Ari Lennox's got soul and she's not afraid to sing about love and how it's made. Before signing as the first lady of Dreamville Records, the 25 year-old Washington D.C. native sang some of the most raw and creative covers on YouTube. In her videos, she belts powerful, soft, and jazzy melodies from artists like Aaliyah, Bilal, and Tweet—offering a twist on each of the records while blending contemporary and classic sounds. In 2014, after releasing an EP called Ariology, Dreamville rapper Omen reached out to Lennox. The two released the song "Sweat It Out," which got the attention of Dreamville Records's head executives J. Cole and Ibrahim "IB" Hamad. In May 2015, she and Cole met for the first time and in December it was announced that Lennox was an official member of the label roster.
Her single "Backseat" was recorded before she met Cole and after he heard it, he got their labelmate Cozz to rap a verse on the remix and it took off. On the song, Lennox's riffs and smoky vocals fill up the track like steamy windows—bringing a sensual and fun edge to the DJ Grumble beat.
"I'm excited that a song I randomly threw on Soundcloud had gotten this far and I'm happy to see where it goes from here," Lennox told The FADER. "I wanted the video to just be fun and colorful, so we found a few locations in Atlanta and just went with it."
During a phone conversation last week, Lennox talked to The FADER about feeling empowered by writing liberating songs, early G.O.O.D. music's influence on her sound, and more about her upcoming EP titled Pho that drops October 21.
Tell me about "Backseat." How did that song come together?
Man, it was one of those things. When I heard the beat, I was like, "This joint is groovy!' I was like, What is happening in my life right now? and the words started flowing. I had no idea people would care. I put it on Soundcloud and people started liking it and I was like, Woah, this is getting a lot more attention than a lot of my other stuff, and it would make me angry! All the stuff that I was making before was so heartfelt and so pretty and I was wondering why it wasn't catching people's attention, and I still don't know why. I still want to re-introduce those songs into the world, but something about what I was saying and the groove of the beat and how I was singing it, people really started liking it.
I love Trina, and I love Lil Kim, but I guess I was scared because I didn't know if I wanted to be like a "Lil Kim of soul," per se. I felt like "Backseat" was that but then I was like, Man, fuck it! I'm being myself, this is what I'm going through. Certain things shouldn't be so taboo. You should talk about being free, and women should be able to express what they're going through. I'm so thankful for “Backseat” because it's doing so much. It's almost at two million listens on Spotify. It's changed my life. It was the song that Dreamville really pushed and they just really made it explode, and I'm just so thankful. I love it. It's a symbol of me being scared to take risks and then just saying, Fuck it, I'ma just be me.
What type of music did you grow up listening to? How did that impact you and your music?
My dad would always play Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Anita Baker, so I fell in love with them. I would try to make my voice sound like theirs. We had this Common album and a John Legend album, and I played it one day and fell in love. That also molded my sound and John Legend's Get Lifted—really his three albums were just everything to me. Kanye West, too.
So the G.O.O.D. Music kind of era, the beginnings of G.O.O.D. Music.
Most definitely. Through Kanye and Common, I was introduced to Bilal and—I already knew about D'Angelo, but I really dove deep into D'Angelo after getting hip to Common because he would do background vocals for Common. Thank god for Kanye! Kanye put me on to a lot of people! Twista, Keyshia Cole, I just loved them. And BJ the Chicago Kid!
Before you started putting out your recorded music, you gathered a really big following from your YouTube covers. What was the vision you had for your music?
During that time, I had just graduated from high school, and I noticed that everyone was going to college. Academically I was never that great and I was not really into school. I don’t know, I just really had a problem focusing but singing always came naturally. I was always in talent shows and things like that. I knew I wanted to sing and maybe I had a chance at it, so I just started recording myself maybe five or six times a week and putting them on YouTube as much as I could with hopes that someone would recognize me. That's how all of that started realizing, “Okay, what am I going to do with my life? I need to try to get recognized.'
Your voice has always been very mature and unique in the way you experiment with it. When you signed to Dreamville, how'd you want to use your sound?
I knew I had to try something different and evolve my sound, even with Ariography. I loved it but I still felt there was a ratchet-trap side of me missing on that project that I always wanted to incorporate. I always wanted to touch young people, people my age, people of all ages, but I felt like with this beautiful, pretty, soulful music, I wasn't able to penetrate a younger crowd. What I started doing was, I just got on Soundcloud, I was looking for producers and I found this guy named DJ Grumble. He had these dope, trap-sounding beats, but they were really, incredibly soulful. He was definitely sampling some of my favorite artists from the '70s and '60s. It was a match made in heaven and it naturally flowed together, I was able to talk about just everyday life of a 23-year-old with a soulful sound. I just knew I had to try something different. And it was a risk, but I'm always with that. Even now, with this type of music, I'm thinking about what other kinds of sounds I can include and add on to this sound, so I'm always thinking of ways I can include everyone while also being true to myself.
You've always created an intimate listening experience with your music. Would you say that that's still the case with the EP you'll be releasing this month?
I think it's still very intimate. Maybe not as intimate as the first EP, but I still think people can feel what I'm saying but in a different way. I'm not digging too deep in certain topics I went in on with Ariography. I think a lot of people will be able to relate to this because I'm just talking about everyday life, which is making love in the backseat of a car, or missing somebody, believing they were the greatest based on how much they showed you and appreciating it from what it was and growing from that. It's intimate, just in a straight-to-the-point type way.
What experience do you want people to have while they're listening to "Backseat" or the new music you're coming out with on the EP?
I want people to embrace who they are. I want women to embrace who they are and what they're feeling without being ashamed, no matter how anyone may judge or say. I want people to start embracing themselves, and that's all I really want. I want people to also be encouraged to dig deeper. If you hear a certain sample that you like—the whole joint is basically sampled, though DJ Grumble did his thing—research 'em! A lot of these come from really beautiful songs. I know in listening to Kanye West, I learned about so many dope songs and so many dope artists, like the Whatnots and even Marvin Gaye, diving deep into Marvin Gaye because of Kanye. Hopefully, I can do the same with this project.
As a woman, what's been the most empowering part about singing the type of music that you create?
I love my dad so much but he loves Whitney Houston and ever since I was little, he wanted me to be like a baby Whitney, but I knew that wasn't me. I think at some point, an artist realizes there's certain things they can do and there's certain things that they can't. Like, my voice wasn't created to do those strong, incredible ballads. This moment is me owning who I am. And honestly, I love vibing on a record and not doing too much and saving these big, incredible notes for singing live. I've been embracing being a lot more chill on the records, because people can listen to it and be like, "Okay, she's a good singer." But, I want people to know it's not a game—live? You're going to see.
There's so many levels, and I guess it's me learning. I'm not trying to give it all away with the EP. It's just chill, it's just fun for me. This is the perfect time for me to be sure and own who I am. I'm just so happy about that. I'm finally, for the first time, being myself. I've fucked with Dreamville because for the longest time, I thought I would have to do a top 40 pop hit to make it. You know, that techno-type sound. Dreamville, thank god for them, because they really help me realize to embrace who I am. The most beautiful thing is, if a song that you made from your soul happens to blow up, that's the best feeling ever, versus some cheesy, "I'm trying to make a hit" type record. It's a beautiful family and experience.