More than 90 minutes after Ravyn Lenae’s homecoming show in June at Metro, you could find the 23-year-old neo-soul singer-songwriter still swarmed by fans outside as she took time for a photo and conversation with each. “I did that every single show on tour. It’s a way to really humanize a moment between the artist and supporters,” says Lenae, who grew up in West Pullman and now lives in Los Angeles. “I had a moment onstage where I thought: I’ve opened for artists so many times here. For it to be my show, and for people to know the words, was a full-circle moment for me.”
At this point in Lenae’s unconventional career, no moment is taken for granted. Already a seemingly fully formed talent in 2015 when she dropped her first single (the soulful “Greetings”) and was featured on Monte Booker’s “Baby,” she was signed by Atlantic Records at just 16 while still a student at the Chicago High School for the Arts. Although she’s released a smattering of EPs, her revelatory debut full-length album, Hypnos, which hit in May, has been a long time coming. And it was worth the wait: The collection of forward-looking R&B earned rave reviews from Pitchfork, Mic, and W magazine. “It’s Lenae’s delivery, confidence, and alluring presence that makes Hypnos stand apart,” wrote Pitchfork.
Now Lenae has another homecoming to look forward to: a September 11 gig at Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, opening for one of her idols, Erykah Badu. “My mom played a lot of Mama’s Gun when I was growing up,” Lenae says. “Hearing so many Black feminine voices broadened the way I listen to music and the way I approach my own music now.” She explains that for Hypnos, her main goal was to capture the timelessness in the catalogs of Badu, Brandy, Aaliyah, and others. “As musicians, it’s imperative that we listen to the people who came before us to figure out how to think about R&B differently, reimagine it, and recreate it so that it feels familiar but still has futuristic elements.”
Lenae estimates that she wrote “hundreds” of songs for the album. The 16 that made the cut underwent several iterations. “I was really a sicko about it,” she says. “As a young Black woman coming up as a teenager, it’s very easy to trust the voices around you, and you can shrink your own. In a very male-dominated industry, I just have a lot of men around me, and I needed to make sure that my voice was the most important one. I had to grow up in a way with this album.”
Part of that growth meant a move to the West Coast two years ago. “I was back and forth between home and L.A. so much pre-COVID just because a lot of the producers I work with were [in Los Angeles],” she says, referring to marquee collaborators like Steve Lacy and Kaytranada. “I had to make a decision. Plus, I started to feel a little isolated in Chicago creatively. My friends who I’d work with — whether that be musicians, producers, photographers, makeup artists — moved, either to L.A. or New York.”
Even after leaving Chicago, she continued to take inspiration from her time as a South Side artist making her earliest songs at Classick Studios with producer Monte Booker and rapper Smino, both of whom guest on the LP. “When you spend so much time working on something, it’s really easy to get narrow-minded and fixated and almost make music more of a chore,” she says. “To get out of it, I had to vividly channel those younger years.” Focusing on songs that reflected her own personal journey (like “Where I’m From,” which explores her family’s Panamanian heritage) helped energize Lenae.
Seven years in the making, the otherworldly Hypnos feels fully realized: the product of an artist who knows herself and refused to compromise. “I’m very happy that I took my time and was patient, regardless of the outside pressures. Nobody pressured me more than myself.”