It’s amazing to think that at just 25-years-old, Jhené Aiko has essentially had two separate music careers. The Los Angeles singer-songwriter initially got her start at the age of 14, where she signed a record deal with Epic and collaborated closely with R&B boy band B2K under the performing name “Jhené.” She worked on a number of releases over the next few years, including B2K’s Christmas-themed album Santa Hooked Me Up, before shifting her focus on finishing school.
Her calling for making music came back in 2011, when she released her debut mixtape Sailing Soul(s). The 13-track project displayed Jhené Aiko’s immense potential as a singer and songwriter, with smooth records like “My Mine” and “Stranger” proving to be clear standouts. Aiko’s Sailing Soul(s) immediately caught the attention of Def Jam Records, who signed her by year’s end.
More recently Jhené Aiko has played a key role in working with other artists by providing stellar hooks to their songs. One of those records is Big Sean’s “Beware,” off the Detroit rapper’s sophomore album Hall of Fame. The song has already reached number 38 on the Billboard Hot 100 thanks to Aiko’s sweet vocals about a sour break-up. She also worked on Drake’s latest album Nothing Was The Same on “From Time,” which follows a similar theme of longing for a past partner.
Jhené Aiko is currently prepping her debut album Souled Out, which is expected to be released sometime in early 2014. But first Aiko releases her debut project as No I.D.’s first Artium signee, an EP called Sail Out. Artium is an imprint of Def Jam Records, headed up by producer/Def Jam executive VP of A&R Dion “No I.D.” Wilson, a figure who has served as a mentor and champion of the singer since they first met in 2011. In a recent interview with Billboard, he calls Aiko this generation’s Sade–a lofty comparison in the world of R&B.
Aiko describes Sail Out as a project that connects her first mixtape with her upcoming album. “It’s like bridging the gap between [my mixtape] Sailing Soul(s) and Souled Out,” she tells Rap-Up. “Sail Out has a lot of the hip-hop and rap influence on it, even with the beats.” With that formula in mind, her Sail Out EP is expected to include rap acts like Kendrick Lamar, Wiz Khalifa and Big Sean. Late last night she released a teaser of her song “Stay Ready (What A Life) featuring a verse from Kendrick Lamar. It’s a soft and sensual love song that typifies the mode of R&B Aiko has been perfecting throughout the course of her career.
Paired with her previous single “Bed Peace,” the music Aiko released in 2013 so far shows she is an R&B artist through and through. Over light guitar strums and a gentle melody in “Bed Peace” she sings about the feeling of finding that special someone, while rapper Childish Gambino glides through with warm rhymes that complete the puzzle of love. If Jhené Aiko’s debut album Souled Out captures this same vibe, don’t be surprised if you see her onstage soon winning a Grammy. She’s that good.
We caught up with the rising star to talk about how her career has changed since the early days, the influence hip-hop has made on her sound and the importance of staying balanced. Get to know Jhené below.
We know it was a while ago, but what were those early experiences like when you first started working and recording alongside B2K?
It was really exciting for me. I was 12, going on 13. That was my school, because I wasn’t in regular school. That was my childhood. It was a good experience, especially since now I learned a lot that I wouldn’t have known. I was seasoned I guess.
When you initially left the music industry to finish up school, did you know at that time that you would return to music?
Yeah, I never really stopped. I wasn’t really pursuing it as a career as much, but at the same time I was still doing stuff here and there. I was still writing and still doing demos for other people. I always knew when I was done with school that I was going to come back full-time and really work on my own stuff. It was something I was going to do regardless of it being my career or not. I was always going to want to sing and write music.
When you did come back, you created Sailing Soul(s). What were your thoughts going into that first mixtape? Did you have any expectations, pressures or concerns with that project?
No, I just really wanted to put out something free and show people what kind of music I do and what I’m capable of. I didn’t have any expectations for it really. Previously, I was putting out songs here and there on Myspace that I made on GarageBand. People really liked them, so Sailing Soul(s) was me wanting to give out free music to the people that had been following my career since the B2K days. I didn’t really know how it was going to be received, but people liked it.
