Singer Lennox has a voice as smooth as shea butter
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.”
Ari Lennox released “Shea Butter Baby” in May.