When critics talk about musician Ari Lennox, they use words like "classic" and "timeless" to describe her soulful R&B sound. But it's been a long road to this recent breakout success.
After years of grinding independently by uploading her music online and working odd jobs like driving Uber, the 28-year-old became the first female signee to J. Cole's Dreamville label in 2015. With the release of her debut album, Shea Butter Baby, earlier this year, audiences are showing up and showing love for the other side of Lennox. That means frank songs about today's realities — from being broke or moving your first place to figuring out where you stand in relationships that aren't so clear cut.
Lennox's grandmother was one of the first people to recognize her talent, but even with that encouragement, the Washington, D.C. native says that she's always grown up feeling like an underdog.
"I always wanted to solo at the church and they didn't ever give it to me. But eventually they did and I froze. But then I killed it," she explains. "I just feel like that kind of just followed me all throughout my life. I've always kind of been slept on a bit."
Lennox says she grew up on the music of John Legend, Erykah Badu and D'Angelo just as much as Coldplay and Red Hot Chilli Peppers. This mix of cross-genre influences helped to shape her sound into something distinct in the R&B field. "I just wanted to sing like all of them and I think somehow like my voice kind of matured into this," she says.
It's Lennox's voice matched with vivid, relatable storytelling, like on the song "New Apartment," that connect with fans her age who are going through similar milestones.
'I think there's this narrative that the world just wants to hear about simple things or just extreme like sadness, 'Oh, I've just been broken up with' or something like that," she says. "I think that's why it's hard for people to realize, 'Oh I could talk about the fact that I had a dog once.' Those are some of the most beautiful songs ever."
It's still surreal to Lennox that she has fans all across the country singing her lyrics back to her on tour. She's happy that songs like "Static" and "Broke" are giving other people an outlet for their emotions and says she sees what her fans are getting out of her music.
"I think a lot of people just feel free," she says. "They feel like they're living their best college life or like their best independent grown woman life like experiencing their own place for the first time or just being able to relate to dating someone who doesn't have that much money and it's just like, 'Well, I don't care. I love you.' Or just rockin' their curls and knowing, like, it's beautiful and natural is beautiful."
Lennox spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about her ultimate goals for her music, Uber driver horror stories, her dreams of "retiring" in Washington, D.C. and more. Hear their conversation at the audio link.
Web editor Sidney Madden contributed to the digital version of this story.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
When critics talk about musician Ari Lennox, they use words like classic and timeless to describe her soulful R&B sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHIPPED CREAM")
ARI LENNOX: (Singing) I've been eating whipped cream, having vivid dreams of you through people on TV screens.
MARTIN: With the release of her debut album, "Shea Butter Baby," audiences are showing up and showing love for the other side of Ari Lennox, frank songs about today's realities - being broke, moving to a new apartment, figuring out where you stand in relationships that aren't so clear cut. And, oh, let's not even mention all the people who are fans on Instagram Live, where she holds forth on any number of subjects. For all these reasons, we're really pleased to welcome Ari Lennox. She's here with us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Welcome.
LENNOX: Hey, thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: And it's actually welcome home - right? - Because...
MARTIN: ...You are from this area - born in D.C., raised in Maryland and Virginia - the DMV, as we like to say. So what's it like to be back home now that you're blowing up like this? Can you go to, like, the CVS if you want to without being recognized?
LENNOX: Yeah. I definitely can go to the CVS. You know, sometimes people recognize me, sometimes they don't. But it's a beautiful feeling, and I just can't wait to move back eventually.
MARTIN: How did you start singing or how did you realize you could sing?
LENNOX: I don't know. I just was always singing. I didn't know if it was good or not, but my grandma, she told me that I sounded like an angel. And that maybe - perhaps that kept me going. I mean, I always wanted a solo at the church, and they didn't ever give it to me. But eventually they did, and I froze. But then I killed it. And I just feel like that kind of just followed me all throughout my life.
Like, I've always kind of been slept on a bit. And then I was finally given that opportunity to kill it. Like, even going to Duke Ellington School of the Arts, like, they slept on me. I think they thought I was talented, but for whatever reason, they didn't want to give me a lot of solos or any type of just love like that. But I don't know. I think that's what encouraged me to grind so hard.
MARTIN: Well, could it be that, in part, because your sound is a little different? Like, the president of your record label told Billboard that he signed you - you're with J. Cole's label, which seems like a good fit because he's also a storyteller like you are.
LENNOX: Yeah. Thank you.
MARTIN: But he said that your sound was not the norm for what R&B sounds like. And I'm wondering, you know, if the songs resonate with people because you talk about very relatable situations - like, for example, you have a song called "Broke" which is self-explanatory (laughter) and "New Apartment." It's about just what it sounds like - being able to afford your own apartment. And I just - I cannot resist, I have to play some of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW APARTMENT")
LENNOX: (Singing) I just got a new apartment. I'm going to leave the floor went. Walk around this b**** naked, and nobody can tell me s***. A girl just bought some lights for decoration. Ain't nobody cooking, nobody baking. Leaving my curls in the shower, and no more missing the hot water.
MARTIN: I can only imagine what inspired that song, but...
LENNOX: I never had an apartment before, so just finally having my own place. And it was magical. It was gorgeous - beautiful tub. I never could use the tub because I was afraid of the roaches.
