A lengthy campaign of feeler singles dominated Ari Lennox’s Spotify page between July 2018 and May 2019. After the respectable-yet-widely-unknown PHO EP in 2016, the team at Dreamville Records methodically surveyed Ari’s listeners as they dropped “Whipped Cream” before “40 Shades of Choke,” and the “Shea Butter Baby” (featuring her label’s founder, J. Cole) after “Grampa,” “No One” and “Pedigree.” Not all of these songs were album-ready, but once the weeding was finished, Shea Butter Baby was fully realized. Was all the half-stepping worth it? At an incredible rate of consistency, it absolutely was.
Ari Lennox’s development into a triple-threat of sharp songwriting, dynamic pipes and down-to-earth charisma isn’t something everyone saw coming. In fact, Ari’s lack of catalog had her pigeonholed as more of a prospective talent with a marquee cosign (in the form of her record deal) than a proven voice with hit songs and a unique personality. Well, the coming out party is here. Shea Butter Baby is an utter artistic success and Lennox has given reason after reason to elevate her above the second-class of R&B talents.
SBB reveals Ari’s uncanny skill to draw inspiration from the places others seldom look: right in front of their faces. Life’s simplest pleasures and miseries dominate the album thematically. Not only does “New Apartment” humorously list off her newfound freedoms from adjusting to a roommate-free situation, it vividly depicts the unfurnished home as well as the impending loneliness that soon comes after her bliss has resided. Person, place, thing, emotion, lesson, wash, rinse, repeat. The subject matter that manifests the song gains much of its power from its relatability.
The album’s best moments are plentiful, but a few show-stopping moments come to mind ahead of others: the first being the sax-laden “Up Late,” featuring an intimate, smoky, open-mic atmosphere that paints Ari as the pearl necklace, fur coat-wearing knockout that will make a man’s heart cartoonishly pump out of his chest. Brand name saxophonist Masego backs Ari as she delivers her most vivid performance.
The instantaneous and head-nod inducing “BMO” (Break Me Off) sees Ari’s man-eating attitude rise to a fever pitch, as does “Chicago Boy.” “BMO” specifically though, kicks the album into a realm of catchiness that goes unmatched as the record progresses.
Lastly, “Pop” is the most emotionally convincing (as well as explicit) moment here by a mile. Similar to “Up Late,” Ari sits center stage in a vacuum. Accompanied by only an acoustic guitar, she details exactly the kind of emotional commitment she needs to discharge her sexual inhibitions. As far as performances on the album go, it’s hard to say this isn’t the moment that wins all the marbles.
Guest verses from label affiliates JID (“Broke”) and J. Cole (“Shea Butter Baby)” are well placed and potent. “I Been” is the singular weak link in the track list; while still listenable it reaches a tedious and innocuous pace pretty quickly. Considering how rare a lull it is, listen after listen, fans should enjoy just how all-purpose this album can be.
Shea Butter Baby is a breath of fresh air for those who’ve held their breath since SZA’s CTRL, Anderson .Paak’s Malibu/Ventura, Miguel’s Wildheart/War & Leisure and Kali Uchis’ Isolation. Ari Lennox has proven herself to be just as gifted, consistent and entertaining as the aforementioned albums with this perfectly well-rounded debut record.
In an R&B genre sparse with heavy hitting singers releasing music on a consistent basis, an album like this should and will be remembered for years to come.