You are always one decision away from fulfilling your dream. Ari Lennox struck us with her buttery smooth debut album, ‘Shea Butter Baby,’ earlier in May and ever since then nothing has been the same for Dreamville’s leading lady. To imagine we wouldn’t be here, today, in this room, at the Electric Ballroom witnessing her true talent if she had looked in another direction. Soulful, endearing and risqué, Ari Lennox rocked the house with a performance that will forever be etched in hearts and heads with her first London concert.
It had been a while since I had last been at the Electric Ballroom so the journey en route was quite a tense one. On a chilly evening in December the last thing you will want to do is spend your night navigating through these north west London streets. “Is this what the three wise men had to go through on Christmas Eve,” I mutter to myself. But once I catch a glimpse of a young couple wearing trendy clothing, I instantly knew I was on the right path. Walking pass a swarm of different people, short and tall, light and dark, all young and old, it had dawned on me that we were about to witness the magic that is the Shea Butter Baby tour several months after its inception.
Strolling in the middle of Arin Ray’s opening set, the Cincinnati R&B singer had the majority of the crowd enamoured by his feathery vocals. Soon the ‘ayyy’ crowd would arrive, spurring on the singer with screams from the ground level. The venue was already rammed pack with bodies sealed together like frozen meat in a freezer. It is at times like this you realise having a 6 foot frame at a Ari Lennox show is overrated. From a higher vantage point, besotted screams rung across the venue as Ray whacked off his shirt to tons of adoring eyes. Submerged under deep blue projections, he serenaded the crowd with his stripped-down rendition of Outkast’s ‘Prototype,’ in authentic R&B fashion. Motioning his body like a carless D’Angelo with the unshakeable swagger of Prince, he signed-off with the popular song ‘Reckless’ and an energetic solo showing of the Kehlani-assisted ‘Change.’
In the lead up to the big moment, multiple conversations ensued and drowned out the speakers, underwhelming it with chatter amongst friends. Waiting for the events to unfold, I overhear a bunch of women arguing over their position. “How am I going to see her from here, if she moves her shoulders, I’m pissed.”
The atmosphere was buzzing and although Ari Lennox wasn’t on the stage, the crowd was clearly anticipating the big moment. In 2012, Lennox was sat up on YouTube belting covers of pop songs with an intricate twist as ravishing as the twists on her crown. Now, at the end of the decade, she closes out her majestic journey on her high horse; from ‘Pho’ to ‘Shea Butter Baby’, from early afternoon bedroom recordings to stage shows in front of a 1,500 capacity crowd. To conclude, it was a big moment that both Ari Lennox and her fans shared in, something like a ritual.
On further inspection, the stage was undergoing a rework and in the large sea of bodies below, there was a bunch of beautiful Black women. A variety of hairstyles from haircuts dyed in bright shades, luscious box-braids, and even an odd quiff was in sight. Yes, some men enjoy listening to Ari Lennox, too. Although, if you take a glance at her album cover it will certainly remind you who really was the intended audience. Blackness is not monolithic and the many women, and men, in attendance confirmed this. The stage set-up punctuated the latter, in the distance with three large shelves standing abreast of each other, all of which contained black head models perched up. The wigs on display showed different hairstyles and textures, some straight, some curly and others kinky. The lights dimmed and voices flew up to the roof in hopes of catching Ari in sight, but it was a false alarm. Without the singer in sight, the screams morphed into premature groans.
Take two. The lights flickered on and with her band at their stations, there was no doubt we wouldn’t catch her this time. Ari Lennox strolled on stage in a giant white fur coat and into the warm embrace of her fans. Initiating the Shea Butter Baby experience in truly stunning fashion with album opener ‘Chicago Boy.’ Angelic harps and horns siphoned by drowsy drum beats, her white coat sunk and her voice ascended in a sensual swooping pattern. The candid storyteller continued her love saga on the J.I.D assisted ‘Broke,’ recounting her history, loving on a budget.
