Photo: Ari Lennox/YouTube
Meeting people is easy. We digitized the trickiest parts. We use Hinge, Tinder, and Grindr for fishing for hangouts and hookups; WhatsApp and Snapchat for the long-distance liaisons; and Discord, Twitch, and Twitter for the many objects of our parasocial affections. But making lasting connections is just as difficult as ever, somehow, now that we’re able to abruptly drift into and out of each other’s social circles. We streamlined the experience of striking up a casual acquaintance, but you can’t smooth the process of finding out what another person is really about, whether a promising match is also a great mate. It still stings wasting precious time getting attached to a person who reveals themselves to be both selfish and careless; as more people gain access to us on the planes of social media we inhabit, we must be all the more protective of our hearts. This struggle is core to the music and public profile of Ari Lennox, the first woman signed to J. Cole’s Dreamville Records. Ari makes buttery R&B about the considerations we weigh while navigating relationships and flings, and the often agonizing time we have in distinguishing one from the other, our weeklies from our one-offs. Outside of the music, Lennox speaks with world-weary candor about the pains of being a public figure who sings about her private life. In January, she swore off interviews after a podcast whose host asked, “Is someone fucking you good?” She ultimately parted ways with her management team, this after an arrest in Amsterdam in November for “disturbing public order,” an incident Lennox says was sparked by racial profiling. “I want to be dropped from the labels,” the singer posted on Twitter in January. “I’m done and tired.” A set at April’s Dreamville Fest implied that the tweet was a moment of anger, not a statement of intent, as the label just released Ari’s second album, age/sex/location.
The new music feels informed by the experiences of the past year. There are notably less giddy songs of romantic anticipation, like “BMO” and “Up Late,” here and more celebrations of cloistered self-sufficiency, but the neo-soul revivalism of Ari’s 2019 debut Shea Butter Baby still lights the way. Bolstering these story-songs about kicking inattentive hookup buddies to the curb and blocking anyone who disturbs your peace is a palette of hazy beats that slyly pull from half a dozen traditions without drawing too much attention to themselves. a/s/l gestures to the powerful, delicate thump of prime Soulquarians records; the lush Atlanta hip-hop soul of the Dungeon Family, care of an appearance from the legendary Georgia production squad Organized Noize (Outkast’s “So Fresh, So Clean,” TLC’s “Waterfalls”) on “Outside”; the slick, commercial R&B of Jermaine Dupri, who co-produced the single “Pressure” with industry veteran Bryan-Michael Cox; the balance of stately quietude and plush instrumentation at play in the early Roberta Flack records; and, of course, the nostalgic boom-bap Dreamville Records excels at. Beats from J. Cole, longtime Dreamville (and sometime Ruff Ryders) affiliate Elite, Alabama beat-maker Wu10 (Cole’s “My Life” and “Snow on tha Bluff,” Jazmine Sullivan and Ari’s “On It”), and more offer comforting backdrops for songs about the quest to find a man who can deliver in the bedroom without getting too clingy or controlling the rest of the week.
Lennox set the tone for the new album with Away Message, a short EP released in late August. The jazzy deep cut “No Settling” makes the most of a dire situation — “I have options, but they garbage, so I’d rather be free” — in the same way the album takes stock of the men in the singer’s orbit and frequently opts out of any further engagement. Lennox writes convincingly about being turned on, but a/s/l is just as much a catalogue of the other side of the dating game, picking up where the phone metaphors and missed matches at the end of the last album left off as the singer-songwriter walks us through a string of romantic mishaps in songs like opener “POF,” named after the dating site Plenty of Fish, where a man who tried to get her to move in with him catches smoke: “The nerve of you to think I was gon’ sell my house to live in yours / You out your mind, I did them tours / I picked them floors, so miss me.” It’s a clever play, a callback to the excitement of Shea Butter Baby’s single “New Apartment.” Like Erykah Badu’s “… & On,” the Mama’s Gun cut that nods to the hit from the prior Baduizm, “POF” ties the sound and theme of the debut album to the emotional scope of the sophomore effort. The Ari who craved Amtrak vacations and inexpensive nights inside on the first album is doing better now and demanding better treatment. a/s/l is a distinctly millennial endeavor, an album about waking up to the realization that you spent half your life in an only intermittently rewarding search for love in digital spaces and refusing to let the pattern repeat across another decade.
a/s/l handles the subject of bossing up and upgrading dating brackets hilariously thanks to Ari’s withering, matter-of-fact, conversational tone. The pillow talk in “Boy Bye,” a duet with Lucky Daye, sours quickly as a playful love song devolves into a roasting session: “Those lines belong in 1995 / Just like them funky Nikes.” You think you’re getting a song like Lauryn Hill and D’angelo’s 1998 duet “Nothing Even Matters,” but you end up closer to Rihanna and Ne-Yo’s “Hate That I Love You” in that the couple sounds just as liable to break up as to go the distance. There’s a thorn in every rose on a/s/l. The sex-positive “Pressure” pauses to interrogate a suitor: “Why you ain’t fuck with me when I wasn’t this fly?” “Hoodie” is a song about horniness overriding righteous anger, about a sneaky link who is keenly aware of how much you’ll put up with. The pivot from a jilted verse — “Saw what you did last night / Just called to say it ain’t right” — to the chorus about wanting to get the jerk naked nevertheless is true to the experience of losing your resolve when the right text message shows up. a/s/l avoids coming across as conceited by staying honest about how lust can lead us to settle into suboptimal arrangements. Ari’s not saying “I’m better than you.” She’s weighing her needs against her available options, sending out feelers for a good time, and then going back to bed when it doesn’t work out. “Blocking You” summarizes the loop, kicking off with Lennox “feeling too accessible” and luxuriating in a long list of people she doesn’t want to hear from at the moment: “Haters, family / Neighbors, police / Trolling relentlessly / Blocking you on everything / Exes, labels / Bill collectors, cable / All can come and catch a fade.” a/s/l leaves us where the last album did, in a sense. Just like Shea Butter Baby’s “Static,” a/s/l closer “Queen Space” ends with a warning to a man to play it cool around Ari, but this time she doesn’t seem to care whether he complies. “I deserve something purer,” Lennox sings, stepping into the position her neo-soul forebears embodied exquisitely over songs like “Tyrone” and “Gettin’ in the Way”: the voice of the disrespected, the unappreciated, the stressed-out, the fed-up. You can try your luck, but you might get your feelings hurt.