Singer Len­nox has a voice as smooth as shea but­ter

The Morning Call - - HEALTH - By Mes­fin Fekadu

NEW YORK — Ari Len­nox was drunk on a plane as she headed to meet J. Cole for the first time in 2016 to work on mu­sic the rap­per had been putting to­gether for Ri­hanna.

“I still had baby vod­kas left from the plane,” Len­nox re­calls. “Def­i­nitely just throw­ing them back. It was scary.”

Cole had been lis­ten­ing to Len­nox’s mu­sic on SoundCloud for some time — slowly be­com­ing a fan of her soul­ful sound — and Ibrahim “Ib” Ha­mad, the rap star’s long­time man­ager and pres­i­dent of his la­bel, Dreamville Records, thought it would be a good idea to bring Len­nox along for the Rih Rih ses­sions.

“Even though (Cole) was very sweet and com­fort­ing and it was a gen­uine vibe, it was still scary. I was in a whole other world, ba­si­cally by my­self,” Len­nox said. But the Wash­ing­ton, D.C., na­tive was de­ter­mined to get signed. They be­gan work­ing on a song called “Face­time.”

Months later, Len­nox be­came the first lady of Dreamville, also home to J.I.D, Bas, Cozz, EarthGang, Lute and Omen, who orig­i­nally put Cole and Ib onto Len­nox’s mu­sic.

“Just see­ing her in that room, it wasn’t like she was star-struck or any­thing, she was just be­ing her­self, be­ing kind of shy; she knew she had to get to work in a sense,” Ib re­called. “That was some­thing that, for me, was enough to see that she did get along with the team. (I thought), ‘We should make a run at try­ing to sign her’ be­cause I got to see with my own eyes her go­ing at work and how sim­ple it was for her to come up with the melodies and just write on the spot.”

Three years later, “Face­time” — pro­duced by Cole — is one of the 12 songs that make up “Shea But­ter Baby,” Len­nox’s crit­i­cally ac­claimed full-length de­but, which was re­leased in May.

She’s been hard at work on the but­tery, smooth al­bum since 2016, craft­ing songs about love, men, grow­ing up and more with sharp vo­cals that range from Erykah Badu to jazz greats over soul­ful hip-hop beats.

The in-your-face “BMO,” which sam­ples Galt MacDer­mot’s “Space” — fa­mously sam­pled by Busta Rhymes for his 1996 de­but sin­gle “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check” — also came to Len­nox ef­fort­lessly.

“The way (the pro­ducer) flipped the beat to me gave me Missy El­liott (vibes),” she said. “I was hear­ing Missy. I was hear­ing To­tal. I was hear­ing Aaliyah.”

Len­nox counts singers like Whit­ney Hous­ton, Toni Brax­ton, Lau­ryn Hill, Badu and Brandy as in­flu­ences, and said when she was just 3 years old her grand­mother told her she had “the voice of an an­gel.”

“My other grandma said that I would write songs un­der her porch in North Carolina,” Len­nox said.

At 18, she pur­sued mu­sic se­ri­ously. She won a few com­pe­ti­tions on the pop­u­lar BET mu­sic video count­down show, “106 & Park,” and au­di­tioned for “Amer­i­can Idol.”

“None of that ever worked out,” she said.

She even au­di­tioned for Diddy’s band, which was doc­u­mented on MTV in 2009 as “Mak­ing His Band.”

“And I re­mem­ber they liked me a lot, they knew I stood out, but they just knew I wasn’t ready. I ap­pre­ci­ate that so much be­cause I feel like all of those no’s made room for the most beau­ti­ful yes — that was Dreamville,” she said.

Len­nox is cur­rently on tour with an­other break­out star, Lizzo, and said she’s grown tremen­dously in the three years since she flew out to see Cole for the first time.

“I feel like I’ve re­ally made them proud.”

CHRISTO­PHER SMITH/IN­VI­SION

Ari Len­nox re­leased “Shea But­ter Baby” in May.

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