It's difficult to reconcile the shy 25-year-old singer from D.C. that I meet with the swaggering and brash songstress singing about sneaking boys past her roommates, Yuengling beer and heartbreak on her debut EP, Pho. Yet Ari Lennox is unapologetically Ari: she wants to stop at the gas station to "cop some Skittles and some Crown Royal" while, on the same EP, she struggles to move on from a lover, bemoaning, "I can't rid him of my sheets." It is this very duality that gives the neo-soul artist the undeniable authenticity she radiates as both a musician and a human being.
Signed as the first female artist on J. Cole's Dreamville imprint after he noticed her singing on a track by Omen, Ari released Pho—yes, like the Vietnamese soup dish—in October. Sultry, raw and playful, the EP provides a hip-hop and old school soul-influenced soundscape—think early Kanye mixed with Amy Winehouse. Ari's elastic vocals jump between soaring choruses and sly, half-rapped verses. Her lyrics, too, defy prevailing female R&B norms. On her breakout single, "Backseat," an ode to getting nasty in her whip and featuring her Dreamville labelmate Cozz, Ari's undisguised sexual assertiveness is almost lost within the sing-song delivery. But if you listen closely, her true, carnal intentions are impossible to ignore: "You spank it so they know it's taken / They don't wanna girl this crazy," she purrs, and you can almost see her winking at you as she sings it. Like all of Ari's music, it's instantly addictive. The days of Ari Lennox as an under-the-radar talent are certainly numbered.
Currently on tour with D.R.A.M. and fresh off singing background vocals on Cole's latest release, For Your Eyez Only, Ari takes a moment to discuss her idols, why she loves pho, and how she came to embrace her true musical self.
Tell me about your musical idols.
Most definitely Kanye West, Minnie Ripperton, Ella Fitzgerald. Those are just a few of the artists I think are legendary that have had a huge impact on my lyrics and things like that. And then also an artist by the name of Tiara Thomas — she's the one that encouraged me to be a little riskier as a female, with how frank I am with my lyrics. I really give that to her; I'm just so inspired by how real she is as an artist.
Your lyrics are extremely blunt and honest. Besides Tiara, where does that confidence and swag come from?
Honestly, it originated from me being bored in the house and wanting to try something new; it was easy for me to make these fairytale, wife-me-up type records, romance-type records, because that's what I've always wanted since I was a little girl, that fairytale love. But one day I just got realistic with myself: "Okay, I've never had that before, that's not what my life is right now." So I just decided to start writing about what's going on right now with my boyfriend.
I know making clean, love, angel music would make my grandma really happy, my mom, my dad, and probably so many other people in this world. But me being honest with myself is the music that seems to connect with people on a bigger level. So I decided from then on I was just going to be more honest.
Let's talk about Pho — what's the story behind the name? Considering it's your first commercial release, what were you trying to show people?
It was inspired by the food that my ex put me on to. It was a food I had never tried before but it was so soothing and just amazing for my tastebuds. When I think of pho I think of that time period that we shared, so I was just like, "Why not name the album that?" 'Cause it just seemed like the most fitting title, and it means so much to me. It was a dope time in my life — a time of enlightenment and fun.
[As for the EP], I was just trying to show people myself, and that you can turn heartache into something beautiful. It doesn't necessarily have to be sad songs. You don't have to be bitter or curse somebody out; you can just appreciate the time for what it was and accept it as a learning experience and keep it moving.
What about the future? Are you working on a new project?
Definitely! We're working on the debut LP for sure. I have some beautiful songs I've been working on with my homeboy Elite, he did a lot of stuff with Cole… and now he's just all over my debut album, and I cannot wait to release that. I don't know when that's gonna happen, sometime maybe next year -- who knows. But we're definitely working on it. It's going to have all the elements of this EP and more. You'll see how I've evolved.
Text Jackson Howard
Photography Stanislaw Boniecki