Jhené Aiko Is Still Quietly Staking Her Claim As Her Generation’s Defining R&B Singer

Jhené Aiko

Jhené Aiko Is Still Quietly Staking Her Claim As Her Generation’s Defining R&B Singer

Jhené Aiko

Jhené Aiko is a living legend. You wouldn’t necessarily know it because Aiko has always been a moody and understated presence — someone who lays back in the cut letting you come to her rather than making herself inescapable. She’s never had a #1 album or a top 10 single, and no militant stan army has mobilized in her name to beat back online dissent. Yet Aiko, 32, has spent the past decade quietly building up a sterling catalog with a subtly massive influence. She’s one of her generation’s defining R&B singers and maybe the single most underrated star in music today.

Aiko released Chilombo, her third album, back in March. It’s a self-titled project of sorts, named for her surname (her full name is Jhené Aiko Efuru Chilombo). The album debuted with a highly impressive 152,000 equivalent album units and 38,000 in sales — good enough for #1 in many weeks, but Aiko finished second behind Lil Uzi Vert’s Eternal Atake. Chilombo slipped past me upon initial release; around the time it dropped I was focused on Doja Cat and Niall Horan and the anniversary of *NSYNC’s No Strings Attached. Now that it’s back in the top 10, rising to #6 on this week’s chart thanks to the release of its deluxe edition two Fridays ago, the time seems right to give Aiko her due.

Before she broke through to the rap and R&B mainstream in the early 2010s, Aiko had been active within the music industry for a full decade. In 2002, as a young teenager, she placed a song called “Cherry Pie” on the soundtrack to the Dana Carvey flop The Master Of Disguise and went on to appear on other soundtracks like Barbershop and You Got Served. Back then, she was marketed as a cousin of Lil’ Fizz from the boy band B2K, a childhood friend she wasn’t actually related to — she makes brief appearances in the group’s “Why I Love You” and “Uh Huh” videos — and her music from the era reflects the skittering, upbeat aesthetic of landscape shaped by Timbaland and the Neptunes. She was debuting singles on 106 & Park by the following year, but her debut album My Name Is Jhené never came out due to tensions with Epic Records, who agreed to let her out of her contract.

After taking a few years away from the spotlight, Aiko was working her way back into the music industry by 2007, but a surprise pregnancy put her career on hold for a bit. When she finally re-emerged in 2011, she did so with some significant support in the form of guest spots from Kanye West, Drake, Gucci Mane, Miguel, and fledgling star Kendrick Lamar on debut mixtape Sailing Soul(s). Largely written by Aiko and produced by the duo Fisticuffs, the project established Aiko’s signature sound, a deeply chill and often melancholy spin on R&B that found her dispensing real talk with an airy, conversational vocal presence. The aesthetic was comparable to Drake’s breakthrough mixtape So Far Gone and the cloud rap that was blowing up in the hip-hop underground, but few singers were inhabiting that sonic environment as naturally as Aiko.

Soon she was signed to No I.D.’s Def Jam imprint, opening for Nas and Lauryn Hill, and cracking the Hot 100 for the first time on future love interest Big Sean’s “Beware.” Aiko became a radio mainstay in her own right with 2014 breakthrough single “The Worst,” a sweeping and luxuriant piano-led slow jam marked by stinging lines like “Please don’t take this personal/ But you ain’t shit/ And you weren’t special.” With a candidness matched by few of her peers, she adeptly blurred the line between rapping and singing, creating the feeling that you were listening in to a phone call to an estranged ex. Drake — who featured Aiko on Nothing Was The Same, took her on tour, and even brought her on SNL to perform “From Time” — recognized a worthy peer.

Aiko’s career since then has not been a Drake-level blockbuster. Partially, that’s because she hasn’t reached for crossover hits or pandered to the demands of today’s pop mainstream, in which songs often must function as memes in order to gain widespread traction. Instead, she’s churned out a whole lot of music within her wheelhouse, building up a solid collection of atmospheric modern R&B and helping to establish a lane for similarly frank talents like Kehlani and Summer Walker, both of whom duetted with Aiko on their most recent albums. So much of the genre’s mainstream today is treading shadowy territory because it exists in her shadow. Even a longterm romantic and creative partnership with noted cornball Big Sean hasn’t undermined her immaculate sighing charisma; if anything, Aiko’s tasteful approach seems to have influenced Sean’s bars on their collaborative works like 2016’s Twenty88.

