Written by Taryn Finley
Photography by Nate Palmer
Dec. 16, 2022
There’s something about Ari Lennox that hits you right in the soul. Her dreamy voice melts you. Her poignant and relatable lyrics whisk you away to a not-so-distant place: all up in your feelings. Depending on the song, her words may make you want to call your ex or vow not to “date these n***as ’til you’re 43.” She’s not new to this, but her raw talent combined with her down-to-earth demeanor convinces you she’s true to this. And proof of that is in her gradual rise in the music game thus far.
For our interview, Lennox and her team (two managers, a publicist, a bodyguard and a photographer) are tucked in a corner booth table in an empty sushi restaurant on the second floor of the Sixty LES hotel. Lennox is reserved but inviting enough at first. You can tell this publicity tour has been a lot — she had to cancel a performance due to losing her voice days prior. She’s had a week full of events surrounding her album drop, including a listening party, appearances, and podcast and radio interviews (including her first “Breakfast Club” interview that gave her a bit of anxiety beforehand). Despite her demanding schedule, she’s happy.
“I feel really good,” Lennox said, taking a break from her yellowtail sashimi to give our conversation her full attention. She’s chicly dressed in a graphic tee, tan skirt, white heeled boots and some seriously dreamy waves in her 26-inch-long hair. “I feel like things are happening and feel that things are moving a lot differently and smoothly. I feel blessed.”
The 31-year-old songstress released her second album, “age/sex/location,” in September. The name is a nod to the AOL Instant Messenger greeting “asl?” back when internet messaging was almost as young as its users, outlandish usernames were either too on the nose or cringingly horny and lies ran amok, laying the foundation for catfishing in chat rooms and beyond. It’s also a callback to the energy of that era’s music: sultry, alluring, messy, grown and sexy.
After two years, numerous writing exercises, extended social media breaks and humbling life experiences, Lennox was left with 80 tracks on a whiteboard that she shared with eager fans on Twitter months before the album’s release. The artist and her team narrowed it down to 12 songs they were “constantly listening to” and a five-track EP “Away Message,” which dropped just days before the album.
“Age/sex/location,” executive-produced by Elite, is as much a nod to Lennox’s background as a child of the internet as it is a reflection of just how pissy the dating pool is — despite our propensity to still play in it. With writing credits from J. Cole, Kelvin Wooten, Michael Holmes and Chloe Bailey, to name a few, the album takes listeners on a relatable journey of lust, rejection, confusion and acceptance. Let Lennox tell it, the album is the prelude to elevation. Her elevation.
“This album represents the space I’m in now, in my ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ season,” Lennox said. After dealing with fuckboys, flighty men and toxic relationships, she’s more aware of what she needs and what she doesn’t. And that’s not solely with dating.
Ari Lennox, whose real name is Courtney Salter, has been putting in some real work to rise to the next level — both professionally and personally. A student of Minnie Riperton, Donna Summer, D’Angelo, Mary J. Blige and Erykah Badu, just to name a few, Lennox understands music is her calling. It’s the one thing she wouldn’t be able to quit if she tried. She knows because she has tried, to no avail. Lennox is here to stay, but she knows for damn sure that won’t be at the expense of her peace.
A lot has changed since the singer dropped her 2019 debut album, “Shea Butter Baby.” Earlier this year, she got her highest-charting solo single with “Pressure,” produced by Jermaine Dupri and written by Bryan-Michael Cox and Johnta Austin. It hit No. 1 on the Adult R&B Airplay Billboard chart and peaked at No. 66 on the Billboard Hot 100. In September, her debut album earned a gold RIAA certification, three years after its release. And let’s not forget that her song “New Apartment” is in every millennial and Gen Zer TikTok or Instagram Story when they get the keys to their new spot.
In recent years, she’s become one of the leading go-to R&B singers for features, appearing on tracks with Jazmine Sullivan, Lucky Daye, Summer Walker and songwriting legend Babyface, to name a few.
Babyface sang her praises on the podcast “Angela Yee’s Lip Service,” shortly after working with her on the song “Liquor.”
“I think Ari’s voice is a voice where she can sing about many things that matter to a lot of people,” the “Waiting to Exhale” soundtrack writer and producer said. “Her voice is an important voice, and I think that it’s just the beginning for her and everybody’s just starting to come in on it and getting a taste of it. And I think her career’s gonna be long and fruitful because she has a voice that people want to hear.”
