Jhene Aiko, her agent and her manager are huddled together on a recent afternoon going over upcoming gigs for the buzzing alternative-R&B star.
The women discuss potential opening acts, production logistics, collaboration requests, whether or not she can make time for Coachella -- her set last year was a highlight and she may pop up as a surprise guest this year -- and fitting in a vacation to the Himalayas around rehearsals and South by Southwest (“If it’s not possible I’ll do Hawaii,” she tells her agent after a potential conflict is mentioned).
In 2010 she began collaborating with Top Dawg Entertainment’s roster of rappers and appeared on early mixtapes from L.A. rappers Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul, before each had their own breakout moment. Her 2011 mixtape, “Sailing Soul(s)” led to a deal with hip-hop producer No I.D. (Kanye West, Nas, Common).
“Knowing that more people are listening, I only want to be progressive. I only want to grow,” she said. “The extra attention validates my reason to want to do more with the music. I want to be consistent and remain myself -- being myself got me nominated, so I guess I’m going to stick with that.”
Being able to float between R&B and rap allowed her to become a hip-hop “it girl,” offering sultry, expressive hooks on singles from J. Cole, Wale, Big Sean, Drake and Common (their collaboration “Black Majik” was nominated in the Grammys' rap category), adding to her growing buzz.
Her EP was a Top 10 debut on the Billboard 200 and featured Aiko’s first big hit, “The Worst,” a mainstay on urban radio (and a nominee for R&B song). That preceded her years-in-the-making full-length “Souled Out,” which debuted at No. 3 when it was released in September. And she’s already at work on new music.
“The album that I put out last year, all those songs I had been working on for so long, it’s old to me now,” Aiko said. “I’m in a different place now with my writing and my singing. Everything has progressed and that’s what I always want to do. Everything should trump the last thing.”
Later, Aiko retreated to a studio room. Her engineer played part of a track she may lend a vocal to for a remix (the collaboration could introduce her to a wider audience). She pulled out a pad of paper and began humming a melody and writing lyrics.
"Even though I've been doing this since I was 13, I feel like this is the first time that I'm in it and 100% focused," she admitted. "It's all working for me, so I need to work for it."