It’s a few days before the Dreamville Festival -- the inaugural event hosted by J. Cole’s record label in the rapper’s native North Carolina -- and Ari Lennox, Dreamville’s sole female artist, is having mixed emotions. She’s eager to perform songs off her forthcoming debut album, Shea Butter Baby, but weighty issues are clouding her mind. She recently learned at one of her shows that a teenage fan of hers was shot dead days earlier. “It’s hard to be happy in a moment like this,” says the 28-year-old Lennox from her Atlanta apartment while her dog, an Akita named Galactic, barks in the background. “My people are being attacked, and our lives are constantly threatened and being taken away. It’s just not fair.”
Attending a predominantly white elementary school in Northern Virginia, the artsy, music-loving Lennox says that she was once blind to the tragic reality of “black men and women being senselessly killed” at increasingly alarming rates. “I feel like I was sheltered to some extent,” she says. But at age 12, after transferring between a slew of schools in the Washington, D.C., area, she met a more diverse group of friends. And once she started touring the South thanks to her burgeoning career, she was “shaken out of that ignorance.”
Now, Lennox takes comfort in knowing that she’s in a position of power to educate others, like her hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers, through her music -- a rhythmic mélange of funky, psychedelic, soul-inflected R&B that draws as much inspiration from throwback crooners like Minnie Riperton and Roberta Flack as 1990s icons like Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill. Lennox herself falls squarely within R&B’s new wave, alongside recent success stories like H.E.R., Amber Mark, Queen Naija and the duo VanJess. “I just pray I can bring this sort of music back to a more mainstream level,” says Lennox. “These vibes can heal a lot of people.”
Her lyrics depict a determined and decidedly self-empowered young woman, but she didn’t always feel like one. In 2012, Lennox started uploading covers of Frank Ocean and Bilal to YouTube, all while dreaming of a career like those of her favorite black artists, SWV and Beyoncé. In 2013, she released on SoundCloud her debut EP, the funky, neo-soul-inspired Ariography, which she recorded while living in New York and working at Whole Foods. That landed her a feature on Chicago-based Dreamville rapper Omen’s 2015 track, “Sweat It Out,” which in turn put her on the radar of Cole and his label partner, Ibrahim Hamad, prompting them to fly her to Los Angeles to write reference tracks for Rihanna. In December 2015, they offered her a record deal, and six months later, she was signed. “It wasn’t just my music,” says Lennox. “They accepted me for being strange and weird.”
Lennox’s second EP and first for the label, 2016’s Pho, earned her a spot opening for Cole on his 4 Your Eyez Only tour. When she wasn’t on the road, much of her time was spent recording in Charlotte, N.C., and Los Angeles, refining her sound with her most trusted collaborator, Dreamville’s in-house producer, Elite. With his guidance, she has released a handful of one-off singles, including, last November, her most promising track to date: the Cole-featuring “Shea Butter Baby,” which is making inroads at R&B radio (it could debut on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart in the coming weeks) and has garnered 32 million on-demand streams, according to Nielsen Music.
As the only non-rapper on Dreamville -- which inked a distribution deal with Interscope in 2014 and has been upfront about developing its artists’ catalogs rather than aiming for radio-friendly singles -- Lennox recognizes she’s in a fortunate position to be one of the label’s eight acts. And yet, for all her happiness with Dreamville, Lennox is frustrated that it’s going on three years since she was signed and her debut album still isn’t out. “Everything happens for a reason,” she says, “and I feel like it makes me stronger. But I’m also just like, ‘Yo, it’s time for this project to drop.’ ” (It’s currently scheduled for a May release.) Longtime manager Justin LaMotte insists the slow build is a strategic move. “R&B just takes some time to bubble,” he says, citing “Shea Butter Baby,” which has taken six months to arrive at radio. “Ari’s on a hip-hop label, but she doesn’t need to release music as rapidly as her labemates,” says LaMotte. “We can move at our own pace.”
“A lot of these songs I’ve been holding on to for a long time,” says Lennox. “I just want the world to hear them. And then, finally, I can exhale.”
Ibrahim Hamad (President, Dreamville Records)
His Role: As co-founder of Dreamville with J. Cole, Hamad signed Lennox to a record deal in late 2015 and serves as a liaison between her management and Interscope Records.
Early Attraction: “When I first met her in 2015, Ari wasn’t going with the norm for what R&B sounded like at the time. It all felt like it was completely her -- there was no acting or faking.”
Anthony “Elite” Parrino (In-House Producer, Dreamville Records)
His Role: Cole’s key collaborator, he worked extensively with Ruff Ryders during their early-2000s heyday and executive produced Lennox’s forthcoming debut.
Perfect Pair: “I’ll be making a beat while she’s playing a video game. I’ll hear her start singing some melodies, and I’ll push her to try recording it. All creatives need encouragement to accept their own greatness.”
Paris Cole (Creative Director/Stylist)
Her Role: Originally a fan of Lennox’s, Cole in mid-2017 became the singer’s go-to adviser on all things aesthetic, from outfits to music video treatments.
Style Evolution: “Ari is not big on name brands or trends; she just wants to be herself. It has been awesome to watch her blossom and grow from rocking jean shorts and tees to wearing all sorts of furs, dresses and funky earrings.”
Laura Carter (Marketing Director; Interscope Records)
Her Role: Carter oversees the entirety of Lennox’s marketing strategy at the major-label level, spearheading her album rollout.
Practicing Patience: “There is a bit of a long game you have to play in R&B. As Ari is developing and her story is coming out, we’re seeing momentum kick in. Older tracks, and those that came out as loose releases, are now getting the special attention they deserve.”