Ari Lennox's 'Shea Butter Baby' Deserves Better Than Its Award Season Snubs

The industry’s omission of an album created deliberately for Black women means it hasn’t overcome its inherent biases.
Queens, US
November 21, 2019, 12:00pm
Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Stringer

A good album makes you eager to replay its tracks, searching for the brief high you felt on the first listen. A great album is one you want to wake up and go to bed with, ensconcing yourself in its lyrics and melodies in the moments in between. In the age of streaming and the playlistification of albums, Ari Lennox's Shea Butter Baby cut through the noise. It's been a banner year for R&B, and the Dreamville singer's debut leads the discussion for best R&B albums of 2019 along with her peers like Summer Walker, Lucky Daye, and SiR. With award season imminent, fans expected Shea Butter to win big. But the D.C. singer's snubs at The Soul Train Awards and from next year's Grammy nominations feel like a blatant oversight. Shea Butter Baby deserves better.

Shea Butter Baby arrived in May, nearly four years after the singer signed to J. Cole's Dreamville label. Fans got to know Lennox in the interim on projects like 2016's debut EP Pho and the string of loosies like last year's "40 Shades of Choke" while we waited for an album to materialize. When it finally did, it was as masterful as it was uninhibited. Lennox's soul showed up on Shea Butter in a myriad of ways: she was equal parts funny and sexy, but also incredibly down-to-earth. "A Dollar Tree wine glass is in the air / André will get me there," she sings, retreating to the frugality of plastic wine glasses and cheap champagne. There were no false pretenses or illusions of grandeur in the details of her songwriting. You felt like you were with her in the CVS aisle when she met "Chicago Boy" on a run for Ricolas. Backwood kisses and Target lingerie felt glamorous because of the way her voice crawled over the luxury of Masego's saxophone. But most importantly, Lennox was speaking to a particular type of woman—the Black women who bathed themselves in shea butter before it was popular or trendy. For an album so deliberately created for Black women to receive no critical acclaim means the industry is still having trouble acknowledging its inherent biases.

Last Sunday, Shea Butter Baby was up for three awards at The Soul Train Awards: Best Collaboration, Best R&B Soul Female Artist, and Album/Mixtape of the Year. Lennox walked away empty-handed, losing to Chris Brown, H.E.R., and Lizzo respectively. The snubs from the legendary award show with a history of honoring the best in R&B and soul left Lennox expressing her disappointment on Twitter. "It's not just an award," she wrote in a string of now-deleted tweets. "It wasn't just any award show. It was the soul train awards. As you can see I'm a big fan of soul music and huge fan of soul trains history." According to Lennox, being snubbed by mainstream institutions is something she has grown to expect, but the omission from The Soul Train Awards felt like heartbreak. "I made a soulful album," she wrote in another tweet. "I never ran from who I am. I just expected [The Soul Train Awards] to understand that."

Lennox's very public grappling with her Soul Train Awards loss incited backlash insinuating that the singer felt "entitled" to win. "It's not just the awards," she wrote. "[ Shea Butter Baby] was slept on in so many ways. I'm too emotional to pretend like I can play this game." Lennox's desire to win doesn't signify anything other than the fact that she created an album she believed in. When this type of extreme confidence in one's craft bubbles up in men, particularly rappers, they're praised for it. Over the years, we have watched Kanye West's confidence turn egomaniacal as he vehemently disagreed with award shows and declared himself as "the greatest artist God ever created." Despite his rants, West's influence only continues to grow. Lennox's argument is more nuanced. She's not just tending to a bruised ego, and there's nothing wrong with wanting to win. If she won't be recognized with a soulful album at a platform created to celebrate Black artists that institutions like the Grammys traditionally exclude, where can she win?

The absence of Lennox's Shea Butter Baby in next year's Grammy nominations is jarring, but not surprising given the show's history of misrepresenting the cultural contributions of Black artists. While artists like BJ the Chicago Kid and Lucky Daye are heavily represented in the R&B categories, Lennox's omission feels like a shameless lapse in judgment. Last year it appeared like the Academy was trying to right its wrongs by nominating Ella Mai, who won Best R&B Song, and H.E.R., who won Best R&B Performance and Best R&B Album. But their overwhelming presence in this year's nomination list makes it appear that the Academy isn't doing much to seek talent beyond the scope of the music they already know. Lennox is right: Shea Butter Baby deserves to win awards. The Academy's decision not to include Shea Butter Baby, one of the best albums this year, is emblematic of the institution's racist and sexist history. After all, this is the same award show that thought 25 was a better album than Lemonade and snubbed SZA of her five noms for Ctrl. What do they know anyway?

Kristin Corry is a staff writer for VICE.