Lennox, who’s still defining herself as new levels of fame unlock, said that she’s shocked that people are listening and loving her music. But while her visibility increases, so has the need to adjust certain boundaries — with social media, with press, with trolls and naysayers.
As much as fans have fallen in love with her voice, Lennox’s personality has become a big part of her allure. For years, Lennox opened up a window into her personal world with her Instagram Live sessions. Several days out of the week, you could catch the Washington, D.C., native on Live making off-the-wall jokes, talking out her dating frustrations, walking her dog, installing a lace wig for the first time or just doing any old mundane thing. Her friends, ones with fame and without, would often join. She’d treat fans by teasing new music or even playing whole unreleased tracks and asking for their feedback. In a time where uninterrupted livestreams have almost become the new reality TV, fans saw themselves in their favorite singer through her social media. And by the way she listened to folks in the comment section, you could tell she really gave a damn about her fans.
Lennox’s livestreams became their own show. So much so that there became dedicated YouTube, Twitter and TikTok pages that would repost her Lives. As much as she’s a vocal powerhouse, she’s also a funny and sometimes awkward Black girl just navigating life like the rest of us. She granted us access to Courtney instead of Ari Lennox on the platform. And we fell in love with them both.
As welcoming as her energy may be, Lennox is realizing the importance of being cautious of whom she shares what with. In recent years, she’s learned that she has an anxious attachment style. Now, she’s more accepting of the things that are out of her control and finding healthier ways to communicate her frustrations. She’s also more careful of who she shares her experiences with. “Not everyone’s going to be so understanding, or not everyone cares to hear someone breaking down,” she said.
This has fueled personal change for the artist, too. Lennox moved to Los Angeles for about a year, then back to the DMV in 2020. She bought a house and found new solace in it during the pandemic, which includes playing a lot of “The Sims 3.” She stopped drinking for six months. She bought a boat. She’s dated, argued with some folks, endured loss and reconnected with her sister.
“I've learned to just be easy on myself and eat what I want but just in moderation. So now I'm at the other side where I'm being more compassionate with myself. Whereas, in the beginning, it was just really difficult, the beginning of the journey.”
At one point, a stylist made a body-shaming comment that prompted Lennox to go on a fitness journey. “I can’t really find clothes in your size,” Lennox recalled her saying. She said though she’d heard comments about her weight before, that stylist in particular struck a nerve.
“It was so terrible. But it’s life. It, unfortunately, sparked this thing where it’s just like, well, I guess I’ll start a weight-loss journey. And so it hasn’t been the most exciting,” she said. “It’s not fun doing HIIT workouts a lot just so that we could get closer to the goal faster. I guess it’s good for the heart, but too many HIIT workouts, you get burnt out real fast. That shit is too intense.”
She’s opted for more gentle training as much as she can, taking walks and hiking her favorite trail at Topanga Canyon Park.
“I’ve learned to just be easy on myself and eat what I want but just in moderation. So now I’m at the other side where I’m being more compassionate with myself,” she said. “Whereas, in the beginning, it was just really difficult, the beginning of the journey.”
In a lot of respects, Lennox is healing old wounds. Within the past year, she’s started working with a therapist. “I used to be very resistant to the idea of therapy or even opening up to my family,” she said. “But these people, I think the worst thing you could do was just pour out into this open space that creates the opportunity for people to mistreat you. And I think it’s so important to be gentle with myself. And a way that I’ve been learning to be gentle with myself is to keep certain things to myself.”
A sensitive soul, Lennox is using new ways to love on herself by being more judicious about who has access to her. That means blocking some people and, when that doesn’t work, changing the whole damn number.
“[I’m] in a space where I’ve ignored the red flags too much for the last time and now I’m so hyper-aware. And it’s been a blessing to say, ‘You know what? This is not right. This doesn’t feel right. It’s time to move on,’” she explained. “So it’s cool learning about myself, learning my flaws, becoming more self-aware and just realizing there’s a lot of healing I need to do before I can even consider being in a situation with someone.”
Lennox knows she’s not completely impenetrable, though. She’s human. And an empathetic one, at that. She said a big reason why she’s taken a break from social media — and took a very long time away from doing interviews — was to protect her peace.
“People think social media has changed me. I’m not on IG Live as much anymore. And it’s like, yeah, it has,” she said.
