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.”
“There's an energy on ‘Facetime,’ like, I want to show him I can write something really fast and it's going to be great. It's going to be so good,” Lennox said.
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.
Lennox said creating most of the songs was easy. She came up with the Cole-featured title track while she was “putting shea butter in my hair and ruining my friend’s couch.”
“Because everybody knows how messy shea butter is,” she said, laughing.
“New Apartment” is about finally getting your own space and relishing in it, including freely walking around naked. She recalls having a crush on a friend while crafting “Up Late”: “It all just kind of flowed so easily because crushes can really encourage passion on a record.”
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.”
The song’s video elicited a response from Elliott, who tweeted that she rocks out to Lennox’s music. Bruno Mars blessed the video with a simple one-character tweet: the fire emoji.
“I’ve always wanted to find the right singer that could not only excite me and make me become a fan, but also could represent what we stand for as a brand and as a label,” Ib said. “I think Ari she has something so soulful about her that reminds you of the music we came up on, but she has a certain edginess and the writing style of today that I think connects to the kids and the young women of today, and the young men of today.”
Lennox counts singers like Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Lauryn Hill, Badu and Brandy as influences, and said when she was just three 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. “I remember watching `Apollo’ with my other grandma —I have so many grandmas — and seeing these young girls sing ... I knew in that moment that I wanted to sing.”
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.
Along with “Shea Butter Baby,” Lennox can also be heard on the Dreamville compilation album “Revenge of the Dreamers III,” which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s 200 albums chart in July and features the multiplatinum Cole hit, “Middle Child.”
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. I know it may come off cheesy, but if somebody's going to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars, even more into you, you want to make sure you can return that; you want to make sure they feel good about their investment,” she said. “Now I do feel OK being the first lady (of Dreamville) because I've shown them I can keep up. I can keep up with Cole.”