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Ari Lennox - Shea Butter Baby Music Album Reviews

The debut album from the neo-soul singer-songwriter is driven by warm funk and soul and has the healing familiarity of hanging out on the couch commiserating with a best friend.

That sweet, warm, slightly nutty scent of shea butter; its aroma inseparable from memories of self-preservation, softness, and the kind of intimacy needed to recognize both. The effortlessly soothing Ari Lennox and her debut full-length Shea Butter Baby live up to the rich evocations of the title. The 12-song collection, driven by warm funk and soul, is at once wrenchingly intimate and sweetly playful. From slinky tracks about endless longing to hip-popping bops about unabashed desire, the album is a balm, elevating Lennox to the upper echelon of today’s neo-R&B and soul wave.

Shea Butter Baby comes nearly three years after Lennox signed with J. Cole’s label Dreamville and released her 2016 EP Pho. Including songs written across those first three years, the album presents lush, gogo-infused instrumentation as the backdrop to Lennox’s chronicles of life and love. Lyrical references points include buying cough drops at CVS, wearing Target (pronounced “Targét”) lingerie, and having bad luck on Tinder. “I just got a new apartment/I’m gon’ leave the floor wet/Walk around this bitch naked/And nobody can tell me shit,” she sings on “New Apartment,” a strutting tribute to domestic autonomy. Over a fat funk bass line and bouncy horns, she revels in the power to leave her hair in the shower or cartwheel inside her yet-to-be-furnished living room.

It gives way to one of the spoken interludes peppered throughout Shea Butter Baby, where Lennox’s voice is pitched up to a mousiness that, in Vine and YouTube fashion, pokes light fun at her words. Meanwhile, on “I Been” Lennox sings about smoking weed to forget a past lover, bringing an exhilarating quality to the velvety R&B track with playful vocals melodies that jump from high, heady notes to low ones from the chest and back again.

These moments of levity make the album’s intense sincerity that much more powerful, as on airy R&B song “Whipped Cream,” whose lyrics quickly slide from light distraction to something deeper: “I’ve been eating whipped cream/Having vivid dreams/Of your face and through people on TV screens/You’ve been everywhere/And I wish I didn’t care.” There’s a cool ease to Shea Butter Baby that stems from Lennox finding abundance in quotidian details. That clear-eyed look at millennial life makes the emotional heart of each song—whether it’s frustration, lust, or unrepentant joy—feel as tangible as the comforting clutter on your bedside table.

Though the album doesn’t really step outside of neo-soul conventions, it is nevertheless as stirring and lifting as a memory-triggering scent. Like the image Lennox conjures of shea butter staining a pillowcase, Shea Butter Baby grounds the spiritual sultriness of neo-soul and R&B in irreverent frankness, subverting the idea that the modern self-assured woman must maintain a divine facade. There’s power, she suggests, in celebrating the imperfect and slightly messy, rather than chunks of reality polished smooth. In that way, Lennox’s brand of neo-soul has the healing familiarity of hanging out on the couch commiserating with a best friend. Sometimes you don’t need an untouchable guide out of everyday angst and annoyances. Sometimes you just need someone in there with you.

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