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Ravyn Lenae on the Messy, Wonky, and Honest Path to Hypnos

7 Years since signing with Atlantic Records, Chicago's Ravyn Lenae has webbed us into her world of iridescent vocals and captivating storytelling on her long-awaited debut album Hypnos.

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Renowned for her feathery vocal prowess and delicate harmonies, Chicago-raised musician Ravyn Lenae has released her highly-anticipated debut album, Hypnos. Since beginning her professional music career at age 16, Ravyn has become a standout artist best known for marrying genres of neo-soul with alternative, classic R&B soundscapes. On Hypnos, you can expect to hear just that. However, this time Lenae explores sounds of funk, house and Afrobeats, creating a world of her own feminine divinity. 

This emotionally prodding body of work was meticulously crafted for 4 years by Lenae, who procured a tasteful selection of features namely Steve Lacy, Smino, Fousheé and Mereba. Each track is decorated with a dreamy, ethereal lyricism that journeys through topics of sensuality, womanhood, identity and more. Production-wise you may recognise some familiar sounds on the album, with Monte Booker, Kaytranada and Lacy all contributing their unique sonic flair. For Lenae, these connections are more than just working relationships, professing that “If I’m making music with you, I probably know your parents”.

When Acclaim recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Lenae, we discussed some of the symbolism that features in Hypnos, as well as her reflections on personal growth and navigating the industry throughout her youth.

Your professional career in music started at such an early age – you were signed to Atlantic Records at 16 and dropped your first project the following year. How has navigating your career throughout your late teens/early adulthood shaped the artist that you are today?
It has directly affected my growth as a young black woman but also as a young black woman in music – it’s a completely different thing [especially] in entertainment. So I feel like I’ve had to learn a lot of lessons early, learn how to find my voice early and define my thoughts and my ideas and stand firm in them you know. I think that’s one of the biggest lessons and takeaways I’ve learned [from doing] music and growing up publicly in a way. Learning [about] myself and figuring out how I want to be perceived and how to trust myself and my voice in my creative process.

I think with every project or with every year that passes I learn a little bit more and discover new things about myself and the way I approach music. My mom has always said that I’ve always had this kind of, definite sense of self from an early age. You know, I kinda knew even if it was like what colour socks I wanted to wear, I would feel really strongly about that (laughs). So, I think that sense of identity has carried throughout growing up and then having to find my signature in music and in R&B in general. I think that there is this sense of what the Ravyn Lenae sound is but I’m obviously always expanding and re-imagining what that even means.

I feel like mums always know these things about their kids.
Yes! (laughs), you’re right. 

So, in May this year you dropped your debut album, Hypnos, which feels like a long time coming. How does it feel to have it out in the world finally?
Honestly, the day I dropped it I just felt this instant feeling of relief and almost this surrendering feeling of it not being in my hands anymore. It’s now released to the world, and people can live with it. I’ve been able to see it move people and touch people and that’s the whole reason why I’ve spent so much time trying to perfect it and make it really good. So, I’m still really proud of it and I’m still inspired by it and I hope that you know, listeners feel that way as well.

You’ve spoken about how this album represents a lot of personal growth, where you explore themes of womanhood, romance, sensuality and so much more. What did your creative process look like gathering all those experiences, thoughts, and emotions and pouring it into a 16-track body of work?
I think honestly this is probably my most messy, wonky approach to making music but sometimes I feel like that’s the most honest [approach]. That’s where you get really raw and unfiltered emotion in a way and I think I was forced into those spaces sometimes where you have tragic world events happening, and our reality is being shifted at every turn. You kind of have to enter this space of rawness and strip back and unveil things about yourself that you probably didn’t even realise before. So, I felt like I had that realisation a lot throughout the process of making the album. Also, my life changes like moving from Chicago to LA and also curating this album for myself, were a big deal for me. Like I said I had to find my voice and especially in a very male-dominated industry where I work with mainly male producers, and there are a lot of men around me – it’s easy for my voice to be overshadowed in some ways. So, I think coming out of it I feel like I have a way better understanding of how to articulate my needs and my wants whether that’s in music, whether that’s in love, relationships, familial relationships you know across the board, I feel like I’ve grown up a bit.