Declaring this moment as possibly one of the best days of her life, the crowed beckoned for more to which she obliged. Thankfully, Ari Lennox played her cards right by rolling out ‘Whipped Cream.’ At this point the crowd had cooled down, possibly to take in Ari’s classy vocal display as she sung about her post-break up blues. As she lightly sung into the mic, waving her hands with the subtlety of Aretha Franklin, it felt like she was mending broken hearts. It’s one thing to enjoy music in your comfort zone, but witnessing it at a show is to live through the body of work. And so did her fans, whose voices erupted at the bridge, “your deceivin’, receivin’, non-givin’ headass,” they sang in solidarity. ‘Shea Butter Baby’ is more than an enjoyable listen, it is an oeuvre shredding the taboo of sexuality and empowering Black womanhood at once through that raw conversation.
As the first lady of Dreamville, Ari Lennox had to pioneer her own path in a label occupied by a fleet of rap talent. In 2016, she dropped her first studio project ‘PHO,’ named after a Vietnamese meal her ex put her onto, and cracked the industry seal. Loaded with R&B dynamism, but cloaked under the erotic veil of Neo-Soul, although it was not Thursday, we ended up going down memory lane. Hitching a late ‘Night Drive’ as her band worked up a delightful jam session, halting for a brief moment and picking up again on the funk-led ‘GOAT’. Ari Lennox didn’t need no backing on the night, her 1,000+ strong army had her covered singing the lyrics with glee.
In the absence of your lover, FaceTime is the remedy for maintaining a healthy tie between couples. Ari Lennox questioned the crowd and asked if they had ever been in a long-distance relationship. With some of the crowd members naming cities their other half inhabited, New York was the common answer. An audience member triggered confusion amongst onlookers by answering with London. Proceeding to perform ‘Facetime’ — produced by Craig Brockman & J. Cole — a good number of couples linked together in loving embraces swaying sideways in rhythm to the scintillating synths. Lovers were out in the vicinity, flying the flag for romance innocently like brand ambassadors. Transitioning into the jazzy textures of ‘Up Late,’ Ari Lennox orchestrated a stirring performance over soul snatching saxophone blasts. On the segue into ‘Speak To Me’ the tropical drum play sunk lightly and swivelled into my ear drums, stroking it with warm vibrations. “Y’all sound good. You want to come on tour with me?” she asked spectators, with the crowd happily obliging, Ari jokingly responded “Sorry, well, it’s almost over.”
It was considerably cold outside, but the atmosphere indoors was the polar opposite. Kicking off the next round of songs, Ari Lennox began with the celebratory ‘New Apartment,’ which served as a smooth segue into the rap sung ‘Backseat.’ The songstress in her red sequin dress twisted her body in a slow, enthralling whine that would have easily given Jessica Rabbit a run for her money. The night was approaching its end and the crowd maintained the same energy from the beginning of the night.
In a moment of honour for the women in the building, the queen would cast her shea butter babies in the limelight and show her appreciation. Handing out praises to the Black women with 3A – 4C hair textures, any suspecting Ari Lennox fan could anticipate where this was heading. Sultry guitar strings casted the crowd into an excited frenzy and tender drum strokes would signal the arrival of the self-titled single ‘Shea Butter Baby.’ It was a glorious moment for the singer who lead her mass choir who sang in unison, while Taylor, her guitarist, rocked the house down with an electrifying guitar solo. Bringing the show to a subtle end, plenty of faces in the crowd wore smiles as she introduced her band members before signing out…but something didn’t feel right.
The red lights shot back up as Ari sashayed back on stage and shocked guests with a show stopping performance of ‘BMO.’ The sensual, seductive bass shudders submerged into the high pitch guitar squeals is the perfect union. It was written in the faces of many elated women which were dotted with pure joy, who snapped at the arrival of the fiery hook. The Electric Ballroom became a dance floor in which womanhood was celebrated, a sanctuary where Black women could bathe in euphoria and co-exist in their own fantasy world. Ending the show on an undeniable high, Ari Lennox waved goodbye to her fans and took off as we reached the peak of the night.
‘Shea Butter Baby’ encompasses friendship, empowerment and sexuality with forthrightness that is aptly comforting. There’s no doubt that Ari Lennox will be held in high regards amongst her fans following tonight’s magical experience. Her music is well-rounded, carrying the wit of a bell hooks book, resonating with Erykah Badu’s charm, while authentically staying true to herself.