Jhene Aiko gets soulful, personal in major label debut

Souled Out, Jhené Aiko’s newest album, was released Tuesday, and the soulful R&B singer’s creative composition and soft, haunting vocals create a soundscape that is both fresh and historic, blending genres into an album that operates as an artpiece.

Not selling out · Jhene Aiko’s studio debut album Souled Out sees the R&B artist at her most personal and introspective. The tracks are packed with raw emotion and deal with themes of love and loss. - Photo courtesy of Def Jam Recordings

Not selling out · Jhene Aiko’s studio debut album Souled Out sees the R&B artist at her most personal and introspective. The tracks are packed with raw emotion and deal with themes of love and loss. – Photo courtesy of Def Jam Recordings


While Aiko’s signature blend of R&B and hip-hop still remains, her most recent album opens up new doors into her history and personal life. She sings about her family, her fears and aspirations, and lays it over complex, soulful instrumentals that capture the feelings exhibited in her words.

The overall mood of the album is both hopeful and forlorn, reflecting the events of her past few years. While Aiko’s career has begun to take off, her family life has been changing rapidly, from the birth of her daughter to the loss of her brother after his battle with cancer.

The stress of all of these events is present in each moving track off Souled Out. She opens with “Limbo Limbo Limbo,” a track that is seemingly about her own life thus far and the fear of being unable to control it.

She then segues into “W.A.Y.S.,” a song about pushing through pain, and one of the strongest tracks on the album. She takes the time to remind herself to stand tall as she sings, “Life only gets harder but you gotta get stronger / this is for my brother / I do this for my daughter.”The underlying string instruments paired with echoed drumbeats that are reminiscent of raindrops create a melancholy that inspires feelings of defeat and strength.

The next song, “To Love & Die” was the first single off the album, and it has both a memorable chorus and borrowed lyrics from the 50 Cent track, “Many Men,” making it a strong first single. The track was released in June, and it now sits nicely in the album, nestled in a sea of relaxing instrumentals and emotional lyrics.

Moving past “Spotless Mind,” a track about the fear of change and wandering, Aiko takes on romance in “It’s Cool.” The song is a second person love story about a man who caught her when she was down. The bluesy riff and instrumentals add to the loving nature of the track in another mixing of genres by the young artist.

In stark contrast to “It’s Cool,” the next track, “Lyin King” is the heartbreak felt by a woman who confesses unrequited love. She sings about a man who was a “serial lover,” and uses the metaphor of a lion throughout the whole track to emphasize pain she feels, saying he steals hearts and feeds them to his “pride.”

Aiko’s seventh track, “Wading” continues the unfolding love story, as she ponders whether or not she should continue to wade into the open ocean or wait for her lover to swim out. The indecisiveness continues in the second single of the album, “The Pressure.” With a music video directed by Childish Gambino, this song is a strong showing of Aiko’s talents, both lyrically and musically. The opening line “I care about you baby/ baby, more than you’ll ever know,” captures the brooding nature of the entire album. “The Pressure” has a strong backbeat punctuated by treble hits and electric guitar riffs that are a common occurrence on the album, giving it both a coherence with the rest of Souled Out and a unique genre-bending sound.

“Brave” praises a new man for loving her even though she is “in no condition” to love him. The hook has Aiko calling her lover “stone cold crazy” for loving her, furthering the themes of hope and fear present throughout the album. In what is the beginning of a happier section of the album, Aiko is finally showing some positivity in her lyricism.

“Eternal Sunshine” is probably the happiest track on the album, and the piano playing a reflective riff helps to slowly wrap up the album. This track will make you want to Facebook stalk your ex and remember all the good memories associated with them.

It is powerful and heartfelt, and it sets up the next song, which is the most insightful track on Souled Out. “Promises” features NAMIKO and Miyagi, Aiko’s daughter and late brother, in an opening that must be an old recording of the two interacting before Miyagi’s death to cancer.

It is heartfelt and raw, incorporating NAMIKO into the chorus even though she is only 5 years old, and feels more like a reassurance of herself than a track meant for the public. The intimacy of the track creates a strong bond with Aiko that is rarely seen in music today, and if I had to recommend one track, this would be the one.

Last on the regular verion of Souled Out is “Pretty Bird (Freestyle),” a track recorded with Common that lightens the mood of the album just before the end.

“Yes, this is all I have left in me” are the opening lyrics to the song, before Aiko riffs with Common and reflects on the body of work she just created. She acknowledges her sadness in the form of a pretty bird that never flies, but also notes that there is a “blinding light” inside her. In this verse, Aiko proves herself as more than just a beautiful lyricist — she’s a great freestyle artist as well. Common then backs up Aiko’s verse with what feels like a spoken word performance, and gives the album actual cohesiveness instead of sounding like a record company’s sales formula.

Overall, it is refreshing to hear an artist blending genres and working independently of pop charts, and Aiko’s crisp, soulful sound paired with her mournful lyrics provide the perfect soundtrack to a rainy day.


Matt Burke is a sophomore majoring in film production. His column, “Notes on Notes,” runs Thursdays.