By Damani McNeil
Through her successes on Shea Butter Baby and Revenge of the Dreamers III, Ari Lennox’s early buzz has bloomed into one of the most promising young careers in music. Known for her silky, seductive voice and well put-together visuals, her brand is cohesive and she seems primed to make a serious pass at the position of Queen of R&B.
As elite as her contributions have been over the past two years, her talent and vision were introduced to the world long before her popular success, in the form of a 7 track EP titled Pho.
Released in 2016, Pho did a great job of displaying Lennox’s potential, as well as consolidating her sound and artistic identity. Produced almost entirely by DJ Grumble, the lush and dreamy EP represents the perfect neo-soul tapestry for a hot summer day.
“Backseat” doubles as both the EPs single and my favorite song that Lennox has ever released. It features a lovely synth lead reminiscent of the heyday of the Erykah Badus and Lauren Hills of the world, bouncing over the top of a heavily swung backbeat and a funky bass line. Everything about the instrumentation of the song is airy and floating, but the rhythmic groove and tempo are sticky and heavy. This is one of the central musical features of Pho; no matter the instrumentation or harmonic composition of the tunes, they all feature an erotic tension that has the power to turn any afternoon into an intimate moment. Lennox’s Dreamville labelmate Cozz features on the song, loudly and raspily putting a bow on the track and aptly playing the role of the Beast to match Lennox’s beauty.
“Backwood” sees Grumble couple his typical drum line with a pitched soul sample and fluttering wind chimes. Lennox’s voice complements the pairing brilliantly, powering through runs and shimmering at their conclusions. Her skills singing in support of herself are also excellent. Throughout the EP on tracks like “GOAT,” “Night Ride,” and the especially beautiful acoustic piece “La La La La,” Lennox harmonizes perfectly with her lead vocals, taking up just enough space to be noticed while not stepping on her lyrics.
There are points where Pho falls into the same classic pothole as even the most legendary neo-soul artists: both the rhythmic concepts and drum sounds on the project are essentially similar on every song. Luckily, her voice is so damn good it doesn’t seem to matter. Lennox’s vocal performance is strong enough to carry the interest of the listener, even when the instruments and grooves begin to feel repetitive. The same spacious beats that can begin to blend together allow her to explore her range and abilities on each track. The project has aged well in the four years since it was released, and serves as a strong artistic foundation for the exceptional solo and group work she has done since.