NEW YORK — Writer's block confined Ari Lennox during the creation of her latest album, "age/sex/location," but her label head and friend, rap superstar J. Cole, suggested she begin journaling to unlock her creativity.
"He was like, 'I just want you to write and just don't stop for a certain amount of time.' And so, you start to see all of these words and experiences that are going on," Lennox said of a session for "POF," the album's opening track. "It was just pages and pages of life, and it was just a really cool, a beautiful writing exercise, and it really helped me be able to write better."
Released earlier this month, Lennox's sophomore project follows up 2019's critically acclaimed "Shea Butter Baby." Whittled down from 80 potential songs to 12, the album, executive produced by Elite, features the soulful vocalist taking listeners through the lifespan of a romantic relationship. The album's title alludes to a common questionnaire used by internet chatroom participants in the late 90s and early 2000s.
"It just encompasses dating and its entirety — the ups and downs, the crushes that start off so light and sweet, but it's a crush for a reason, and ends in pain, misery, horror," the 31-year-old said with a laugh. "Then there's the realization of how important my queen space is and how important protecting my peace is and blocking people or any type of negative energy."
Lennox's unique, soulful sound — an updated version of the early 2000s neo-soul era — is a welcome alternative to the R&B-melodic fusion that owns much of today's airspace. The album release was propelled by the success of the light, sing-along bop "Pressure," a callback to 60s soul. Composed by a super team including Lennox, iconic R&B writers Bryan-Michael Cox and Johntá Austin and superstar hit-maker Jermaine Dupri, the track hit No. 1 on Billboard's adult R&B airplay chart.
Beautifully channeling her inner Erykah Badu on the angelic, jazzy "Mean Mug," she serenades, "Therе's a magic in your eyes" throughout the chorus as a Theo Corker trumpet solo swells at the song's conclusion.
"'Mean Mug' is my favorite song on the album. It's just a soulful, special masterpiece to me," the native Washington D.C. soprano revealed. "I love the idea of love so much…when I really think someone's special, I'll romanticize and so much poetry can come out of it."
In the same sexually empowering arena as her "On It" feature on Jazmine Sullivan's Grammy-winning "Heaux Tales" album, Lennox is not afraid to ask for what she wants on slow jams like her groovy "Stop By" or the seductive Chloe Bailey-assisted "Leak It," referring to releasing personal, intimate videos.
"She killed it. She offered something I could have never even imagined," Lennox said of Bailey. "It's basically you feeling so safe with someone, someone that you could trust and just feeling like, you know what? I want to just do it all with you. And I don't even care if anyone sees. We should show the world — maybe not literally — but that's how amazing the passion in this moment is."
But it's not all about the newness and excitement of infatuation; Lennox sets personal boundaries and makes time for self-care with tracks like "Blocking You" and "Queen Space" featuring Summer Walker which also hit No. 1 on the adult R&B chart.
Lennox has masterfully doubled down on her soul sound, further strengthening the command of her art. She's also growing in her personal life, navigating fame as her profile sharply rises. Despite lashing out in the past in response to Twitter trolls and toxic comments, Lennox is learning that social media isn't always an accurate reflection of real life.
"I'm going to always be myself. Nothing about that will ever change…I don't see myself like getting any (cosmetic) work done or anything like that. I may have cried about certain things people have said about me on Twitter. But yeah, I've realized what's real and what's not," said Lennox. "I like my nose. I like what my body looks like…I like my music. I like how beautiful and different it is. And it's for me, and it's for whoever loves it. So, that's really all you can ever do in life—you got to just live for what you like, what you want, what's important to you."
Follow Associated Press entertainment journalist Gary Gerard Hamilton at: @GaryGHamilton on all his social media platforms.