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Ravyn Lenae's Brand of Soul Is Already In the Future

The Chicago singer releases the video for "4 Leaf Clover" from her Steve Lacy-assisted ‘Crush’ EP. She tells us how she voyaged through the uncertainty of romance for her latest EP.

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Apr 24 2018, 6:00pm
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The best things happen to Ravyn Lenae after a nap. Last year, she woke up to a flood of notifications on Twitter after catching Steve Lacy’s attention for her Midnight Moonlight EP. That online interaction forged a friendship between the 19-year-old songwriters, leading Lacy to eventually executive produce her latest EP, Crush, released in February. So when she told me she’d just woken up from a nap before our phone call, Ravyn’s “dreamscape” aesthetic felt less like a mood board and more like a cornerstone of her development as an artist. "Crush is probably the most honest project I’ve ever written. It’s my voice," Ravyn tells me.

The night and dreams are recurring themes in the work she’s delivered up until this point, but her voice is anything but drowsy. The classically trained singer used her early work, Moon Shoes and Midnight Moonlight, to inject a voice into the youth. On cuts like “Recess,” a tale of unrequited love, her songwriting feels like a punch in the gut until you realize it was told from the perspective of an 8-year-old. Ravyn’s pen is heavily steeped in matters of the heart, and if Moon Shoes seemed light and innocent, Midnight Moonlight took it a step further, ditching the playground references for sultry songs like “Spice,” drenched in euphemisms about flavors like “Take me, take me where I don't belong / Sweet, salty, spicy, sweet.” The texture of her voice makes it feel inherently sensual while saying nothing sexual at all. Releasing two EPs before graduating The Chicago High School for the Arts, her music is the evolution of an unsure 16-year-old to a young woman navigating romance’s rollercoaster using her songwriting to give dimension to the puppy love rhetoric often cast on teenagers.

“A part of me likes to pretty up feelings that aren’t so pretty.”

Crush is her most mature work, elevating her subject matter past school crushes and stepping into the what it means to fall in love as she enters into adulthood. On “Sticky,” she’s bound to a dysfunctional relationship with no intentions of leaving. “You know I’d wait for you / And stay away for you / I stick around, when things are falling down,” she sings. Ravyn’s saccharine vocals and raw songwriting have a way of making rejection sound like a revelation. The visual for "4 Leaf Clover," released today, is reminiscent of Grease's sock hop era, which matches the retro harmonies behind Lenae's vocals. It's an elaborate scheme of who can make the other person the most jealous, although neither one really wants to come to terms with their feelings. “On the other projects, I was making up stories in my head,” she says.

“On Moon Shoes, there were things I’d want to say that I’d have to dress up because my mom was still listening,” she says. There’s a confidence her lived experience has granted her, and a sense of sensuality that feels like a stark difference from the songwriting in her debut. “A part of me likes to pretty up feelings that aren’t so pretty,” she says. It’s a sound she built with Chicago producer Monte Booker but pushed further with Lacy when he became not only her producer, but her first co-writer.

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“I hadn’t come across a writer that I loved and who I thought fit me,” she says. “I was starting to make music with him knowing I’d already loved his taste.” The two would bounce ideas off each other, line by line, sometimes even forcing Lacy out of his own comfort zone as he penned lines from a woman’s point of view. Crush’s major appeal is that it provides both perspectives on the various stages of relationships. Similar to the way Big Sean and Jhene Aiko detail one relationship from alternate point-of-views on TWENTY88, Lacy and Lenae do this sparingly on two of the songs the Compton singer is featured on. “Computer Luv,” reads like a letter to a distant lover who is “one click away,” but “4 Leaf Clover” makes dealing with a fear of commitment sound dangerously pretty. “‘4 Leaf Clover’ turned into a story of its own without us even knowing,” she says. The song is the only track on Crush that had a fictional storyline, but with lyrics like “I get jealous, when you don’t want to give this a chance / But then you want to hold hands,” feels more relatable than one would like to admit.

"I get annoyed when people say it’s R&B because it’s not that simple. I call it futuristic soul."

Crush is an elegant look at relationships and is proof that Lenae can reupholster just about any emotion, making it sound beautiful.

Noisey: Moon Shoes and Midnight Moonlight both have a sort of nocturnal theme surrounding them. Were you excited to break away from that on Crush?
Ravyn Lenae: Before I got into Crush I was a little nervous. I knew the moon would fade off I just didn’t know how. After Crush was done, I realized that it’s not that big of a deal and the average listener isn’t thinking of it that critically. It was just a natural progression between me and my music.

You describe your music as a dreamscape. What does that mean to you?
My music puts people in a dreamy mood. It’s edgy. It’s nuanced. I get annoyed when people say it’s R&B because it’s not that simple. I call it futuristic soul.

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Although you don’t consider yourself a synesthetic, with each of your projects inspired by different colors. Midnight Moonlight was deep blues and purples, where Crush is a combinations of pink and red tones. Can you explain that process?
The same way that you need to express different emotions, is the same way that I need to express different colors. I may be recording and see a color and think it’s that color. Crush was inspired by pink. Pink is soft and innocent. You need a part of innocence to be able to describe those types of feelings.

You’ve said that you use your songwriting to introduce characters and scenarios you’ve created. How much of that is true for Crush?
The only song I created a story behind was “4 Leaf Clover.” Everything else was me! Before I was cleaning up a lot of the emotions. I cling to very pretty words, sounds, and harmonies. But, sometimes emotions need to be delivered exactly how they are. Now I’m confident in my experiences and my songwriting and I need to deliver it exactly how it was intended. For Crush three things were important to me: maturity, themes, and deliverance.

Although the night may not be present in Crush, hair is a motif that repeats throughout the EP. You reference wanting your curls played in, having a good hair day and the infamous “edges on tight” line in “The Night Song.” What’s your relationship to hair like?
I love my hair. I think everyone should love their hair. I think there’s something intimate and beautiful about someone playing in your hair. The funny part about that “edges on tight” line is that Steve actually wrote that. That’s the best part about us writing together, not only does it force me out of my zone, but him too.

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What’s the origin of the voicemail on “Computer Luv?” Is that real or scripted?
Steve has a European alter ego. He’ll literally do that voice in the middle of a conversation. People ask me if it’s James Blake, but it’s just him being weird.

You were on tour with SZA and Ctrl opened up similar dialogues about relationships that Crush is. How did being on that tour help you develop this sound?
Ctrl gave me that extra verification that it’s okay to be super honest with yourself and supporters. It’s a nerve-wracking thing to put all your feelings and experiences out in the world not knowing how it’ll be received.

Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.

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