Features I by I 07.11.13

Sailing soul: Talking Drake and drugs with R’n’B breakout Jhené Aiko

Sailing soul: Talking Drake and drugs with R'n'B breakout Jhené Aiko

Don’t let Jhené Aiko’s girlish, featherlight tones deceive you – the 25-year-old is a veteran in the game.

Signed by Epic at the age of 13, the Los Angeles native spent a decade waiting in the wings, singing with R&B boyband B2K and and recording almost 200 unreleased solo tracks before eventually stepping off the major label machine to write and release her debut mixtape, 2011’s smokily soft-focus Sailing Soul(s).

That tape’s combination of sultry, weed-hazed beats, Aiko’s silky vocal and a sprinkling of starry guest spots (including Kendrick Lamar, Miguel and Drake plus, in true old school mixtape style, a couple of jacked verses from Gucci Mane and Kanye West) secured her a slow-burn hit, bubbling its way to underground success in the same year The Weeknd redefined the parameters of modern R’n’B. Not that Aiko sees herself in this lineage, exactly, preferring to define her music more broadly (she uses the term “easy listening”, which perhaps isn’t meant in the Phil Collins sense) and naming soft-rock crooner John Mayer as one of her biggest songwriting inspirations.

Aiko’s biggest break came this year with her show-stealing appearance on Drake’s third album Nothing Was The Same, where her cherubic vocal on album linchpin ‘From Time’ drew comparisons with Anna Wise, the singer whose innocent lilt helped define Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid m.a.a.d. City. ‘From Time’ functions as the album’s emotional core, an eye-of-the-storm moment with Drake at his most Drake-ish, reflecting on missed chances and lost loves (like the now-immortal “Courtney from Hooters”) while Aiko plays it cool against his needy blubbering with the nonchalant dismissal, “I love me enough for the both of us”. Unlike so many contemporary ‘collaborations’, Aiko and Drake’s duet originated in a face-to-face studio session.

“I was there, I actually picked the beat,” she says, speaking over the phone from Miami, where she’s performing tonight as part of Drake’s Would You Like A Tour?. “He played me a few things and that one really spoke to me, and we just hung out for the rest of the session.” Unusually for such a hugely anticipated and leak-prone album, she was even allowed to take the song away with her to continue writing and recording at her studio in Los Angeles.

“Then I sent it to him and he loved it, and he just called me and rapped me his verses,” she remembers. “Of course I was like, this is great! I don’t even know why he called me, ‘cos I wasn’t gonna be like, ‘No, go back in and write something else!’ But it was great that he let me be a part of his verses as well. Then when he recorded his part he let me come into the studio and hear the song all the way down.”

Now the dust has settled on that album, Aiko is preparing for the release next week of her first official EP, Sail Out, which she chose to put out as a stopgap before her debut album Souled Out appears sometime next year.

“The EP is a good mix of songs to get people familiar with my sound and what I can do, because a lot of them still haven’t heard the mixtape,” she says, explaining that while the album is “basically done”, she wanted to get some new material out this year while the final touches are being added. “It’s been long enough and I wanted the people who are not familiar to get familiar.” With appearances from Kendrick Lamar, Black Hippy member Ab-Soul and Californian up-and-comer Vince Staples, the seven-track EP is led by the single ‘Bed Peace’, which sees Aiko plotting to swap the trappings of female pop stardom for a day in bed with a blunt and her lover (played in this song – and the John and Yoko-inspired video – by rapper/actor Childish Gambino).


“With the mixtape I was really writing and recording everything while high”


Next year’s Souled Out looks set to be a strictly solo affair, though, with not a rapper in sight. “If there are features it’ll be me making room for a feature, but as of now the songs are complete,” she says, describing the next record as “a little more worldly and open” than her earlier efforts. She’s built up a close relationship with her producers, L.A. duo Fisticuffs and Def Jam boss No I.D., often collaborating from the ground up rather than picking readymade beats. “A lot of the time we’ll start creating the beat together – they’ll put together a few instruments, or maybe one instrument, then I’ll start writing and they’ll build up the beat around my melody or my words,” she says. “That’s preferably how I like to work.”

But one element that fuelled the mixtape’s heady atmosphere (and the spaced-out mood of ‘Higher’, in particular) was absent from her recent studio sessions. “With the mixtape I was really writing and recording everything high, but not for the EP and the album,” she says, before adding with tongue-in-cheek primness: ‘I mean, I still partake in marijuana usage…”

Has that changed the vibe of the music at all? “Sort of, but I would be lying if I said I made the EP completely sober,” she laughs. “It’s more that I know now how to channel my high. When I’m being lazy and I don’t feel like thinking as much and I’m looking for a shortcut then I’ll resort to smoking. But nowadays it’s like, I can get to that state on my own and just take myself there.

“Either way I still reach into other places, you know?”



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