It’s been about 11 years since a 15-year-old Jhené Aiko asked to be released from her contract with Epic Records. In that time, the honey-voiced singer and songwriter has found her feet. This debut appears at first to fall under a future R&B categorisation, but soon billows into a concept album that spans neo-soul, dark alt-pop and a few licks of psychedelia.
With the release of long-delayed major label debut Souled Out, Jhené Aiko demonstrates that, while she might not officially be the heir apparent to the Aaliyah legacy, she's sitting on the throne until someone else shows up. Much like the late singer, Aiko won't win any "Best Vocalist" awards anytime soon, but makes up for it with copious amounts of charisma. In that respect, Aiko is virtually critic-proof, an instantly relatable, indescribably popular entity whose shortcomings as a vocalist are trumped by her ability to gauge the temperature of the modern R&B genre and give the people what they want.
Twelve years into a musical career filled with sadness, heartbreak and disappointment, R&B fans are treated to those emotions (and more) on Souled Out, Jhene Aiko’s finally released 12-track debut studio album. It was Lauryn Hill who on the Fugees’ The Score album single “Zealots” said that she added a “motherfucker” at the end of her oftentimes melodic Rap bars to ensure ignorant listeners “hear her.” Though not an a acclaimed rapper/singer like Ms. Hill, Aiko’s unique ability at moments on the album to add the equivalent of a “motherfucker” or “fuck you” via embittered words delivered with a caustic, yet still mellifluous tone is one of the tiny details that make Jhene Aiko a special artist.
For over a decade, Los Angeles singer/songwriter Jhené Aiko has skirted the periphery of R&B stardom, thanks to an early association with the Omarion-led R&B boy band B2K, later work with Kendrick Lamar’s Black Hippy crew and more recently, Kanye mentor and Def Jam exec No I.D.’s Cocaine 80s collective. Much of the conversation about Aiko posited her as a musical foil for her more widely known rapper friends. Her debut mixtape Sailing Soul(s) flourished by co-opting the minor key melodies and navel gazing oversharing of R&B radio’s wistful sad boys, but her delivery hewed a touch too vacant, her words too indistinct, to carry an entire project.
It wasn't until a fully tatted, hard-spitting Southern emcee sat me down and urged me to listen - closely - that I fully appreciated Jhené Aiko. Turns out she's not only a rapper-whisperer (fans include Drake and Kendrick Lamar), but her early releases - initially pretty but samey - reveal emotional depth and sonic staying power on repeat spins. That continues on her debut full-length, a heartbreak-to-healing concept album where Aiko's mellow, silken pipes sail on dreamy PBR&B production.
In the early 2000s, Jhené Aiko was a B2K associate signed to TUG, the Epic subsidiary operated by Chris Stokes. The teenage singer appeared on B2K projects and numerous compilations and soundtracks, released a solo single, and recorded an album that was shelved. She subsequently left the industry for several years, then resurfaced in 2010 like a new artist -- one with a voice and approach different than squeaky and peppy, less Yummy Bingham's "Come Get It," more Cassie's "Me & U." Featured roles on tracks by Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q boosted her profile and cred, as did a 2011 mixtape that involved the likes of Lamar, Kanye West, Drake, and Miguel.
After a promising mixtape, stellar guest cameos, and a striking EP, JheneAiko presents her much-anticipated debut, ushering in a uniquely personal voice to a pop world awash with familiarity. Aiko’s fragile voice has a built-in vulnerability, but her music is determined and searching (“W.A.Y.S.” “To Love & Die”). The set is smartly conceived with a finely calibrated continuity as her songs reflect a young woman in search of life’s foundations; through 14 tracks she traces the vicissitudes of love, journeying from promise through hurt into hope.