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Jhené Aiko

R&B’s youthful veteran on coming of age, hanging with Solange and dark Drake covers

A few well-chosen cameos is usually a surefire way for a new artist to lay groundwork, but it’s the other way round for R&B singer Jhené Aiko, who had Drake, Kanye and Kendrick step into her world for spots on her 2011 mixtape .sailing soul(s). In the thrillingly diverse independent release, which was mostly produced by duo Fisticuffs, her honeyed voice cruises across the stuttering perspective shifts of “Stranger” (“I meet them every day, they seem to be the same,” she intones resignedly) and the self-reflexive sex-jam “Hoe”, which features Miguel and Gucci Mane. She’s a musician’s musician with none of the aloofness.

Aiko’s talent was spotted at an early age; she signed to Epic Records at the age of 12, supported torso revealing boyband B2K on tour and released the passable pop single “NO L.O.V.E”, before leaving the label at 16 to finish school. A few years later she gave birth to her daughter, Namiko. After Aiko decided to do things her way and put out her mixtape herself, Def Jam signed her and released the soul-searching and quietly epic “3:16 AM”, the first single from the 24-year-old’s debut album Souled Out, due this spring. By the way, it’s “juh-nay ahh-ee-ko”, though the pronunciation guide on her Twitter account probably won’t be necessary for too much longer.

How’s the album going? Are you still working with Fisticuffs?
Jhené Aiko: Yes, for sure! .sailing soul(s). was an introduction to what I can do melodically, but with Souled Out I’m looking at it like this is my one shot. This is it. Kendrick Lamar is on a few tracks, and I have Ab-Soul and the entire TDE rap crew. I’m going to do some more stuff with Miguel. I’ve talked with Drake and we’re meant to be in the studio this month, but my whole thing is just have it be organic. There are a few more people, but right now I’m gonna keep ’em a surprise.

You supported Solange in West Hollywood recently. Do you feel a similarity with her, as an artist that also left a major label to pursue an independent route?
Jhené Aiko: I met Solange in those early days! It’s ironic: we both started out doing music we weren’t as into, and we’re both young mothers. But she had some control when she first came out – I didn’t. I didn’t even know what type of music I wanted to do, or the type of person that I was. I had to experience life and go through some stuff before I could figure out who I was as an artist. But it wasn’t all negative. I got to tour around the United States with B2K, I got to meet a lot of great producers and great people, which laid a strong foundation. Everything came full circle and I’m working with some of the same people now, but on my terms.

In ‘3:16 am’ you sing, ‘I do not fear the fear of falling, I wanna fly... But what if I don’t?’ Is it important to let your vulnerability come though in your music?
Jhené Aiko: Yeah. I feel strong, but I do have moments when I’m really weak, and I don’t know what I’m gonna do, and I feel like I’m going crazy and I’m close to the edge. ‘3:16 AM’ is just me summed up into three minutes and 16 seconds. I wrote it over a month, and I just kept adding lines, usually in the early hours, either when I was aimlessly driving or in the studio and all the lights were off. I’m most comfortable by myself. When I’m by myself it feels like I’m with a lot of people because of all the things that go on inside my head. (laughs) I like my vocals to have a lot of reverb to make you feel like you’re in outer space.

In your live sets you cover Tupac’s ‘Keep Ya Head Up’. Why that song?
Jhené Aiko: I remember listening to it when I was pregnant with my daughter. I started crying, and I was just like, ‘This is the greatest song of all time!’ Of course, my hormones were probably going crazy too. (laughs) Tupac’s voice and the messages of his songs were so powerful. There’s no other song that makes me feel like that. It’s not my song, but I feel people should still hear it, and that it should still be performed. He can’t do it any more, so I will. We need music that speaks about what’s going on, for sure. For the most part we get so distracted from real life, and we’re just kind of in la-la land, and when something does happen it’s such a shock.

You also do a dark cover of Drake’s ‘Marvin’s Room’ called ‘Do Better Blues Part 2’. Is it about rape?
Jhené Aiko: Yeah, it is. I took some personal stories and mashed them all up into this one night. The line ‘something was slipped in my drink’ had to do with one of my close friends. Date rape is something people don’t really talk about – unprotected sex, then you’re late, and you have a boyfriend and you have to tell him that you went to this party and you don’t know what happened, and now you might get pregnant... It’s not that uncommon a story, you know? I thought it would be good to take a song like that and talk about something that really happens. 

Is the title Souled Out a comment on artists that have sold out?
Jhené Aiko: Yes. ‘Sailing’ and ‘selling’ sound similar, and for me sailing your soul is just going with the wind, and knowing yourself enough to be free. It’s the complete opposite to selling it. To me, being a sell-out is sometimes just compromising yourself for popularity, or doing something that you feel is what people want. But being souled out is being honest with the way you live, and having so much soul that you can do anything you want and be confident because you know it’s coming from your heart.

You tweeted the other day about your preference for sativa over indica. Where do you hide your blunts?
Jhené Aiko: I vaporise! I guess I’m a social... Well, I’m not just a social smoker. I do it when I wanna feel super-creative, so it’s usually when I’m in the studio. I keep a vaporiser at the Fisticuffs’ studio, and I have a handheld. That pure marijuana doesn’t affect my throat. I love it.

You have regular milkshake breaks, right? 
Jhené Aiko: Oh yeah! (laughs)

There’s a lot of pictures of you on your Tumblr. How self-obsessed are you?
Jhené Aiko: I do have days sometimes where I’m like, ‘You’re alright!’ And then there’s days where I will delete pictures because I’m like, ‘Why did I put that picture up?’ There was a time when I was about 13 when I couldn’t look in the mirror. I would cry every day – I thought things about me were ugly because they weren’t like a certain person who everyone said was pretty. But I feel that I do a good job now with accepting my flaws.

Do you have a talent no one knows about?
Jhené Aiko: Oh man. It’s the weirdest thing, but I can make it sound like there’s a little person inside of my mouth. It’s a little bit like I have two voices. It sounds like a child is screaming for help. (laughs) It’s kinda creepy, and whenever I do it for people they’re like, ‘What the heck?’ And I am the self-proclaimed Cat Whisperer. I can talk to cats. I get cats to come up to me wherever I am. When I was younger I used to just pick up stray cats and bring them home. I can meow with them and they can talk to me. They just say they’re hungry and stuff like that, but I know the cat language, I know what they’re trying to say. I met the Dog Whisperer (Cesar Millan) one day, you know he has a show on Animal Planet? I met him and I told him, ‘I’m the Cat Whisperer.’ I could have a show with him if it doesn’t work out.

Photography Darren Ankenman