Ravyn Lenae’s voice is known for being gentle – but never as quiet as it’s been over the last four years.
This week is different. The 23-year-old behind some of the stickiest grown-up R&B lullabies of today is, for the first time in a long time, fielding a few questions about her music, following a period of being less active online (and moving further away from her homebase of Chicago, after a mid-pandemic relocation to Los Angeles). Her camera remains off on a video call with Billboard as she gets her hair done for an in-the-making documentary – one made up of VHS camera footage she recorded herself on the road to her still-to-come debut album.
“I don’t think of it as like, ‘Oh, this is her first project,’” Lenae says. “I think of it as more of a refreshing, renewing feeling of ‘this is me for the first time.”
Sometimes, for the long-awaited LP – to be titled Hypnos and expected on Friday (May 20) – introducing herself meant re-recording songs 10 or 20 times with producers like Grammy-nominated Steve Lacy or Chicago beatsmith Monte Booker (Smino, Saba). Other times, it meant learning to stop fixating on if fans would even be receptive to a comeback. “After not releasing for four years, as humans, we have those feelings of ‘Man, I hope people still care, I hope people are still in tune, and that they’ll still be excited about what I’m releasing,’” Lenae says. “And making sure that regardless of the reception, that I feel that I paced myself naturally.”
But a return was inevitable, and it’s all that more magical with Hypnos; a commanding collection of 14 songs that serves as a product of all of the self-realization that went on in Lenae’s world as she stepped aside. Led by the Lacy-charged lead single “Skin Tight,” a vibey playground for Lenae’s layered vocals and a proper point-of-return after Lacy’s executive-produced Crush EP in 2018, the album is a promise that patience, in fact, pays off.
“This feels like me stepping out as my fully-loaded self, if that makes sense,” Lenae says. “I feel like I’ve been pending over the last couple years, and now I feel whole and very secure in myself and the music. It’s a coming-out project for me, where people don’t have to guess about me anymore. I’m putting my stamp on the industry.”
Watching Lanae’s career unfold since her 2015 debut EP Moon Shoes or her 2016 signing with Atlantic Records at just 17 years old, it’s understandable why the title Hypnos would work for her debut. That’s just how her music feels, and has always felt: hypnotic, a spinning black-and-white wheel disguised as a discography. To her, a full-length release felt like the right time to pay homage to that. As Ravyn explains, the album – with a name inspired by the Greek God of Sleep – feels like a “cosmic journey,” one from a voice that collaborators have heard nothing like before.
“Let’s state the obvious,” Lacy tells Billboard. “Her f–king voice is otherworldly. Ravyn’s melodic approach and harmonies demand attention. You know it’s her when you hear it. I think I gravitate towards those kinds of artists. You could only go to Ravyn for what she does.”
While putting listeners into a trance and doing it in a way that only she can is Ravyn’s MO at this point, she attributes much of that to her upbringing around classical music studies and falling in love with albums like Destiny Fulfilled by Destiny’s Child (“My mom ran it so much over and over and over, I can tell you what song comes after the next one, the entire album”). Even as far back as her earliest material in the mid-2010s, Ravyn’s pipes have been compared to those of upper-register icons like Minnie Ripperton or Janet Jackson.
Lenae tells Billboard, with “full transparency,” that she doesn’t listen to those projects that put her on the map like Moon Shoes or 2017’s Midnight Moonlight anymore. She simply prefers to only think back to when she was freshly signed, being driven to and from the studio by her ride-or-die production partner Booker, and just figuring it all out with her small musical community in Chi-town, which she’s still very much connected to even after a 2020 cross-country move. “With time, things become more complicated and more chaotic,” says Lenae. “And it becomes more of a business and stuff. But I try to relive those moments and remember, like, ‘Why did I do this?’”
Booker – who produced the near-entirety of those first two breakout EPs, and was part of the Zero Fatigue collective alongside Lenae and Smino – says he helped Ravyn finesse some studio time back in the day. Even when Ravyn was as young as 14, Booker knew they’d be making “amazing” music together in Chicago.
“I feel like a lot of artists, when they become successful at such an early age, they feel like, ‘Oh I gotta rush through everything.’ But Ravyn is just a master at taking her time,” Booker, who helped piece together five songs on Hypnos, explains. “Ravyn’s still so young. Every single year, she’s just getting 10 times better. It’s kind of scary, the growth and progression from when I met Ravyn til now. The lyrics are different, her beat selection is different, she wants different types of s–t for the music. So everything has to grow up.”
While looking back may keep her grounded, Ravyn seems far more ecstatic talking about Hypnos, a debut that feels like a career in the making. The 16-track album features production from Booker, Lacy, Kaytranada, and Luke Titus and features from fellow alt-R&B and hip-hop travelers in Fousheé and Mereba, Chicago’s very own Smino, and of course, Lacy on the lead single. After experiencing changes in relationships – particularly navigating long-distance familial bonds after her 2020 move – you can hear Lenae’s self-reflection on chilling charmers like “Inside Out,” and soft bop “Where I’m From.” And of course, there’s no shortage of delicate love songs like “Skin Tight,” or goosebumps-inducing highlights like Booker’s personal favorite, “Lullabye.”
