How Ari Lennox and SZA Are Recreating Mainstream Neo Soul
Ari Lennox recently released her debut album Shea Butter Baby on May 7th, on J. Cole's Dreamville Records. Her subtle features on Dreamville and breakout single named after the album led fans to believe that a project was coming soon, and she did not disappoint.
Ari has been making appearances and gaining traction since her first release on Dreamville in 2016, titled PHO. Her vocals on tracks like "Backseat" showed promise of an act who knew how to use her voice and melodies over soul beats, without directly conforming to the box that most neo soul acts are inevitably put in. Within the first few listens of J.Cole's "Change" on 4YEO, I noticed her voice in the background vocals. It's distinct and strong, which is noticeably different from neo soul acts from the past. While establishing her voice as an artist, she maintained to create her own narrative without shying away from the sound that she was discovered on.
Fast forward to Shea Butter Baby, (which I strongly believe will follow the trajectory of CTRL in every way) where Ari asserts herself proudly as a force in R&B.
It's this type of declaration that has already and will separate Ari in the light of mainstream neo soul. (See my post on Shea Butter Baby). It's what her and SZA have in common, and what has been missing in R&B. A voice that owns up to their soulness, but when it's displayed has the quality and production to reach the masses and not seem packaged as neo soul. Most wouldn't claim CTRL as neo soul, which is a direct product of not only the production of the project, but the genius of TDE. Aside from 4 songs of the 14, CTRL is a clear neo soul album. It's what Dreamville and TDE do so well with all of their acts, specifically these two. They aren't marketed as soul, or R&B, or pop, jazz, etc. and this allows their acts the freedom to stretch their artistic hands to find the sound that fits the voice; not catering to the consumer. They aren't placed into a certain artistic sound first and then mold their music to sound that way, it's the opposite with these two camps and their frontline female artists.
Music journalist Mark Anthony Neal stated in 2003, that "neo-soul and its various incarnations has helped to redefine the boundaries and contours of black pop." During that time, the genre was just a fetus, and still trying to be figured out by labels, artist, and consumers. And for most of the beginning of the genre, this wasn't the case, as the pioneers in the genre include Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Maxwell, and D'Angelo, not too poppy, huh? The sound is consistently evolving and has turned into what I believe to be it's peak, represented perfectly by SZA and Ari Lennox. This is why it's so pivotal to have the right people backing you as an artist, they can control your development, career trajectory, and everything in between. If Dreamville or TDE hadn't hung their hat on not stunting the creative process, we might not still be talking about CTRL 2 years later, and we might have been hearing a completely different album from Ari Lennox, from the subject matter, to production. Thankfully, in 2019, neo soul is now black pop, and has reached it's final stage in development. Through labels being open to the development of their artist, (remember when SZA complained about how long her album was taking?) and cohesive production, Ari Lennox and SZA have successfully recreated neo soul.