Album Review: Jhene Aiko-Souled Out
- Artist: Jhene Aiko
- Title: Souled Out
- Producer(s): No I.D, Dot Da Genius, Fisticuffs
- Lead Single: The Pressure
- Twitter: Twitter.com/JheneAiko
Jhene Aiko’s debut album Souled Out has been one of the most highly anticipated musical projects over the past two years, and for good reason. Aiko impressed music industry insiders and fans alike with a mixtape and EP that showcased her incomparable vocals and unique songwriting perspective. Souled Out thematically caps off what feels like a musical trilogy and Page 31 had the pleasure of hearing the album in it’s entirety alongside Jhene, her lead A&R Noah Preston (Def Jam), her manager Ketrina ‘Taz’ Askew and corresponding members of her promotional team. Jhene set the mood by treating us listeners to complimentary glasses of wine spiked with Red Bull, as we experienced the sonic journey with the lights blacked out, leaving the room in total darkness except for the projection screen flickering with psychedelic images resembling a generic Windows screen saver. After Noah explained to the audience the delicate three year process of creating the album, Souled Out played uninterrupted except for a subtle demand from Aiko: “turn it up…higher.”
Limbo Limbo Limbo opens up the LP, as Jhene drifts through the instrumentation with a flawless pace. Aiko’s vocals are perfectly in-sync with a drum pattern balanced with numerous synths and an electronic guitar rift that cuts through the production dramatically. In just a few minutes you find yourself out to sea in a stream of Jhene’s flowing consciousness. W.A.Y.S is far more emotionally present than the philosophical ballad that is the introduction. “This is for my brother, I do this for my daughter,” sings Aiko in her motivational narrative. The repetitive mantra, “why aren’t you smiling,” is inspired from a real life tweet from her aforementioned brother now permanently tattooed alongside Jhene’s wrist. The singer’s brother shared the rhetorical phrase with his followers in the midst of a two-year battle with brain cancer. Jhene sings, “at fourty four minutes to four, an angel walked up to my door,” which can be interpreted as a biblical reference to verse 3:16, which she’s continuously made allusion to in her past work. Moments like this reflect her veil writing style, which contains great symbolism unlocked with each listening. Before long it’s clear that Jhene is a contemporary poetic genius, externalizing by way of No I.D, Clams Casino, Fisticuffs and Dot Da Genius productions.
To Love & Die is one of two songs with musical features and the Cocaine 80s do not waste their invitation to the party. No I.D. puts together one of his best pieces of productions in what has been a multiple Grammy Award Winning career. Using the frenetic pace of the arrangement as a que, Aiko emotes her desperation for life changing love. Jhene’s been known to borrow lyrics from MCs such as Gucci Mane and Jay Z and here she flips 50 Cent’s Many Men, singing, “Many men, many, many many men, wish death upon me/have mercy on me/cause I’m just a prisoner of your army of one.” If you were to ask Jhene which of the 14 tracks were her favorite, she’d point to them all like an impartial mother. But today, she gives a nod of favoritism to Spotless Mind. Aiko suddenly has a change of heart and reflects on love as an ever changing force that is great while it lasts, but shouldn’t be stressed out over. Spotless Mind may reflect the point one mentally outgrows a relationship and is able to move on, unscathed. Here she makes literary references to author John C. Maxwell, once again showing the reach of her lyricism.
It’s Cool is highlighted by the syntax in Aiko’s delivery. Jhene weaves in and out of patterned vocals spontaneously throughout the record. Her rhythm here comes from within and holds more control over the listener then the seemingly feint production. Lyin King seems a bit relaxed for the perspective of a woman scorned, but it only further defines the individuality of Aiko. In her world, things like heartbreak roll off her shoulder as her sense of karma and righteousness helps her sleep at night. On the follow up Wading, we learn that love is still something worth waiting or wading for depending on how you interpret the cleverly used homophone inserted here. Jhene creates the imagery of herself out at sea, waiting for her prince charming to swim out to her and pull her out.
On her latest single, The Pressure, Aiko allows her one of a kind voice to carry the tune with her most minimalistic lyrics on the album. Symbolic for her relaxed state of mind, induced with weed, Aiko urges her love to go with the flow and relieve the pressure. This continues her ongoing theme of following the current. On Brave, Jhene shares how impressed she is by a man willing to rehabilitate her heart as she finds herself in a place of darkness. Stories like the betrayal she nonchalantly addresses on Lyin King, are revealed to indeed have a lasting effect on her and possibly even jeopardize future love. A simple drum pattern, and the tender pull of guitar strings alongside quality percussion make up the landscape of this instrumentation.
Eternal Sunshine is as close to a bedtime melody as we’ve heard on a mainstream release of this caliber in a long time. Jhene breaks away from her trails with love and heartbreak to look back at the story of her life, measuring completeness by memories of water fights, bike rides and kites soaring through the sky. Eternal Sunshine gives way to Promises which is sure to choke up a fair share of listeners as Aiko pleads with her daughter to promise her she’ll be play with or without her should anything separate them. Towards the end of the opening verse, Aiko and her daughter sing back and forth to each other preciously. In the second verse Aiko speaks to her brother spiritually, promising him she’ll be alright and always look to him in the stars. Similar to W.A.Y.S. Jhene is most emotionally present once again when addressing her family which shows how trivial love really is in comparison.
Jhene Aiko has become known for her freestyles on each of her projects and once again her Pretty Bird (Freestyle) is a show stealing effort. The symbolism of a wounded bird represents her own inner struggles, which is brought into perspective by Common who adds a third person point of view referring to Aiko as, “a pretty bird, yelling from Slauson to 53rd.” Aiko sings her heart out, trying to rescue this bird from despair.
By the end of Souled Out, we see the portrait of a battle tested young woman who generally accepts the inevitability of heartbreak and pain but pulls through it with the unconditional love of her daughter and family. Sonically, there is great variance but still limited range as Aiko remains within the pocket of her patented sound throughout the album. Still, this is admirable in a time where musicians latch onto the latest trends in hopes of dominating radio. Also, perhaps condensing the album to ten tracks would make the project easier to take in at once. No I.D.’s work throughout the album is immaculate, however Jhene’s vocal delivery makes even the most forgettable productions come to life. With each listen you may find a better understand of who Jhene Aiko truly is but in the end, there’s still so much of the story to be told. This is the great start to what looks to be a long, fulfilling career.
-Review by Gregory Calvaire