Like most artists of today, Ari Lennox entered the music game uploading her music to the Internet. That was back in 2009. Over a decade later, she’s still holding our attention. Her sophomore album Age/Sex/Location and her EP Away Message are just the latest proof. Even without full, new projects, however, Ari has still been a presence.
Last year “Pressure,” her second studio album’s lead single, was inescapable. Its throwback feel fused with contemporary dating realities was just irresistible and just plain fun. That single, produced by Jermaine Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox, took her to new heights. “Pressure” is her first solo Billboard Hot 100 single and her first radio number one hit. For some, that single’s success was a surprise, but for Lennox she's more so surprised “at why songs like “BMO” and “Shea Butter Baby” didn't get as much love as “Pressure.”” Not that she’s complaining.
“I’m so grateful. “Pressure” changed my life so much. It’s been keeping me afloat because I mean I haven’t dropped an album since 2019.” On the strength of the hit single and, of course, the many songs from her debut album Shea Butter Baby and collaborations with other artists, Lennox was able to play many shows, including the Cincinnati Music Festival, which Janet Jackson headlined, back in July.
The singles “Hoodie,” “Queen Space,” and “POF” from her latest projects have already garnered airplay and attention. With Age/Sex/Location, she says there’s “a lot of pain, a lot of vulnerability.” On top of that, she says her songs also reflect her “just wanting [men] to stop playing with me. . . I guess I'm at a stage now where I don't want to keep even singing about that. So this is maybe my last time almost like begging [for answers]. I don't even want to ask why the next album. I see the red flags and I'm gone. Like that's the type of energy I'm feeling. Honestly, this is a part of me,” she says of her sophomore album “[where] I'm healing and, honestly, I'm going to get it out so that we can move on to the next.”
While things in her personal life may not be going as hoped, her career has continued to take off. Earlier this year, she became part of Coke Studio, a music initiative from the soda giant that included her re-imagining the group Queen’s classic song “A Kind of Magic.” For Lennox, it was an honor to be included in a global project with internationally-acclaimed artists like Tems.
“It was really cool being a part of something that Tems was a part of,” she says. “I felt really cool and special and grateful that they chose me to represent America. It was really sweet because I know I'm not maybe what somebody would typically think represents America.”
What she does absolutely represent for so many is the bridge of old soul to new, as well as a continuation of the neo-soul vibe or movement for which artists like Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and Maxwell, among others, are known. It’s a vibe she agrees songs like “Hoodie” capture.
“It's just so soulful,” she says of her buzzy single. “It's so 70s. It's so today.”
Being able to bottle that sound is something she credits to her favorite producer and best friend, Elite. “I love working with Elite because he knows how to really listen to me. He really hears me,” she explains. “He's like ‘okay, we're on a soul chill vibe, like I feel you, let me match your energy.’ He's just amazing.”
Participating in a Facebook Audio conversation with Erykah Badu and Saweetie last year she says really impacted her. “It was nice to be a part of it. I hope to surround myself more with high vibrational people like that,” she shares. “They [have] great energy. They seem like healers, honestly. Made me want to read some books on trauma and heal.”
Last year, she also made her acting debut playing herself in one episode in the Paramount+ reboot of The Game alongside Wendy Raquel Robinson’s Tasha Mack. “It was hard,” she says before adding, "I have an extreme respect for actors and actresses. Because a lot of those lines I didn't even know I was supposed to be saying lines until I got there, and I had to learn them real fast, and some things changed. And I realized, [for] a lot of actors, things change last minute, and your memory has to be on point. [It’s just] all of these things. And you're on set for long hours. There are so many rules that I didn't know about when it comes to the acting world. And it's hard. It's really freaking hard.
“So I totally respect actors and actresses on a whole ‘nother level … I had a baby role and I felt like ‘dang, this is a lot.’ I was very stressed because I wanted it to be right. It was my first TV appearance.”
And while she hopes it won’t be her last, music is still her happy place. Lennox admits that it helps her manage her mental health struggles. “I would probably be more depressed if I wasn’t creating music,” she says. “I can’t imagine having to do anything else. That is the one area in my life I feel like I have control.”
Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of Black American History For Dummies and editor of Cracking The Wire During Black Lives Matter.