The song ‘Where I’m From‘ with Mereba really stuck with me when listening to the project. It was very cathartic and quite emotional listening to the lyricism, making me feel like you were somewhat speaking directly to those who have had trouble finding themselves and their sense of belonging. What does the track’s lyricism mean to you?
Yeah, that song is so important to me, and I love that since it’s been out it’s kind of taken on other meanings that relate to different people. So, when you say there’s this general feeling of wanting to belong or finding your roots in whatever form that may be, that is the intention of this song for me, but more specifically I did have the black American experience and the diaspora in mind. It felt like we didn’t really have a song that talked about and touched on that identity crisis that we go through where we wanna know what our real names are, what our languages are, who our ancestors were and what they did. But so much of our identity is lost so I think we’ll always long to know that part of ourselves and search for that. I think it’s a way for us to connect and bond over in a way. I know a little bit of my ancestry, my maternal side is Panamanian and Caribbean descent but my father’s side, I don’t know nothing about. Similarly, Mereba’s father is I think, Ethiopian and her mother is African American, so I love that parallel with both of us and how we can bring those stories to life.

Speaking of lyricism, the vulnerability of your storytelling throughout this album is impeccable. As a listener, you can really tell that you embedded a lot of yourself in each and every track. What were some of the more challenging aspects of having to sit down and translate yourself into your music?
I think the hardest part for me was how much pressure I put on myself, it being my debut. To nail every piece of it, down to re-recording lines, re-recording full songs, you know having a million different sessions with producers to fix the beat or change it or edit it a million times just to come back to the second edit, you know there was a lot of that, that happened throughout the process. It almost like scrambled my brain a little bit and at times I had to step away and not even listen to the music at all for months at a time and just live and come back with fresher ears or a fresher mind to really listen to the music purely. I think that was one of the major difficulties but also like I said being in the thick of the pandemic and not being able to travel and go outside and touch people and do the things that we normally do, I think severely halted my writing process. I’m sure for you too and for other creatives, we depend so much on the outside world and our interconnections with people. So, not having that made me have almost to imagine more and dream more and think beyond the four walls that I was stuck in. So, that was a major challenge as well; it’s like where are these stories coming from if I’m not experiencing, if I’m not outside, if I’m not travelling, if I’m not eating new foods, you know. All those things kind of work together to produce the art that we have. So, having to step out of my body in a way and think beyond how I usually thought about writing music or finding inspiration was a huge thing.

 Sonically, the album explores sounds ranging from Afrobeats to house and more familiarly, your classic neo-soulness. Over the four years that you were working on this project, did you always have a clear intention of what it would sound like?
I think naturally I just dabble in a lot of things, so it’s honestly hard for me to set up guidelines for myself. I knew that with this album I wanted to explore and further develop a lot of sounds that I’ve already kind of touched on, whether that’s the early stuff I’ve done with Monty or the more funky, psychedelic stuff I’ve done with Steve and then the house stuff that I’ve kind of touched on with Kaytranada. I wanted to make sure I was exploring all parts of myself if that makes sense.

Was it also relevant to the types of music you were listening to?
I would say so, yeah. I think I knew that I wanted the album to feel more R&B-focused and I don’t know if that’s because I was listening to a lot of R&B over the last couple of years. I’m not sure where that came from, but I knew that I wanted this to feel more R&B than my prior projects.

The album features some familiar collaborators including Steve Lacy, Monty Booker and Smino, who you’ve been working with for many years. Why is it important for you to continue fostering those relationships, especially whilst your music continues to develop and grow?
I think it’s so rare to find producers and other artists that just get it and you click right away when there’s not this like awkwardness or pulling teeth or trying to force it to work you know. With Steve and Monty, it’s just magic every time, and it’s always been that way. I’m so so particular about production, and I’m heavily involved in the process [which] I don’t think people really know about me. I’m very, very particular down to the snare sound, so I’m deciding a lot of those things with them. Having that friendship and trust between artist and producer is so important to me, and I take it really seriously. It’s almost like an intimate thing to me you know, like if I’m making music with you I probably know your parents, have probably been to your house (laughs). It’s that type of thing for me, and I feel like it shows in the music as well. But I’m always open to working with new producers; it’s just hard when I feel like I work with some of the best producers in the world.

Lastly, we know you were born and raised in Chicago, a place where many very talented artists like yourself come from. Which of Chicago’s hometown artists continue to inspire you to this day?
Hmm, that’s a great question. They all inspire me in different ways but I would say. Honestly, for the past couple of years it’s been Noname. This is even beyond music, I think her work in the community is something that we could all look at and be inspired by in our lives. I just think it’s one thing to talk about certain things and another to really put action behind it, and she has done that, and I think that is so commendable. So, yeah I’m inspired by her and we all are, all the time so she’s definitely a woman that I look up to from Chicago.

Follow Ravyn Lenae here for more and check out her debut album Hypnos here.

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