“I don’t find joy in being dragged. I don’t find joy in being as beautiful as I am and going online and trolls trolling. I find it way lighter just living life outside and not making everything about myself. IG can be very about self. And I don’t need people that much into me, telling me something that I know is not true. My nose or my breasts and how they think they should be … Hurt people hurt people, and people project.”
“I'm in a space where I’ve ignored the red flags too much for the last time and now I'm so hyper-aware. And it's been a blessing to say, ‘You know what? This is not right. This doesn't feel right. It's time to move on.' So it's cool learning about myself, learning my flaws, becoming more self-aware and just realizing there's a lot of healing I need to do before I can even consider being in a situation with someone.”
Ari Lennox is one of the most relatable millennial Black women in R&B right now as the first lady of Dreamville. She’s honest, quirky and as passionate as any Aries. Her constant praise of Blackness in its various forms of beauty, even in the face of anti-Black comments, is a breath of fresh air — her debut album’s title is a testament to that. Her fiery yet delicate spirit and active imagination lead her to writing lyrics that will literally make you scream laugh like, “hatfishing, catfishing, all cap n***as hat-fishing, why I don’t see no picture with your hat missin’?” or “with your Bow Wow durag.”
She wears her heart on her sleeve, a double-edged sword that has led her to pen some of the most beautifully relatable love and longing songs of this decade, including “Chicago Boy,” “Cascade,” “La La La La” and “Whipped Cream.” Her openness has also left her vulnerable to trolls and trash-ass people full of anti-Black comments and misogynoir. Lennox is learning how important it is to save space to set up her own boundaries. The lead-up to that, in many ways, is what we hear on “age/sex/location.”
With features from Summer Walker, Lucky Daye and Chloe Bailey (which, Lennox revealed at her listening party, she scored a week prior to the album’s release), “age/sex/location” is an appropriate answer to any suspicion of a sophomore curse. She gets real about inviting a more casual fling on “Waste My Time,” a reality many of us longing for connection have had to face in this dating economy. Lennox playfully goes back and forth on the flirtatious fan fave “Boy Bye” with Daye, a track they practically knocked out in one take. “Mean Mug” mesmerizingly romanticizes the crush stage. And, of course, she hit the charts hard with radio earworm “Pressure.” From “POF” (aptly named after the app where Lennox met her first boyfriend) to “Queen Space,” Lennox doesn’t seek anyone else’s approval in laying out her journey on this album. She listened to a lot of Teedra Moses, Minnie Riperton and old-school greats to help inform the music. She’s a student of her craft and proof that R&B ain’t dead.
Even as she posed for the photo shoot for this cover story, Lennox let the music playing speak to her. She set the mood for the playlist, requesting a little blue-eyed soul with the Bee Gees and Bobby Caldwell, and going into some funk with The Gap Band and Donna Summer and neo-soul with Lucy Pearl and Maxwell. She’s not only in her element with good music, she becomes one with it. Coming up singing in the church and jamming to the music her parents were listening to at home, it’s no surprise how intrinsically she connects with different eras of music.
At her core, Lennox has always known exactly who she was and what she was destined to do. She wrote her first song when she was 3 years old under her grandmother’s porch in Charlotte, North Carolina. She started recording her songs in the seventh grade. By no means did her career start with “Shea Butter Baby.” For nearly a decade, Lennox has been working on her craft, releasing EPs, YouTube covers and singles on SoundCloud. Lennox said she didn’t expect to go as far as she has with her music. But in a lot of ways, her being present in her music paved the way for her to meet with J. Cole — a meeting she almost didn’t take because she has a fear of flying and because she had recently gotten a job at Public Storage making $10 an hour.
Lennox made an undeniable classic with her debut album. But writing and recording it also drained her.
“I think I got burnt out after ‘Shea Butter Baby,’” she said as she furrowed her brow and stared at her uneaten sushi roll as if it were a portal to the past. “I put my entire asshole into that album.”
After writing and writing and writing some more, she felt that album was “all I had left.” She added, “I’ve been writing for so long.”
Quitting crossed her mind more than once. She even made those thoughts public on social media on a few occasions, expressing a desire to go into real estate at one point. Many Black women have been conditioned to lean into hyper-independence. Lennox is no different. Having her hands all over “Shea Butter Baby” is what made it so great, but the approach wasn’t sustainable.