In fact, one of Chilombo’s many highlights is “None Of Your Concern,” which the couple recorded and released last year while broken up. It’s a bracingly honest and sometimes explicit postmortem on their romance, and it’s one of many unflinching moments on the album. Recording in Hawaii in the wake of her breakup from Sean, Aiko incorporated the sound of crystal alchemy singing bowls tuned to specific chakra frequencies as a mode of healing. If that sounds serene, the lyrics are strikingly raw. “You muhfuckin’ right, I’m bitter/ You muhfuckin’ right, I’m triggered,” Aiko sings over zoned-out keyboard chords and trap drums on early single “Triggered,” one of many elegant reunions with longtime producers Fisticuffs and Lejkeys. On the ghostly “Speak,” she taunts, “I’m moving on I’m putting on my favorite dress, the one you hated/ Said I looked naked in.” Alongside H.E.R. on “B.S.,” she continues the offensive: “It seem like I give so much and don’t get nothin’ back/ I really thought it was love but you’re so fuckin’ wack.”

The original Chilombo tracklist maintains this vibe for an hour. Even brief stylistic detours like the languid funk track “Tryna Smoke” and the John Legend duet “Lightning & Thunder” — a retro soul update similar to Rihanna’s “Love On The Brain” — sound like natural outgrowths of the album’s world. “I know life’s a bitch, but she could at least give me head sometimes,” she memorably quips on the former, and seemingly every track offers up some similarly memorable lyric, often broadcasted in the song titles. On the sparse “Define Me” she proclaims, “You cannot define me.” On the acoustic “Born Tired” she sums up her exhaustion: “Baby, I was born tired.” Few images this year are more evocative than Aiko as the “Pussy Fairy on the way.” By the time Ty Dolla $ign shows up for the thumping and surprisingly upbeat but still fundamentally misty closer “Party For Me,” Aiko has completed one of the most accomplished R&B albums in recent memory.

Because this is 2020, there of course must be a deluxe version of Chilombo. This one features nine previously unreleased songs and remixes, with new features from Kehlani, Snoop Dogg, Chris Brown, Wiz Khalifa, and Aiko’s sister Mila J. As usual, all the extra music lends a bloated feeling to an otherwise well-crafted project, stretching Chilombo out to a patience-testing 92 minutes. New additions like “Above And Beyond” measure up to Aiko’s standards, and you can see the logic of, say, adding Snoop to “Tryna Smoke.” Yet ultimately the only good reason for the deluxe Chilombo to exist is to remind people Jhené Aiko is out there excelling in her chosen lane — in which case, mission accomplished, I suppose. I wrote this column, and you’re reading it; unfortunately, we’ve both unwittingly encouraged the deluxe-album industrial complex. But if anybody deserves that boost in attention, it’s Aiko.

The deluxe edition of Chilombo ends with “Summer 2020,” an expanded version of an interlude from the original tracklist. “I’ll take some rain with my sunshine,” Aiko sings, encapsulating the vibe of the moodiest summer in recent memory. When she first wrote the song, Aiko could not have anticipated what a dreary season this would be. Chilombo was released on the first Friday of March, about a week before North America began to take the threat of coronavirus seriously. She merely poured her heart into another stylish rumination that happened to match the mood of the moment. It wasn’t the first time her music has predicted the future.

CREDIT: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

CHART WATCH

The top two songs in America this week are the same as last week — DaBaby and Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar” at #1, Jack Harlow’s “What’s Poppin” remix with DaBaby, Tory Lanez and Lil Wayne at #2 — but the biggest Hot 100 news involves Drake. His DJ Khaled collab “Popstar” debuts at #3, breaking him out of a tie with Madonna for most top 10 hits all time. Another Drake and DJ Khaled track, “Greece,” enters at #8, extending Drake’s historic total to 40 career top 10 singles. As Billboard points out, the new hits are Drake’s 24th and 25th top 10 debuts, also a record.