LENNOX: So unfortunately there's always like pros and cons to that, but it was mine. And I loved it like it was my baby. And I still miss that apartment even though there is bug issues. I miss it.
MARTIN: Well, it made me wonder why there aren't more songs like that in R&B. I mean, R&B is very dominated by relationships - right? - sex, relationships songs. But it does - it did make me wonder, why aren't there more songs about other milestones in R&B? Like, why is that?
LENNOX: Well, first of all, I'm thankful that people love new apartments so much because I always feel like my comfort zone is writing about romance and sex. But I think there's this narrative that the world just wants to hear about simple things and - or just extreme, like, sadness. I've just been broken up with or something like that.
So yeah, I think that's why it's hard for people to realize, oh, I could talk about the fact that I had a dog once. You know, those are some of the most beautiful songs ever. You know what I mean? And I really appreciate this conversation because I - it makes me realize I should keep talking about other aspects of my life.
MARTIN: That must be interesting, like, because you've spent a lot of time - like a number of artists - you've had to really be on your grind. Like, I understand that you were an Uber driver. You worked at Wendy's. You worked at...
LENNOX: Planet Fitness.
MARTIN: ...Planet Fitness. That was an OK job, apparently, right?
LENNOX: Yeah, that was easy. Planet Fitness was the best job actually because I could do my little squats behind the desk. There was always time to just like mess around and just do whatever.
MARTIN: But Uber seems like that would offer a lot of storytelling possibilities.
LENNOX: Oh, my gosh, it did.
MARTIN: Do you think we'll find some of that in your songs at some point?
LENNOX: You are giving me my life because that is the next song. There is so many terrifying stories. Like, for instance, I was driving all the way into the middle of Weddington, N.C. And it was just deep in the South, and it was just really, really late. It was like 2:00 a.m. And I'm driving. I'm like, so, like, where's your house? And he's just like, oh, just keep going straight. Keep going straight. And it's all darkness and woods. And then I see a sign that says plantation, and I was like, nah, like, absolutely not. Like, what is this?
He was just like, just keep going straight. And there was no house. There was nothing. He was like just drop me off right here. Like, I get chills thinking about it. Like, there was nothing out there. Like - or I didn't see no house. Or I don't know what that was. But I was done driving that late - and also after being thrown up on like four times.
MARTIN: Oh, my goodness.
LENNOX: I was done.
MARTIN: Oh, my goodness. Well, you have certainly lived. You've packed quite a lot of living into these few years. You have a lot of material to...
MARTIN: There's another song I wanted to play. Let's play "Static."
LENNOX: "Static," yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STATIC")
LENNOX: (Singing) You're in control, love. Don't let the static drown us. You're in control, love. How good you are, I know, love. I can't get us ignored. Maybe I'm too cheap. Maybe I'm too broke for settling for your time eager needs, cliche HD. You're perfect for me.
MARTIN: Tell me a little bit more about this.
LENNOX: It's basically a letter to my anxiety disorder. Like, I've been struggling with anxiety since the summer before my senior year, a lot of in the hospital. And that feeling of the world closing in just never really stopped. So "Static" is like me basically talking about how you're in control. Like, even when I feel like I'm not, I am in control. And I will get this panic attack in order. Like, it'll subside. So...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STATIC")
LENNOX: (Singing) You're in control, love. How good you are, I know, love. I know, love.
MARTIN: I just feel like that - one of the reasons I'm glad we played that is it kind of distills for me what I hear people say about what makes your music special to them. Which it comes down to you're being very blunt and very real about the things that you've experienced, the things that you're going through, the things you feel. But what do you think people are responding to? When you get a chance to talk to your fans, what do they tell you?
LENNOX: I think a lot of people just feel free. Like, they feel like they're living their best college life or, like, their best independent grown woman life, like, experiencing their own place for the first time or just being able to relate to dating someone who doesn't have that much money or just rocking their curls and knowing, like, it's beautiful, and natural is beautiful.
MARTIN: Yeah, but you've been working so hard for this. Do you feel like you've gotten where you wanted to be?
LENNOX: Yes, but I want to get a little farther because here's the thing - a nice house in, like, Chevy Chase, D.C., is like over a million dollars. And then still you got to really, like, renovate that joint even at a mil. So fortunately but unfortunately I have to, like, save money for a million-dollar house because I really want to live in D.C. Do you think that's stupid?
MARTIN: No, of course not. No.
LENNOX: So I feel like I'm nowhere near my goal, basically, that's what I'm trying to say. I have a long way to go with this grind and stuff.
MARTIN: Well, we're glad because we want to hear yet more music from you. What are we going to go out on?
LENNOX: Oh, "Whipped Cream."
MARTIN: "Whipped Cream" - tell me about that.
LENNOX: It's my sweet little baby. It was my final goodbye to my ex. And, finally, like, I'm in a better place. It's like this haunting sweet baby of mine, "Whipped Cream."
MARTIN: All right. That is Ari Lennox. Her album, "Shea Butter Baby," is out now. She was kind of to join us in Washington, D.C., her hometown. She hopes to return. We hope she will.
LENNOX: Yeah, I will.
MARTIN: Thank you so much for talking with us.
LENNOX: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHIPPED CREAM")
LENNOX: (Singing) I've been eating whipped cream, having vivid dreams of your face through people on TV screens. You've been everywhere. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.