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Ari Lennox is no joke

The R&B singer is joining Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You Too Tour

Please, whatever you do, don’t ask songstress Ari Lennox how she met rapper J. Cole.

She has been known to share ridiculous tales with journalists about how Cole discovered her, for instance, stripping at a gentleman’s club in Alaska or bumping into him during a tap-dancing performance in Poland.

“I lie sometimes about how I met J. Cole because everybody always asks me how I met him,” joked Lennox, who first signed to the multiplatinum emcee’s label in 2015. “But now it’s getting out of hand. I just have to laugh.”

Yes, Lennox has jokes. But there’s nothing funny about her musical drive. Lennox’s debut rhythm and blues album, Shea Butter Baby, has been hailed by critics and fans. Her examinations on lusty hookups, unrequited love, weed sessions and getting her first apartment never come off as gimmicky.

Fellow crooners are noticing. Lizzo tapped Lennox (born Courtney Salter) to be an opening act during her Cuz I Love You Too Tour in September and October.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When was the moment that you knew you could sing?

I never really knew I could sing. I just did it because I liked to do it. But I do remember my grandma once told me that I had the voice of an angel at 3 years old. Maybe her telling me that subconsciously encouraged me to just keep singing. Or maybe it’s the memory of me driving around with my dad listening to music and him telling me, ‘Sing it, Courtney!’

On Shea Butter Baby, you are transparent about everything from your love of weed to meeting a man at a CVS and being upfront with him about your lustful intentions. Have you always been this open as a songwriter?

Yes! Before anyone knew me, I made a song called ‘Since You Left.’ The lyrics went, ‘Since you left my life ain’t been the same. Promiscuity become familiar … sexing away my problems.’ I used to be very out there. I had another song called ‘Turn Me Out’ about this stripper named Jackie from south D.C.

That sounds like quite the tale.

(Laughs.) Well, she was checking for me and I was checking for her. But I have always been honest about my life.

A lot of the appeal of your music is not just your bare-bones, unapologetic lyricism and voice, but your empowering message of black self-love.

That’s why music is my therapy. It made me realize that I am not alone in how I feel. If I don’t want to do my hair this morning, if I want to be superblunt or superfrank in my music, there are people who feel the same way. There are people who live their lives more spontaneous than the next. There are young black girls out there who love their hair even though the media may tell them that their curls are too kinky. I feel like it is such a blessing because I didn’t know that there were so many people out there that could relate to some of the things that I go through.

Your video for “BMO” has a ’90s R&B video feel to it, specifically a nod to those great Missy Elliott visuals. Was that era a huge influence?

Absolutely. I adore Missy Elliott, always have. My big brother, who passed away in 2012, put me on to her. Just that entire ’90s era: Aaliyah, Total, Missy, Busta Rhymes … they all influenced “BMO” and most definitely the music video, which was directed by the amazing Child. We both sat down and we knew what we wanted. He gave me that Missy-Total vibe.

Ari Lennox’s new album is Shea Butter Baby.

You describe yourself as a high school misfit who knew early on that college was not your path.

I just couldn’t focus on anything else in school but singing, which was what I was most consistent with and good at. And I’m talking about in my entire life. I was always getting fired or quitting other jobs, but I did try to do some courses. I took a bartending class, but I didn’t finish it because I chickened out for the test. I did get my certified nursing assistant certificate, but I never used it. I tried, but my heart wasn’t in it.

Let’s jump into your go-go music bag: Rare Essence or Trouble Funk?

Oh, my goodness. Probably Rare Essence. But they are both legendary, classic go-go bands.

After releasing Shea Butter Baby, how much pressure are you feeling on your follow-up?

I’m calm. I’m OK. See, there’s a cheat code that I use. I play my new songs live for the people and they tell me what they like and what they don’t like. And I know that I have two certified bangers in the vault. I’m just confident that God got me, and that as long as I’m not faking and being something I’m not, I will be all right.

Keith "Murph" Murphy is a senior editor at VIBE Magazine and frequent contributor at Billboard, AOL, and CBS Local. The veteran journalist has appeared on CNN, FOX News and A&E Biography and is also the author of the men’s lifestyle book "Manifest XO."