Jhené Aiko breaks out on her own terms
Jhené Aiko offered a quick warning before she played her single, “The Worst.” It’s best enjoyed alone with a joint (her words).
She curled into a plush leather chair, took a long sip from a cocktail and gently swayed as the wrenching production unfolded, her eyes shut as the particularly aching hook filled a North Hollywood recording studio.
“I don’t need you, I don’t need you, but I want you,” she sings. “I don’t mean to, I don’t mean to, but I love you.”
“The Worst” is the lead single for the singer-songwriter’s new EP, “Sail Out.” Released on Monday, the EP serves as an appetizer as she completes her debut album, “Souled Out,” and is the first release from producer No I.D.’s Artium imprint under Def Jam.
In hip-hop Aiko is the new “it girl,” offering sultry, emotive hooks countering rhymes by J. Cole, Wale, Big Sean and Drake. After opening for Nas and Lauryn Hill last year and recent slots at Rock the Bells and South by Southwest, Aiko is playing to arena crowds as part of Drake’s “Would You Like a Tour?” outing. The rapper tapped her as a special guest, a no-brainer considering their collaboration “From Time” is a standout from his recent chart-topping album.
Although “Souled Out” isn’t due until sometime next year, Aiko’s debut has been more than a decade in the works. A Los Angeles native, the 25-year-old grew up in music. Her dad converted part of the family home into a studio and writes his own music, and her two older sisters were in the ‘90s R&B group Gyrl.
At 13 she landed a deal with Epic alongside B2K (she was marketed as a cousin). Aiko appeared on several of the popular, short-lived boy band’s 2002 releases with sassy pop-R&B tracks and often toured with them. But label politics kept her debut shelved and she asked to be released from the deal after two years to focus on school.
“I was super young. All of the things you learn when you’re going through adolescence … it was times 10,” she said when asked about her first experience in the industry. “I was dealing with adults telling me what to wear, what they didn’t like, that my skin was bad.”
“Now I’m just so sure of who I am as an artist. With this deal and these new projects, it’s really just me. I can’t accept singing someone else’s songs. Or having someone telling me I need to dress like this, or do my hair like that,” she added.
Music became a hobby after Aiko left her first deal. She finished high school, had a daughter and was working full time as a waitress. On the side she was working with producers she had established relationships with when she was signed as a teen.
In 2010 she started working with Top Dawg Entertainment’s roster of rappers and appeared on early mixtapes from Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul and her collaboration with Lamar — on a song called “Growing Apart (To Get Closer)” — set the tone for what became her 2011 mixtape, “Sailing Soul(s).”
“I saw Kendrick’s work ethic. It seemed like we were on the same page,” she recalled. “After that I knew what I wanted the project to be.” Aiko quit her job midway through recording and made music her full-time priority.
“Sailing Soul(s),” which also featured collaborations with Kanye West, Drake and Miguel, reintroduced Aiko as an adult and came at the time when the conventional boundaries of R&B had just started to bend to accommodate the edgier, genre-blending brand of alternative R&B being spun by Frank Ocean, Miguel and the Weeknd — all acts that built cult followings with indie, DIY mind-sets and music that bridged multigenre gaps. The project also reaffirmed her belief that she could pursue music with a vision uncompromised by a label.
“In my mind I had no intention on it being anything other than a free mixtape,” she said. “I knew that people had been waiting on me to put a project since B2K and I hadn’t put out an album, or a single. They had been waiting and it felt like it should be free.”
The album was downloaded more than 150,000 times from popular mixtape curator Datpiff and caught the attention of No I.D. (Kanye West, Nas, Common), who signed her as the first artist on the Artium label.
Aiko admits her stint as a teen star made her hesitant to sign with a major label, but she’s not worried about losing sight of her vision.
“As I grew up and I saw the politics behind everything I thought it was so crucial for me to build a strong mentality and be sure of what I wanted to do with music so when I went into meetings I would be like this is what I’m going to do, this is what I’m not going to do,” she said. “Either you’re going to work with me or you’re not.”
“I’m so certain with what I want the message to be it makes it easy for the label,” she said. “They don’t really have to come up with my style or anything.”
“Sail Out” continues Aiko’s knack for weaving deeply confessional narratives over heady, ethereal productions. Songs like “The Worst” and “Comfort Inn Ending” (featuring a stunning five-minute freestyle) plunge the depths of heartbreak, while tracks like “WTH” and “The Vapors” are steeped in her love of cannabis. Even lustful moments like “Bed Peace” and “Stay Ready (What A Life)” glide poeticly under Aiko’s penmanship. Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, Vince Staples and Childish Gambino are among the guest appearances on the seven-song EP.
Aiko is fully embracing the long-gestating wave of buzz she’s finally found. But regardless of where the road leads from here, don’t expect her to change.
“For me money has never been important. I have a large family. No one is rich, but no one will let anyone go hungry,” she said. “I’ve never been concerned with what I can do to be on top. It’s always about making good music [and] if I can feed myself and my daughter in the process.”
Your essential guide to the arts in L.A.
Get Carolina A. Miranda's weekly newsletter for what's happening, plus openings, critics' picks and more.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.