When I went to Coachella this year, I noticed on the last day as the festival was winding down that Jhene Aiko had one of the most packed crowds at the Gobi tent. You have to take into consideration that monster acts like Disclosure and Arcade Fire were playing around the same time as well. Ms. Aiko has built a loyal fan base with previous EPs and guest spots on songs with Drake and J. Cole. These are rather meticulous choices for collaborations as Drake’s versatility and J. Cole’s introspective rap style give suit to the type of airy voice that Aiko brings to the table.
I wondered if, after the delays and anticipation, if Souled Out would live up to the hype. When you collaborate with certain types of artists, you often get pigeonholed into one sound. Fans may expect one type of sound and be disappointed if you experiment. Souled Out is a beautifully fluid, complete and vulnerable album. It’s sad to say that with R&B music, the word ‘beautiful’ is scarce with recent projects. I’m sure there are SOME couples out there who would rather slowly romanticize their mate other than alternatives (perhaps…maybe I’m just old). Vulnerability is also a rarity regarding recent R&B music but with Souled Out, it’s one of the qualities that drew me in for multiple listens.
Right from the start, “W.A.Y.S.” sets the tone for the whole project. It states Aiko’s inner struggle with why she fights for her dreams and why she is still here over a simple guitar structure and smooth keyboards.”Life only gets harder/but you gotta get stronger/This for is my brother/I do this for my daughter.” One of the major strengths of this album is that the music is used to highlight Aiko’s vocals and back-and-forth verse structure. More often than not in music, the production is so strong that it either takes away from the message completely or tries to hide the flaws of the singer.
Souled Out reveals flaws ranging from lost love to self doubt and it gives the composition semblance. Funny enough, most of this project production-wise is reminiscent of the first tracks off Drake’s Thank Me Later. No I.D., who recently produced another solid album in Common‘s Nobody’s Smiling, gives the platform for Jhene Aiko to shine. The lyricism is refreshing as well. I mentioned the varying lyrical structure, but Aiko knows how to get her digs in – particularly in “Lyin King” (see the title?). “Mr. conditional lover/I wish your father would have stayed/I wish you never promised things that didn’t come true.”
“Brave” is intriguing as it tells the story of a woman who is considerably broken and a man who loves her despite her shortcomings. Aiko has been through a lot, losing a brother and considerable heartbreak. Despite all that, she’s amazed that the man is still around. “Promises”, which includes guitar from Norwegian group Röyksopp and vocals from Jhene’s daughter, shows someone emerging from heartbreak and realizing that everything will be okay in the end. It’s the moral to Souled Out‘s intricate story: I’m flawed, but I’m still standing and I’m worth it. This album is worth a complete listen. Don’t skip any tracks – although this is very well put together, so I doubt you would want to. It’s theater and performance art into an artist who has made it and has the scars to prove it.