. Her on­stage and off­stage ap­pear­ance is ca­sual and nat­u­ral, though there’s an un­de­fin­able star qual­ity that makes her stand out in a room. She’s poised and grace­ful; the anx­i­ety she talks about is all but in­vis­i­ble to on­look­ers. Her aes­thetic is one that’s un­der­val­ued in an in­dus­try that prizes glammed-up ver­sions of a woman’s sex­u­al­ity.

“Peo­ple come in and tell them they have to look su­per-sexy or dress like this or dance like this,” Hamad says. “Some­times when peo­ple see that, they don’t rec­og­nize that. They don’t know that per­son. Those peo­ple are not in your ev­ery­day lives.”

Cer­tainly, re­lata­bil­ity plays a role in Len­nox’s draw. It feels easy to con­nect to her in mu­sic, and as she’s found her voice, she’s found the courage to be a bet­ter ver­sion of her­self. “There are other things about a woman that’s sexy, like her in­tel­lect, what she’s say­ing, the nat­u­ral beau­ti­ful coils that spring out of her hair, what she stands for.”

One of those things she stands for is unadul­ter­ated self-love and mak­ing mu­sic that re­flects that. Her “Pho” EP en­cap­su­lates the mul­ti­di­men­sional ex­pe­ri­ence of wom­an­hood in a lan­guage that al­ter­nates be­tween pro­fane and po­lit­i­cally cor­rect sen­su­al­ity. She’s found re­lief in the Dreamville method that en­cour­ages its artists to make the mu­sic they want to make and not the mu­sic that “works.” If a chart top­per is in the cards for Len­nox, it will be on her own terms.

“They in­still in us that the best feel­ing is mak­ing a song from your heart that just hap­pens to take off,” she says. “It’s the best feel­ing when you’re not try­ing too hard for it. It’s a bless­ing.”

D.C. “teaches you how to hus­tle. I re­mem­ber try­ing to be pop­u­lar as a singer here — it was so hard,” Ari Len­nox said dur­ing a stop in her home town to per­form at U Street Mu­sic Hall in Jan­uary, be­low.

PHO­TOS BY AN­DRE CHUNG FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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