Ari Lennox paints a pretty real picture on her debut album Shea Butter Baby. On the 12-track LP (released on May 7 via Dreamville and Interscope Records), the soulful singer-songwriter basks in her unfiltered glory.
On “New Apartment,” she toasts to her grown-woman crib with a Dollar Tree wine glass. Switch to “Up Late” and she gifts her man a duplicate fob for easy access to her place, but also warns on “I Been” to reserve dating till you’re 43. Sprinkle in her Instagram Live quotables and this relatable heroine sings the songs tailormade for both the ordinary and extraordinary moments of growth.
Among the producers that lend their sounds to the album is Dreamville veteran, Elite, who has been rocking with J. Cole since they first met on an online Canibus forum in the early 2000s. Getting his start as a Ruff Ryders intern in Yonkers at 17 years old (his first placement was Drag-On’s “Fireman” on 2003’s The Cradle 2 The Grave album), the beatsmith born Anthony Parrino has become a trusted ear in Cole’s camp. After serving as executive producer for J. Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only, the Los Angeles-based, East Coast-bred producer took on the role again for Shea Butter Baby while helping produce a bulk of the album and balancing the vibes between modern R&B and nostalgic soul.
Elite recently hopped on the phone with Billboard to discuss the years-long process of creating Shea Butter Baby and Lennox’s starpower.
This album has been in the works for a long time. Do you remember what the album sounded like when you first started to work on it versus what it ended up becoming?
Yeah, for sure. Take a song like [the intro] “Chicago Boy.” That was just a four-bar loop. Now, there’s an intro with live horns that breaks down a couple of times. Creating the dynamics was the part that took some time, but also the decision-making process. Ari had to be sure of the songs she wanted [on the album] because she had so many. She had like 45 songs to pick from so that’s a daunting task, especially for your first album.
How did the skits come about?
We had some people from Dreamville go through all her clips. I think Cole might’ve had the idea to record all of her Instagram Live [videos] early on, because they were obviously just so good. Not that we knew we were going to use them for this, but we knew it was gold.
For “BMO,” Omen serves as a producer. Talk to me about working with him on the production side.
[“BMO”] really wasn’t even in contention for the album for a long time. Ari’s manager, Justin [LaMotte] asked Omen to send the file so we could work on it. Omen’s computer had actually died since, and he didn’t even have the files so he ended up remaking the beat. He got in with Ron [Gilmore] and Ron added some music. I came in at the last minute and helped them tweak some of the sounds.
Next up is “Broke” with Deputy, Christo, Ron G and yourself. So when a song has multiple producers, how do you make sure that your flavor still remains intact?
When you have a group of people on a song like this, you pick everyone’s ideas and it might be something small, but it’s something that enhances the song. That was really Christo who did that beat [for “Broke”]. But the other producers on there just added some sparkles or arrangements here and there.
Was J.I.D. always part of the song?
J.I.D. [came in] at the buzzer. We had everything mastered and done, and he turned in his verse at the very last minute. He knocked it out of the park.
What were you noticing about Ari’s songwriting as the album-making process progressed?
There are two things that always stuck out to me most. One is her craftsmanship. She can sing for real. She is not one of those singers who has to record something over and over again to get it right. She will go into the booth one time and it’s done. That coupled with the fact that her writing is so honest and transparent. I think that combination is what makes her special. When she’s writing her songs, she will tell you exactly what was going on yesterday in her life, no matter if it was embarrassing, silly or cool. There is no filter when she’s writing. I think that’s why people connect with her as a person.
What do you remember about creating Shea Butter Baby‘s title track?
We were at my place in L.A. and making a bunch of songs. It happened really quickly. I made the beat really fast. She came up with the song really fast. We recorded it. We looked at it like just another [song], and we sent it around to our team. People liked it as they like most of the stuff we send out. I remember playing it for the first couple of days and really liking it, but it disappeared and got lost in the shuffle for a while. Nobody really talked about it.
Then when we went back into the studio months later to revisit all the songs and see what was worthy [for the album], [“Shea Butter Baby” was one of] the songs that we played, and the whole studio was like, ‘What the hell is this?’ We were both pleasantly surprised because we forgot about this song. [Cole] really flipped out when he heard it, and he wanted to get on it.
At what point did that become the actual name of the album?
I’ll take credit for that. It was just a great phrase that one of our friends who works for Dreamville named Matty [P] used to call Ari or her fans on tour. I think that’s where the phrase came from. It got in her head and she put it into a lyric. She went through a bunch of different album titles, but this was the one that stuck.
What memories come to mind for “Speak to Me”?
We did that at Ron’s house. That was a very organic session, where we just created [the beat] from scratch. I did the drums and then Ron started playing the music and it was like a real true and organic collaboration. That was a pretty easy one.
We did some really cool stuff at the end of the song where we had [musician] Carlin White play some live drums into like a Latin groove at the end. We ended up keeping that little snippet at the end, which added so much to the experience of the album.
How did “New Apartment” come together?
That beat was really DJ Grumble. He produced a lot of the Pho EP for Ari. That [song] was one that Ari was super passionate about. Anytime it was questioned, she would vehemently disagree, like this has to make [the album]. I never personally fought it because I thought the writing was so special. It just took us a bit of work to bring it production-wise into her new sound because we wanted to make sure that everything sonically fit the album.
What was going through your mind as you were laying down the beat for “Whipped Cream”?
We were just messing around in Ari’s place in Raleigh and I was making the beat but it was in a whole different key and a different tempo. I changed the key and sped it up a little bit. I was about to close the session and she just started singing the melody of the song. We were both kind of ready to give up on that day but we pushed through and she recorded the whole song in one take.
What’s the story behind “Static”?
“Static” is my personal favorite just because I first heard the song at [Cole’s studio] The Shelter and made the beat real fast. The drum pattern is a little strange on that song because I really wasn’t even planning on keeping it like that. But before I could even finish making the beat, [Ari] was like, “I have it. I just want to record it.” She ended up singing that one all the way through as well. And when I first heard it played back, I got emotional. I felt goosebumps, and it was tugging at my emotions — so when that happens with the song, I always think it’s special, because I know if I feel that way, somebody else out there is going to feel that way.
What was special about executive producing this project?
The first time I was able to do that was with Cole’s 4 Your Eyez Only [album]. He gave me the trust to co-executive produce with him. With this [album]. it was a lot more on my plate, because Cole was working on other stuff. This was really my time to prove that I could do it.
What’s really special about it to me is the level of trust the artist has to have in you to let you work on their entire album, put it all together and know that you’re going to do what’s best for them at the end of the day… It’s the highest level of trust you can get in a producer-to-artist relationship. So that makes me feel like I really have to deliver and dedicate my life to this now. And that’s what I did.