I’m only writing this article as an excuse to listen to this album on a loop. As if I wasn’t going to do that anyway. I first encountered Ari Lennox while she was opening for J. Cole on his 4 Your Eyez Only tour in November 2017. I don’t remember paying a whole lot of attention as she introduced herself (aside from noticing how blatantly attractive she was) until she started singing. I was completely transfixed for the entirety of her set even though I didn’t know a single song and I truly haven’t been able to look away since. Everything about this project sits right in the heart of all that is beautiful about jazz and blues. From the first trumpet note on its opening track Chicago Boy to Masego’s silky saxophone solos on Up Late, this album serves as an authentic homage to the genre. However, with how instrumental jazz can often get, the project ran the risk of not being relatable to the music scene at the moment. And yet, with Facetime blaring through the walls of my room as I type this, I’m certain that I haven’t felt this related to in a very long time.
Ari spends all 44 minutes of the LP saying everything she felt, when she felt like saying it, how she felt like saying it and all I could do was grin the entire time. Around 5 out of the 12 songs on the album either start or finish with a short but very ‘Ari-like’ rant on seemingly unrelated topics that range from needing to check if her garbanzo beans are cooked to realising how much she needs human interaction over materialistic things. These random frustration-filled outbursts are something her social media followers have come to know and love her for and as someone who has sat through one too many, they honestly made me feel like I was in the studio with her passing the blunt. At the end of Chicago Boy, a beautiful vocal entry to the project where she explains wanting a quickie before she’s got to hoe go catch a flight, she essentially dedicates the album to (black) women by telling all the niggas to get out because “it’s about to get disgusting.” The playful intimacy that runs throughout the 12 tracks serve as a way of making you feel like you’re chilling at a close friend’s new crib having one of those conversations that make absolutely no sense and all the sense in the world at the same time.
Before listening to this project, if someone had told me that almost every song would be as good as the album’s second single and title Shea Butter Baby or even its third single Up Late, I would have chuckled. As far as I’m concerned, both those songs are so good they don’t even feel real sometimes. But somehow every track manages to create its own individual experience. Although no song can technically be described as completely upbeat, BMO and New Apartment and are so carefree and breezy in tone- making you feel so light that you’ve got no choice but to get up and dance. Songs like Broke with JID, who demolished his verse effortlessly, have you bouncing your head rather forcefully for a track made up of some drums and a banjo(?) because the beat is just so fucking hard. And somehow, these hip-hop influenced tracks seamlessly blend into the soulful guitar or blues ballads dotted throughout the project. This album is completely littered with stunning vocal performances like Pop or Facetime or Speak to Me or any of the other 9 songs if we’re being frank.
Every single track belongs to the previous as much as the next and I truly haven’t felt this strongly about a musical body of work since SZA blessed us with CTRL back in 2017; an album that has spent over 100 weeks on the Billboard 200 charts might I add. And if you know me, you know how much of a big statement that is for me to make. But I mean it. Shea Butter Baby is so beautifully enchanting from lyricism and vocal performances right the way to curation without sounding pretentious or overdone in the slightest. Not only is this the album of the month, but it’s also the best album to drop in 2019 so far. And if I’m being honest, I don’t think it’s going to be topped.