Elsewhere in the top 10, the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” is at #4, followed by SAINt JHN’s “Roses” at #5, Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé’s “Savage” at #6, and Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” at #7. Juice WRLD and Marshmello’s “Come & Go” falls to #9. And rounding out the top 10 is Chris Brown and Young Thug’s newly peaking “Go Crazy” at #10, which becomes Brown’s 16th top 10 hit and Thugger’s third.

Juice WRLD’s posthumous album Legends Never Die holds on to #1 on the Billboard 200 for a second straight week, with numbers that most artists fantasize about posting in their project’s first week on the market. Legends Never Die tallied 162,000 equivalent album units. Billboard’s report doesn’t specify how that breaks down between streaming, album sales, and track sales, but based on general trends and Juice’s mammoth streaming figures last week, you can bet streaming powered most of it.

After the late Pop Smoke at #2 comes a #3 debut for the Chicks’ Gaslighter. The group’s first album in 14 years posted 84,000 units and 71,000 in sales to become their fifth top-10 LP (though notably their first to miss the #1 spot since 1998’s major-label debut Wide Open Spaces). After Hamilton and Lil Baby comes Jhené Aiko’s aforementioned Chilombo, back up to #6 with 50,000 units thanks to the release of its deluxe version. Closing out the top 10 are former #1 albums from Post Malone, DaBaby, Harry Styles, and the Weeknd.

POP FIVE

Taylor Swift – “cardigan”
For once, Taylor Swift did not choose a stinker of a lead single. I am not as impressed with folklore as some people (don’t dox me, stans!), but this one effectively immerses you in the project’s headspace. (Let’s get “mirrorball” in Top 40 rotation eventually though, yeah?)

Maroon 5 – “Nobody’s Love”
Did Adam Levine shave his head to properly align himself with this song’s Phil Collins vibes? It’s not his best look, but I respect the synchronicity.

J Balvin, Dua Lipa, Bad Bunny, & Tainy – “Un Día (One Day)”
I have no doubt that these artists could team up for a genuinely thrilling pop song, which makes this faux-inspirational snoozer all the more disappointing.

Blake Shelton – “Happy Anywhere” (Feat. Gwen Stefani)
Did you know Blake Shelton played a virtual concert simulcast to drive-in theaters across America this weekend? That fact is a lot more interesting than this song.

Jason Derulo – “Take You Dancing”
Good lord, Jason Derulo, I set such a low bar for you, and still you have failed to clear it.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Justin Bieber visited Kanye West at his Wyoming ranch. [TMZ]
  • Bieber also announced his rescheduled 2021 tour dates. [Business Wire]
  • The Chainsmokers played a concert for FuckJerry’s tequila brand in the Hamptons, and the COVID-19 protections looked dicey at best. [TMZ]
  • Katy Perry’s Smile has been moved to 8/28 due to production delays. [Twitter]
  • In other Perry news, she performed her hits in a Big Top-inspired virtual world for Tomorrowland. [Twitter]
  • Tove Lo is married. [Billboard]
  • Post Malone is working on his next album, writing “songs about what’s going on currently.” [WSJ]
  • Chrissy Teigen apologized for tweeting a joke about Megan Thee Stallion. [Twitter]
  • Teigen’s husband John Legend and Andra Day sang Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love Of All” at a Joe Biden fundraiser. [Twitter]
  • Demi Lovato got engaged to her boyfriend Max Ehrich. [People]
  • Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner had a baby. [USA Today]
  • A judge cancelled last week’s virtual status hearing on Britney Spears’ conservatorship when random people from the public wouldn’t get off the Zoom. [TMZ]
  • J. Cole wrote an essay about basketball for The Players Tribune. [The Players Tribune]
  • The iHeartRadio Music Festival will happen virtually this year via Zoom. [Rolling Stone]
  • Atari released an Avicii-themed mobile game. [YouTube]
  • The Weeknd released an animated video for “Snowchild.” [YouTube]
  • Logic released a video for “DadBod.” [YouTube]
  • Noah Cyrus covered Mac Miller’s “Dunno.” [YouTube]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

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