Lacy, the Internet bassist and DIY superstar whose evolution Lenae has witnessed since they first collaborated in 2018, takes a bit of a backseat on her current project in comparison to Crush. But he still has an impressive six songs on the LP, and Lenae sees him as her “musical twin flame” for a reason. Lacy feels the same.
“I think our chemistry is so special,” he explains. “There’s a level of trust that we both have with each other when it comes to experimenting with new sounds and melody approaches. I think we both bring out something different in each other. it’s always super fresh and fun, and that’s a feeling we both love and strive for when making new music: fresh and fun.”
Their joint vision for the very fresh and very fun “Skin Tight” came to them as Lacy was working on his own upcoming sophomore album, Lenae explains. The two tinkered with the instrumental for the single in the past, but it didn’t necessarily feel complete yet. Then, when she hit the studio to see what he’d been chopping up for his own record, the song resurfaced. That’s when Lacy came up with the song’s refrain “Hold me while you can,” which Lenae sees as a tender moment.
“He was like, ‘You remember this? I have been working on it,’” she shares. “It felt really sing-songy and I felt like I needed that on the project, something easy to remember, easy to catch on to. My favorite songs have those elements of just being simple, memorable.”
Just like the lead single, the rest of the album had to sit with Ravyn for some time. Some songs were products of past sessions – like “Light Me Up,” a track she admits to making 10 different times after it was initially intended for her Crush EP. She often treated Hypnos like an ongoing challenge, singing her new songs in everyday settings to see how they felt, adding elements along the way, and really “living with” the album she’d soon call her debut. It’s a process that’s taught her the value of dedication and, again, patience (“I’ve had a million moments where I thought I was done”). And it’s one that’s brought her closer to an LP that Lacy calls a “mature and grown and sexy” jump from her last effort.
“Even before I started working on the project, I wanted these recordings to feel like I knew the song,” Ravyn said. “With my old work, I can hear that I wrote these songs the day before and recorded them the next day, and that was it – versus living with them for a long time, being able to live with it and sing it in the shower, and sing it in the grocery store. Just being able to familiarize myself with the song was so crucial in making sure these songs felt like I knew them.”
Booker saw that process firsthand, and as he explains, it didn’t matter how close producers thought they were to completing the song – because “if Ravyn didn’t f–k with it, nah we gotta take it back to the drawing board.”
“Most producers, in the situation of working with Ravyn, might be overwhelmed,” he continues. “She challenges herself, and she’s gonna challenge you as a producer. If you’re patient, you can use it as growth for yourself as well. It’s a gift [she has], to be honest.”
These types of studio requests took time for Ravyn to be comfortable making over the last few years. On the road to Hypnos, she said she’s realized how to depend on her own instincts in an industry full of men, especially male collaborators, just a bit more. “As a young woman in the industry, and I started out so young, I have this bad habit of depending on other people and on their opinions and working with so many men who you almost rely on their opinion and not really being secure in how I feel about certain things,” she says. “Toward the end, I started to really stand firm in who I am and know that there is no ‘Ravyn Lenae’ without me. And all of these other pieces contribute to my sound and who I am, but I am the center of all of that.”
With “a million songs and a million renditions of them and a million ways to tracklist it,” there’s no clear-cut way to organize a debut album, but Lenae has looked to some of her favorite LPs – such as Brandy’s Full Moon, whose influence you can hear on the glimmery vocal layerings throughout – as examples of how to approach it. On the album, Lenae was able to tap into sounds she never thought too much about before, like channeling a lower register on “Light Me Up,” with the help of Brandy’s blueprint.
“[Full Moon] feels like a movie, it feels like a world and I knew from the beginning that I wanted it to feel like a stamp in time where nothing else sounds like that,” she shares. “The way she plays with melody has always been a big thing for me. So definitely with Brandy, Janet, I’m inspired by just the essence of the soft vocals, but on really wonky, weird beats.”
Luke Titus, who was initially part of Lenae’s live band and is now responsible for producing 10 tracks on the LP, shares that – even with inspiration coming from some of the greats – the singer has “transcended into a new and evolved version of herself” on Hypnos.
“She has a very distinct vision for what she wants to do musically,” Titus said. “It was really cool to be able to take notes and direction from her in order to make her songs come to life. She truly is a director in the studio and I think you can tell when listening to the music that she had a lot to do with the arranging, orchestration and instrumentation on every song. Not to mention everything she writes sounds incredible.”
Lenae’s debut LP wraps without a proper resolution, thanks to album closer “Wish,” where the song’s chords leave listeners with no “answer” or grand finale of the project. “So you still have that uneasy feeling towards the end of like, ‘Oh, this page isn’t done yet,’ in a way,” she says. “I really love that.”
This page is far from turned for Lenae. With the album arriving this week (May 20) and a documentary – partly inspired by Netflix’s Kanye West-centered jeen-yuhs – soon to come, the singer-songwriter’s silent period is coming to an end, as she sounds more secure in herself than ever before.
“I think we can be the hardest on ourselves, and we project a lot of things on ourselves that other people may not be thinking,” Lenae shares. “And there were definitely times where I felt the pressure of ‘Maybe I should just put this out, you know, it’s been too long. People need to remember,’ you know. But I think it’s important to hold those values of ‘this will come out when it feels right when I feel good about it.’ And the time in between won’t even matter.”