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2019 Soul Train Awards - Show

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“Shea butter baby, f—–g up your pillow.”

That was it. That line was almost everything I needed to crown Ari Lennox’s album, “Shea Butter Baby” as the lyrical embodiment of my Black female experience. I mean, does it get any Blacker than waking up to a grease stain on your pillowcase caused by the moisturizer you slathered with the night before?

But clearly the Soul Train Awards had a different definition of Black soul. Recently Ari and Lizzo were both nominated for Soul Train’s Album/Mixtape of the year award. However, when Lizzo received the award for her Cuz I Love You album, Lennox shared her frustrations online, even vowing to quit music and join the army.

Ari wasn’t the only person surprised by the award show’s pick. Black Twitter came to her defense and questioned the decision too. But what was most heartbreaking was Ari calling her work “slept on.”

“It’s not just the awards,” Ari said in a now deleted tweet. “SBB was slept on in so many ways. I’m too emotional to pretend like I can play this game.”

So for those who haven’t listened to Shea Butter Baby, here’s a breakdown of its brilliant musical delivery, which was more than worthy of being honored.

Ari brings us back to the nuances of what it means to be Black and guides us through her struggles in “Broke” and triumphs in “New Apartment.” No matter how much money I  make, “Broke” will forever speak to my soul. When Ari said, “Broke thing, broke thing, it’s a written thing, brown skin, it’s a bitten thing,” she was not only taking a step back from the classic braggadocious style of Black music, but she made us think about the things we may have traded in our life to fit our budget. For example, she mentions buying a train ticket instead of a flight to her destination because, “we ain’t got no monies.”

Apart from being broke, this doesn’t stop Ari from being a “cute thing,” in the same way it hasn’t deterred other Black girls, whose style became the backbone of fashion around the world. The long nails, elaborate hair, and clothes are now considered “couture” for the Kardashians but Black girls, like Ari, fashioned that out of what they had, even when it wasn’t much.

Whether we’ve run from or are currently immersed in poverty, to call brown skin a “bitten thing,” almost strikes in a biblical sense. In the same way, a biblical Eve bit the apple and “doomed” humanity. She describes being broke as a common stain on the realities of Black people who because of systemic oppression, find it difficult to escape, much like a generational curse.

But she doesn’t just touch on socio-economics. She brings us sexuality and young and evanescent Black love. “Chicago Boy” is not only an ode to the undeniable swag of Black men, framing an attraction based off a chance meeting in a local CVS. Ari gives mention to Chicago native Chief Keef, when she croons, “Love you like Sosa,” a reference to his 2012 hit song, “Love Sosa.” “Chicago Boy” (and really all of her songs, give it a listen) are intricately laced with subtle references to our experiences within the last 20 years and sometimes the generational ones too.

It makes us wonder, what is it like to love a man so deeply? What sexual prowess does she hold in her relationship? Is it rough, but has an incredible beat that’s worth all the bass, much like the rap song itself?

But if her references aren’t enough, Ari’s ad-libs at the end of her songs are gold. Even if you’ve zoned out during her music and missed a word or two, she brings you back to her imperfections by reminding you that her music is a journey. I used to think I hated ad-libs at the end of music but Ari’s will have you cracking up on your morning commute. She moves us forward in the album with every small speech and they aren’t meaningless quotes that go over your head and she’s not whispering into the mic. She prepares us for her stories and escapades.

“Tell me why this old n—a from my past hit me up, talkin’ bout somethin,'” she stats in the middle of her soliloquy in “I Been.”

Her music reminds us of how special and nuanced the experience is of being a Black woman. She serves us peach cobbler, baked macaroni and stew chicken in Shea Butter Baby. She doesn’t talk about expensive clothes, overflowing confidence, perfect men or having her life together. She leads us down melodies and tones reminiscent of Erykah Badu and Heather Headley. She makes us smile as she holds a mirror to our experiences and feelings.

Someone on Twitter said, “Ari Lennox makes music for people that try to get sexy for their significant other and trip when they walk in the room.”

And she does because she makes music for Black women and girls who are just trying to do their best. She is comfort, nostalgia, and vulnerability and isn’t a workout anthem or a bop your white coworkers can “put you on to” in the name of feminism.

Ari isn’t singing for us. She sings to us.

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