By Virginia Lowman
Ari Lennox’s Shea Butter Baby is both old school and quintessentially modern. An amalgamation of funk, R&B, and jazz that’s rooted in soul, the Dreamville songstress’s debut album is an ode to Blackness and connectivity, acknowledging oppression and the anxiety, financial constraints, and loss of freedom that accompany it. It is, above all, a celebration of the Black female experience, showing how connection and sexuality — at times explored through the contemporary lens of online dating — are means of self-preservation. There is magic in its honesty; Lennox offers a diaristic account of liberation, survival, and self-care — something to champion.
The most notable quality of the opening track “Chicago Boy” is its musicality. Jazz trumpeter Theo Croker’s instrumental mastery crescendos over the strum of a harp, yielding a sound — equally nostalgic, dreamlike, and warm — reminiscent of James Baldwin’s Harlem and the bluesy Chicago melancholy of Sam Cook. It’s a nod to records grown folks play late at night — music that comes with questions pointed at younger generations like, “What’chu know about [insert artist here]?” Just when you think you’ve got “Chicago Boy” figured out, Lennox switches it up by adding bass and making the song more up-tempo, more current, and more cut-for-you by bellowing out a story of happening upon a love affair at CVS.
Said listen, baby, I know that I’m speeding up this vibe
Is you gon’ judge me if I fuck you before I catch this flight?
I need you now
Boy, I don’t want to get your feelings broke
It is a straight-forward anthem encouraging women to make their own rules, ask for what they want, and take their pleasure seriously, a primary theme Lennox addresses throughout the album: sex — wanting it, having it, and talking about it frankly. Subsequently, it is also a nod to male fragility and the notion that men, too, are subject to emotional attachment pre and/or post-coitus.
While the raw instrumentation of Shea Butter Baby confirms Lennox as a standout in the modern resurgence of neo-soul that happened this year — pushed forward by Snoh Allegra and Daniel Caesar, to name a few — its message of confidence when owning your sexuality, pleasure, and peace elevates the album beyond musical complexity. Lennox champions radical self-acceptance through affirmations and hard truths. Celebrating brown skin as a “pretty thing” in “Broke,” and acknowledging the damage of emotional abuse in “I Been,” cautioning listeners not to place romantic love over self-love, because people “develop whole disorders like that.” The album approaches sex and human connection as therapy, showcasing intimacy both for pleasure and escape, each framed as an act of survival while also embracing the notion that we “need people,” as she notes on “New Apartment.”
As the album progresses, Lennox taps into the sense of brazen audacity that is woven throughout great art — a relentless pride in presence, a trait evident in everything from her decision to structure the tracklist by hair texture (1a-4c) to the intentionality of the color palettes in her music videos. Shea feels like the sonic equivalent of Simone Leigh’s “Brick House,” a project that, coincidentally, honors Black culture past and present and is aptly named after the Commodores’ 1960s hit of the same name. Like “Brick House,” the album is bold, textured, vulnerably human, and unapologetically Black. A quasi-coming-of-age project, each track is a snapshot of Lennox’s life cataloging the inevitable undoing and redoing of the self that defines early adulthood, often pointing at the ways we question social norms and how we choose to move through the world.
Tracks like “Broke” and “Up Late” further expound upon Ari’s desire to push the boundaries of what women are expected to do or say. Whether she’s packing her own “gloves” (condoms) and praising relationships that thrive on simple provisions — passion and “smoke” (weed) — in “Broke,” or reminding us that pricy accoutrement aren’t needed to satisfy a partner in “Up Late,” she continuously impresses that it is OK to play by your own rules. In a culture where everything is staged to maximize ‘Gramability, it is refreshing to hear music about attraction that doesn’t rely on filters and social status.
Additionally, as the only woman signed to J. Cole’s Dreamville, Lennox releasing an album that promotes independence and sexual freedom accompanied by visuals that don’t objectify the Black body is a powerful testament to how Ari hopes to position herself in the entertainment industry, especially in an era when Black creatives are striving to have honus over their bodies and their image. Sex and intimacy in the scope of Blackness in American media and music at large are often overlooked, stereotyped, fetishized, and/or anchored in themes that promote the issue of colorism. Warm color palettes and natural curls are staples in Lennox’s videos. Equally sultry and elegant, her visuals exalt Blackness and rich-hued skin through subtle nods to videos of yore as seen in “BMO,” and close-up shots of intimate moments as portrayed in “Whipped Cream,” “Up Late,” and “Shea Butter Baby.” Each video Ari released presents Blackness — from our men and the tender moments we share to carnal pleasure and the texture of our hair — as something to be treasured, presenting our softness, frustrations, whispered conversations, and fantasies in an exhilarating glow.
Given the history and social framework of America, Blackness has always had roots in what some call rebellion; ultimately, the nucleus of Black expression is survival, part of which includes prioritizing self-love and -care above all else. Shea relays this message throughout under the guise of being an album about sex with the lights on, but the album’s title track, released as a single in the hit feature film Creed II, speaks to this directly. It is a grown-up lullaby glorifying staples of Black womanhood — the sometimes messiness of our hair-care routines, the rich hues and coconut oil scent of our skin, the “holiness” of our sex, and the curves of our hips. The song’s power stems from the confidence with which Ari sings about occupying space that is not her own. She feels comfort in making herself seen and remembered by “fuckin’ up” pillows and sheets with her shea butter-coated skin and hair. Joined by J. Cole, she reclaims Black feminine sexuality on her own terms, presenting a lush landscape that gives women of color with coiled strands that require butters and Denman brushes — women who sleep with bonnets and two-strand twists — space to not only be seen and desired but revered.
At its core, Shea Butter Baby is about connection and learning to navigate love and human behavior without compromising a sense of self. The album concludes with an affirmation: “You’re in control, love.” A gentle and much-needed reminder that in the chaotic search for a kind of home in people, places, and things, you’re still in the driver’s seat and you aren’t on the road alone.
Find all of MTV News's 2019 Albums of the Year right here.