“This game of music, it doesn’t stop. The best keep going. The best start realizing it’s OK to accept help. It’s OK to have other phenomenal people that are masters at what they do,” she said. “It’s OK to get help and not do everything on your own. And so that’s literally what this album was, me literally saying, ‘I am open. And I know I need the help, and I would love the help.’ I don’t know if I would’ve been able to do it on my own this time. I’ve said so much already.”
“I used to be very resistant to the idea of therapy or even opening up to my family. But these people, I think the worst thing you could do was just pour out into this open space that creates the opportunity for people to mistreat you. And I think it's so important to be gentle with myself. And a way that I've been learning to be gentle with myself is to keep certain things to myself.”
There’s something satisfyingly genuine about watching Lennox’s slow-burn ascension. It’s a reminder of all of the flowers she has yet to receive.
This year, she scored six nominations at the Soul Train Awards, only second to Mary J. Blige’s seven nods. She recently released her own version of “My Favorite Things” for the holidays. Starting in January, she’ll kick off her 27-city U.S. tour, and later will perform at the 2023 Dreamville Festival. Many of the dates have already sold out.
Pages and studio sessions have served as an outlet for Lennox to get her life experiences on wax. It’s safe to say it was her therapy before therapy. And she hopes that her music can offer a similar resting place for her fans as well.
“I want people to literally just be able to light their incense or cigarettes,” she said, pausing to think for a second, “or maybe not cigarettes. Weed. I just want them to relax, know that there’s a space in my music where you can just relax, you can calm down, you can meditate. There is a space where you can just be yourself and where you can be seen as a woman, as a Black woman, as a woman of color.”
She said she specifically wants Black women and women of color to listen to her music and feel like she feels when she hears songs like Teedra Moses’ “Be Your Girl.”
“That first time you have a crush on somebody,” she said. “That song was so special to me. Songs like that, and Alicia Keys, ‘You Don’t Know My Name.’ Or even ‘Refill’ by Elle Varner. I just want people to feel love or feel hopeful about the idea of a crush or love or wherever it could go. I want people to feel that feeling when they hear my songs.”
Lennox doesn’t necessarily have too many specific long-term goals in music. She stays very present with her art — that and her humility are probably big reasons why she doesn’t truly see how much impact her music is having, especially on younger generations of Black girls.
Her dreams relate to potential side careers and starting a family. Lennox said she’s never been in love. But she’s hoping to fall one day. In the meantime, she’s redefining what love is and isn’t.
“I just want them to relax, know that there's a space in my music where you can just relax, you can calm down, you can meditate. There is a space where you can just be yourself and where you can be seen as a woman, as a Black woman, as a woman of color.”
“I feel like love, to me now, is self-care, not quieting my opinions out of fear of losing somebody, communicating head-on and not aggressively communicating, maybe more effective ways of communicating, which is still something that I’m desperately working at,” she said, “I think love really is self-awareness and handling your shit so that you’re not out here ruining lives.”
Lennox’s personal and professional bloom coincide. As she ascends, being more gentle with herself than ever before has become a priority. She said if she could tell young Ari anything, it’d be to address her avoidant tendencies.
“[I] don’t know if I can change anything, but I would tell her to stop running from everything, stop running from friendships, family, stop running from a therapist,” she said. “And stop running to the idea of love to escape the work that needs to be worked on inside. That’s what I would tell her, but I don’t know if she would listen. Because she wasn’t listening to nobody. She still have a hard time listening.”
But still, Lennox isn’t sure she’d change anything about her journey.
“That’s where the lessons come from,” she said. “Yeah, and that’s where the music comes from.”
Clothing, Full Look Lapointe; Faux Fur Coat Adrienne Landau; Heels Jimmy Choo; Necklaces Loren Stewart; Earrings Laura Lombard and Justine Clenquet; Rings Loren Stewart and Vitaly; Hair Trennace Gallatin; Stylist Marisa Ellison; Stylist’s Assistant Elise Walsh
Head of Visuals Christy Havranek; Art Director Benjamin Currie; Senior Photo Editor Damon Scheleur; Senior Editor Erin E. Evans; Managing Editor, Video Will Tooke; B-Roll Camera Operator Uchenna Nwaogu; Copy Editor Jillian Capewell; Audience Cambria Roth; Engineer Mike Dorfman; Photography Assistant Brandon Foushée