There are albums you go to when you want to listen to a couple of your favorite songs, maybe even to extract a track or two for a party playlist you’re creating.
Then there are albums that demand your full attention; albums that require you to stick around and enjoy the whole journey, track by track. Jhené Aiko’s highly-anticipated debut, “Souled Out,” is an album that has you drifting out to sea with her.
While “Souled Out” is Aiko’s first official album, the free-spirited, tattooed songbird (full name Jhené Aiko Efuru Chilombo) paid her dues in the music industry a long time ago. The L.A. native crooned her way into the R&B scene in the 2000s as a teenager, doling out her own slow jams and signing with Sony, The Ultimate Group and Epic. But in the months leading up to the release of her first album, “My Name is Jhené,” Aiko requested to be released from her labels in order to continue her education.
After finishing school and giving birth to her daughter, Namiko, Aiko returned with a vengeance, releasing her mixtape “Sailing Souls” in 2011 and her EP “Sail Out” in late 2013, in addition to collaborating with big name artists like Drake, Childish Gambino and Big Sean on their respective albums. In the past couple years, Aiko has become widely known for her relaxed vocals in stoner hits like “Bed Peace” and “The Vapors,” and many critics have compared her voice and style to those of the late and great Aaliyah.
But “Souled Out,” if anything, serves as a platform for Aiko to establish her distinctive voice. The album, which she dubs as “conceptive,” proves to be less of a record and more of a deeply personal autobiography.
Each song is a chapter and the content of the songs are the pages the listener flips through, as Aiko sings stories of her own heartbreak, loss and eventually, evolution. With each song flowing into the next, Aiko sheds layer after layer until she exposes, well, her soul.
And she wastes no time inviting outsiders into her private life. One of the first songs on the album, “W.A.Y.S.,” opens with a light, melancholy strumming of a guitar as Aiko reflects on the insights and wisdom her brother, Miyagi Chilombo, bestowed upon her before his death––he passed away from cancer in 2012. Chilombo is the angel who visits Aiko in the song––which stands for “Why Aren’t You Smiling?”, his catchphrase line––to let her know “there’s no slowing down” and “life only gets harder but you gotta get stronger.”
Chilombo also makes a vocal appearance in “Promises,” featured alongside Aiko’s daughter in a recording while the singer promises her brother “so I’m gonna make you so proud/You don’t ever have to worry ‘bout me.” She’s singing to the stars, but she doesn’t lose herself among them––Aiko makes it clear that she will persevere and carry on as long as she’s on Earth.
While some songs stem from Aiko’s pensive and wandering soul, others hit the listener hard from the bitterness and pain she’s endured from former lovers. One in particular is the brutally honest “Lyin’ King,” in which she addresses an unfortunate ex-boyfriend with “I wish your mother/Loved you like I could’ve/That way you would’ve known how to love a woman.”
It’s a smooth jam completely void of sympathy, one that can accompany you on late night cruises down the freeway. A song with a similar mellow, yet sexy feel is “The Pressure,” arguably the most popular song on the album.
Some have criticized “Souled Out” for lacking variety in regards to song rhythm and melody, but this is Aiko’s story––she acknowledges the album to be “26 years in the making,” aka her whole life––and the only way you can begin to understand it is by drifting the whole way through with no distinct transitions.
And with an upcoming tour to promote her album––she’s making her way through California venues with The Weeknd and Schoolboy Q––it appears that many have felt the intimacy of Aiko’s words. “Souled Out” is honest, direct and deep––the qualities every memoir should have.
RECOMMENDED: You don’t have to be a longtime fan of Aiko’s as long as you enjoy a mellow beat and lyrics with depth.