That mixtape led to a lot of opportunities for you as an artist, including signing a deal with Def Jam. What advice has veteran producer and label executive No I.D. given you as an artist since signing with Def Jam?
No I.D. is a wise person. With every label situation there’s always a lot of waiting around, and stuff doesn’t go as smoothly just because there’s so many people that are involved. He’s constantly telling me, “It’s going to work out, be patient,” and he’s just always very supportive of what I want to do. One of the best things about being signed with No I.D. is he truly understands what it is to be an artist because he’s an artist also, he’s a producer. So he understands the creative side of everything. He’s always like, “Don’t rush anything, just take your time. The music is going to be great regardless of what’s happening.”
Your upcoming EP Sail Out will include guest features from Kendrick lamar, Wiz Khalifa and Big Sean. How do you balance your songwriting when working in such a hip-hop influenced world?
Well I grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop, and it’s influenced my writing. And I just think it’s a part of me, so it’s easy to incorporate a lot of the hip-hop artists that I’m working with. Like I’ll write a song and I’ll leave like 16 bars open just so someone can get on it and rap. Actually, when I was younger I used to think I was going to be a rapper and not a singer. I used to write raps and have my mom help me write them down because I was so young that it was before I could even write. So I was like, “Write these raps,” and my mom would write them down for me.
This running theme of “setting sail” and your soul is very evident in the title of your projects. What’s the inspiration behind that?
Well for me, sailing is going with the wind and being free. It’s also a play on words, and I love to play with words. On Twitter, I was talking with Chase N. Cache who’s a part of Surf Club, and I was trying to say “sell” but I said “sale,” and he corrected me. And then we went back and forth and at the end of our conversation I was just playing with that whole theme of words. And then I came up with Sailing Soul(s). I do believe that when I write it’s coming from my inner self, my soul. That’s my little way of saying I’m being creative, saying that I’m a soul singer and that everything I do is me being a free spirit.
You recently released “Bed Peace,” and the single art image is of you and Childish Gambino replicating the iconic photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. How does Lennon and Ono’s prescription of peace in the 1960s translate to this message that you’re trying to convey in “Bed Peace”?
My take on “Bed Peace” is a modern day urban version of their message, which is all about being peaceful. My message is about inner peace and not being so caught up in what’s going on in the outside world. Just staying in with your lover or whoever, and just getting more in touch with who you are. I think world peace is always a message that is relevant because there’s always so much going on in the world, violence, war, all that. My message is about bringing it into yourself and working on your inner peace so you can be a peaceful person, and there’s was more about world peace. It all ties in together.
With so many male artists taking the center stage in the world of R&B like Frank Ocean and Miguel, how does being a female artist allow you to differentiate yourself?
I think as a female artist I can talk about things that relate better to females. So even though a lot of girls listen to Miguel and Frank Ocean, they can’t really relate because they’re men and they’re talking about male topics. But for me, I’m a young mom, I’m a girl with girl feelings, and I’m super honest with what I’m going through. They can truly relate because I’m being honest and I’m not singing other people’s feelings or anything like that. I’m really writing my own music, and I think that’s why a lot of my fans come up to me and say, “Thank you, you tell my story for me because I went through that same thing you talked about.”
What do you think is the most exciting thing happening in music right now?
I think lately I’ve seen a lot of collaborations that you don’t expect. So I’ll listen to like a Chance The Rapper and James Blake collaboration, and then Kendrick Lamar did a collaboration with Emeli Sandé. There’s just a lot of collaborations from a lot of artists you don’t expect, and I think that just shows how music is all coming together no matter what genre. Music is like the language of the soul, so it’s exciting to see everyone come together and share their talents and put it out as this new sound.
Looking ahead, what can fans expect on your debut album Souled Out?
Souled Out is really me telling a lot of my story and sharing more of myself and sharing my philosophies on life. Sail Out, which is the EP that dropped November 11, that project is dealing with lighter topics and not digging deep into who I am. I like to say it’s bridging the gap between the mixtape that I put out and my album Souled Out. It’s the appetizer before the main course. Souled Out is literally my soul on every track. The production, the lyrics, the singing, everything is a few notches up from what people are used to hearing from me.