Heart wrenchingly inspiring, Jhené Aiko Efuru Chilombo uses her starry voice to prophesize about a girl and her turbulent journey through life. Following her previous mixtapes Sailing Souls and Sail Out, Aiko blows hers fans out of the water with her first full length album Souled Out.
Chilimbo’s unconventional approach to R&B has landed her in the indie hip hop subgenre PBR&B (named after the hipster beer PBR) and the very first track is all the proof you need to justify said label. Soft-rock sounding “Limbo” pioneers the EP with intense bells, aggressive drums and playfully chaotic guitar riffs. The lyrics accurately compliment the tone of the song, describing a girl who is “born in limbo” and the battle she faces with the universe.
The following track has a more traditional R&B sound but that doesn’t mean it fails to stand out. “W.A.Y.S.” is an acronym for “Why Aren’t You Smiling?”, a favorite phrase from her belated brother Miyagi and one of his last tweets before losing his battle with cancer. After admitting to listeners that life never gets easier, she still begs “Why aren’t you smiling?” Addressing her issues head on, she sings “This is for my brother, I do this for my daughter / That’s why I keep goin’”. Aiko’s openness and honesty makes Souled Out admirable, with each song revealing something personal. In her single “The Pressure”, she describes the various pressures she is faced with as an artist; pressure from her relationships, record label, and hardcore fans to be the girl they want her to be.
Contrary to the title, Jhene Aiko has done everything but sell out with her first LP. Take a look at the tracklist and notice the lack of featured artists. The only collaboration present is a freestyle song titled “Pretty Bird” that ends with a respectable feature from Common. The majority of the album is produced by No I.D. and other members of Cocaine 80s, a collective hip hop group that includes No I.D., Common and Aiko herself. A true music head, Aiko not only taps into numerous musical styles, she also references classic rap and hip hop songs. Souled Out borrows lines from well-known tracks such as 50 Cent’s “Many Men (Wish Death)” in the powerful, trippy single “To Love & Die” as well as interpolating Tupac’s “Picture Me Rollin” into the gloomy “Wading”.
Showcasing a sharp tongue and smooth vocals, “It’s Cool” is a pleasant track about wanting to enter the territory of more than friends. The song evokes the excitement, fear and awkwardness that one feels when putting themselves out there. The vocals fluctuate in tone and tempo appropriately over persistent shakers, whispering guitars and crashing cymbals making this track stand out in overall catchiness. Changing gears, the song is followed up by “Lyin King” with a self-explanatory title. Judging by the fact that she addresses the subject with “Mr. Serial Lover, I wish your mother loved you like I could’ve that way you would’ve known how to love a woman”, she clearly was not destined to be the Lyin Queen.
Appealing to her PBR&B audience, Chilombo names two tracks after the Sci-fi, romance, comedy film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The fourth track on the album “Spotless Mind” has a simple beat kept steady with a wood block surrounded by simple chords. The lyrics blame Aiko’s flighty behaviors on her wandering soul as she croons “I got so used to the change / Moving from stranger to strangest”, alluding to the personality of the female lead in the movie. The tenth track “Eternal Sunshine” has a more central connection to the film’s plot, reflecting on all the positive experiences that resulted from negative events. The insightfulness throughout this album shows how much can be learned from any situation life throws at you. Just when it feels like the album has really Souled itself in depth and realness, we’re hit with the eleventh track “Promises” featuring belated Miyagi and Jhene’s 5 year old daughter, Namiko. The opening clip is a recording of Miyagi and Namiko singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” while the chorus coddles listeners with heart-warming vocals from young Namiko. “Promises” is a direct message to her kin that even though life is unpredictable and unknown, Jhené promises that everything will be alright. The intensity of the song will give you chills, maybe even a tear or two, but most importantly it leaves us with a kind reminder of our own mortality.
At the end of a journey filled with boy troubles, single parenthood and family loss, it’s hard to believe this story has a happy ending but Souled Out wraps up with a song dedicated to what appears to be her soulmate. With bold statements such as “The remedy to everything it seems that you are” and “Without you life just passes by”, she proclaims here love to the infamous green leafy plant in “Blue Dream”. Named after a strain of weed, “Blue Dream” is beautiful, melodic track that proves male hip hop artists aren’t the only ones that fall in love with Mary Jane. From start to finish, Souled Out flows magnificently like one liquid entity. Continuing with the sailing theme, it is a voyage consisting of calm waves, destroying winds and ocean sized depths.