Ari Lennox channels throwback romanticism on ‘age / sex / location’

The singer’s chatroom-themed sophomore album is carried by old-fashioned confidence and charisma.

Getty Images, Joseph Okpako
Culture

Something about Ari Lennox has always felt generationally misplaced to me. The first and only time I heard her sing live was at Dreamville Festival 2022, where she took the stage in an elegant dress that stood apart from the leather jackets and streetwear getups other women performed in that weekend. Though comparing her to Erykah Badu might seem trite at this point, the similarities between the two singers take on new significance when you think of them not only in the context of inspiration but as evidence of some sort of cosmic accident. From the dynamism of her vocals to her revival of neo-soul sensibilities, to even her down-home sense of humor and the warmth of her public image, so much of what makes Ari Lennox special is the fact that she seems to have been born 20 years later than she should have been. The throwback romanticism of her latest album, age/sex/location, speaks to the confidence and charisma that comes with such outsized maturity.

A followup to Shea Butter Baby (2019), Lennox’s sophomore LP contains precocious and preternatural sensuality, channeling a sophisticated coolness that’d seem to be of a time before her own. If age/sex/location were made for the screen, it’d be more Love Jones than Insecure, meaning it articulates a certain wisdom about the act and art of romance that’s at times more aspirational than it is relatable. This often results in seductive songwriting and buttery smooth singing that place the listener inside the mind of a romantic savant.

The album’s most successful moments paint love — of one’s self and of someone else — with broad, stylish strokes that feel more inspired by Lennox’s old-soul relationship standards than the social media discourse that drives most modern R&B. “POF,” the project’s opener, is the slickest example of this, as Lennox maintains a desire for companionship after recalling experiences that’d discourage just about anyone else. “Lord knows I don’t need no one/ But sure would be sweet,” the 31-year-old sings in the intro named after the pre-Tinder hookup site.

Smartly sequenced, “POF” introduces a steadfast self-assuredness that reappears throughout age/sex/location. Over a bluesy baseline, funky drums, and jazzy keys — the tried and true elements of neo-soul — Lennox yearns for love while standing firm in her non-negotiables, ultimately relying on passed-down parables for guidance (“What’s that they say back in the day?/ It’s plenty of fish in the sea/ Will someone explain what’s with these lame/ Fish that be swimming to me?”). Similar shrewdness animates “Boy Bye,” the singer’s flirtatious duet with Lucky Daye that finds them both bouncing playful banter off of each other.

As R&B’s Richard Gere, in that he’s the most reliable male co-star for this generation of female artists, Daye conjures the sort of chemistry with Ari Lennox in “Boy Bye” that he’s maintained on songs with Ella Mai, Kehlani, and each of the women he collaborated with on Table For Two (2021). Throughout the track, which seems to take place on a walk home from a party, the two performers trade conversational verses in which Daye navigates Lennox’s skepticism before they both confess mutual interest. One of its more clever lyrics reveals a cheeky self-awareness of how Boomeresque this type of courtship can be: “That line belongs in 1995/ Just like them funky Nikes.” But even as the song pokes fun at its own corniness, it appreciates those awkward IRL moments as the exchanges that make flirting outside the comfort of a person’s DMs so intoxicating. The laughter throughout “Boy Bye” is what gives the song its charm. Set to sultry production that takes its time the way a skilled lover would, the track is also exceptionally steamy. This highlights Lennox’s most enticing quality as a vocalist: her ability to sound as though she’s mere minutes away from initiating sex at all times.

Genuine, fully-realized sex appeal is among the record’s decidedly 90s-reminiscent traits. Certain a/s/l songs distinguish the difference between horniness and lustfulness the way only a singer as effortlessly titillating as Ari Lennox could. While horniness in today’s R&B is typically forced, resulting in aromantic imaginings of intimacy that land a little flat, lustfulness often combines the feeling of being in love with the innate and spontaneous desire to make it. It’s what separates “grown and sexy” from what’s merely adult and sexual. “Mean Mug” and “Stop By” stand out as the two most lustful tracks on the project. The former is the song that’s most likely to get lovers in the sheets on a Sunday afternoon, while the latter is energized by a bed-rocking beat and provocative refrain that feel more appropriate for a late-night romp (“Stop by, baby, undress me”).

The greatest testament to Lennox’s erotic prowess on a/s/l is what she’s able to accomplish alongside Chlöe on “Leak It.” With the Grown-ish star often bullied online for how unnatural her attempts at naughtiness seem to be, this simmering ballad about scandalous footage and slippery wet sex reflects the sort of image she’s been searching for since the “Buss It” challenge. Chlöe undoubtedly benefits from Lennox’s more advanced command of sexuality on the record, as she and the Dreamville singer create a more convincing fantasy than anything she’s been able to achieve on her own.

Lennox’s fascination with the bedroom throughout age/sex/location isn’t without its missteps, though. “Hoodie,” one of the album’s three singles, is a rare moment in which the singer seems to be writing more for the timeline than for herself. Essentially, the slow jam attempts to romanticize a totem of so-called cuffing season, thus taking a meme more seriously than it was ever meant to be. Cringeworthy lines including “spread it like some queso” call attention to just how out of place she sounds singing lyrics that her less mature peers might pen.

The album’s final two songs, “Blocking You” and “Queen Space,” find Lennox employing her romantic intelligence via caption-ready buzzwords much more seamlessly. Both songs describe boundary-setting with the sort of glittering generalities and therapized Twitterspeak that’d earn them spots on any young person’s post-breakup playlist. But even as they seem to be written with strung-together HoodHealer affirmations, each song is likely informed by something more sincere: the knowledge of self that Lennox developed after years of masquerading as someone else.

During the album’s titular interlude, Lennox explains the name age/sex/location is inspired by the information chatroom users used to lead with on dating sites in the early 2000s. She confesses to being “the original catfish” in these rooms, in that she not only assumed phony profile pictures but also routinely pretended to be older than she was. A text from Lennox that J. Cole shared on Instagram in August revealed how that time in her childhood relates to her current experience dating as a celebrity. “I remember the countless times I was kicked out of dating apps because they didn’t think I was really myself,” she wrote, “it reminded me of those age/sex/location days where I actually wasn’t being myself.”

Through incisive writing, soulful singing, and deep-rooted sexiness, the best of age/sex/location finds Ari Lennox finally thriving as the grown-ass woman she always wanted to be. With a spirit that feels unbound to contemporary times, the singer continues to claim that cosmic accident which makes her seem as though she was born to the wrong generation, presenting it instead as a conscious choice by a young woman determined to live and love on her own terms.