In the heart of contemporary rhythm and blues is a fulfillment of every range of every human emotion, no matter how unusual or uncomfortable.
Happiness gallops through Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Before I Let Go,” but also plenishes the pluck of Sunshine Anderson’s “Heard It All Before.” Burden softly coats Deborah Cox’s “We Can’t Be Friends,” but also sinks the soul of Donnell Jones’ “Where I Wanna Be.” Anger softly settles Monica’s “So Gone,” but also seethes Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style.”
In the heart of D.C.-native and Dreamville R&B regina Ari Lennox’s Shea Butter Baby Tour are these fervors in their most layered, raw, intense and vulnerable forms.
The vocalist embarked on the tour at the onset of mid-May and fresh off the release of her Shea Butter Baby debut album, Ari’s first official Dreamville Records release. The 24-city excursion tabbed its first New York stop at Bowery Ballroom on Tuesday night (June 4) where she packed out the historic Beaux Arts music performance venue.
She preceded the live Shea Butter Baby experience one night prior on Monday (June 3) with the Dreamville-curated “Ladies Night,” where she welcomed women everywhere to a night of open bar freedom, pampering, manicures, massages and unfiltered conversation, led by health and wellness advocate and psychiatrist, Dr. Jess. The Breakfast Club’s Angela Yee, State of the Culture’s Scottie Beam and Black Coffee’s Gia Peppers were among the celebrators of the night dedicated to feminine energy, real subject matters of sisterhood and the universal empowerment of Black women.
The spirit of that evening tethered Ari into her Bowery Ballroom introduction, as she quietly graced the stage in soft posh: an all-black ensemble complete with a fur-spilling crop tube top, matching bright red fur coat, black jeans and black strappy heels—a nod to Black elegance. An avid student of flower soulstress Minnie Riperton, Ari’s balance of grace and soul unfurled beneath stage light showers of deep reds, greens and purples as she faded into Shea Butter Baby’s bluesy jazz lead-in, “Chicago Boy.”
The effervescence of Black and brown faces with kinks and curls across the entire Black hair spectrum cascaded the audience and even went emphasized by the Dreamville leading lady herself. Sending those same curlistas bouncing with her crescendo-breaking “Broke” song, the fan-favorited third track of the album featuring her Dreamville brother and Atlanta’s homegrown rap talent J.I.D., then swaying to “Whipped Cream,” Ari maintained a healthy sonic and sensual climate throughout the set.
Masterful and magnetizing in her command of the crowd’s energy, Ari uses conversational interludes to draw her shea butter babies even closer to her live experience. A perfect balance of ratchet and riveting, Ari’s quirkiness is the very charm of her debut project, which closes out each track with one of her casual thinking-out-loud tirades on love, sex and relationships. Ari fans have come to know and love the 28-year-old for the window she leaves ajar to her innermost contemplations and perceptions even before the amusement of her Instagram Live sessions and dating back to her 2016 Pho project.
Ari fondled the pastiche of her oft-compared Erykah Badu voice and artistry with interpolation-play. Tucking the neo-soul icon’s “Tyrone” hit into her “Goat” single, she carried on her R&B jams cover flex with other classics such as Beyoncé’s sultry “Kitty Kat” and Floetry’s “Say Yes.”
It’s suffice to say, then, that the surprise entry of the Dreamville leader and North Carolina’s heralded rap soverign J. Cole (a highly-anticipated guest appearance that front-row shea butter babies moshed for) only complemented the crowd’s stamina, but didn’t create it (as viral videos of his pop-up might suggest on social media). Assisting Ari with his guest verse on her “Shea Butter Baby” title track (which also placed on the Creed II film soundtrack), the K.O.D. rapper’s stage companionship with her was quick, but necessary in the grand scheme of Dreamville family fellowship.
Thus, “B.M.O.,” the titillating, bedroom-rushing, up-tempo cream of the Shea Butter Baby crop, indeed, sexily stripped the R&B essence of the room even barer. As one of the most sought-after performances of the evening, the single charged up the crowd into a sensual high before Ari kissed her goodbyes. Deviating from her normal humor, she also left fans with parting words worthy of plaque recognition: protect women, and to her chocolatey, kinky-haired shea butter babies, keep on keeping on.
As one of millennial R&B’s most promising vocalists and performing acts, Ari is normalizing the embrace of not only curl-boasting, dark-skinned Black ladies to explore every layer of their womanhood, but every emotion within it. Shea butter babies are conflicted, and contented, and sometimes bitter, and sometimes broke, and sometimes angry, and sometimes peaceful. They are sexual, and sensitive, brazen and vulnerable, without having to compromise one for any others.
Ari Lennox makes it OK for Black women to be all of them at once, or none of them at all, just as she chooses.
(Photos: Cassidy Sparrow/ Getty Images)