It was around this time last year that Jhené Aiko came to our shores to tour her debut studio album Souled Out. After a decade gaining the real world experience the unchosen path of teen stardom would have denied her, Souled Out has been cast as Aiko’s musical renaissance. Since the album’s release in 2014, Aiko has continued to carve out space as a unique voice in R&B. While 2013 EP, Sail Out, tested the waters of the songstresses ethereal brand of R&B, the album offers a more complete exploration of Aiko’s sound.
As an artist whose voice has primarily featured in the work of her Hip Hop and R&B counterparts, Souled Out seems to be decisively self-determined. In contrast to her previous releases, Aiko is adamant about her role as a songwriter, and aside from vocal appearances from James Fauntleroy and Common, it is her voice that dominates throughout the album. It is a bold approach in an age where declaring an album to be featureless holds about the same weight a “no filter” hashtag on Instagram, but Aiko commands her instrument with enough proficiency to hold her own.
Aptly named, the lyrical rawness and vulnerability of Souled Out is rare for a debut album, yet unsurprising given the artist’s maturity. Aiko’s writing weaves between relatable themes of love and loss, and distinctly intimate, nostalgic reveries. Opener “Limbo Limbo Limbo” establishes the narrative trajectory of the album: over swelling synth and tumbling percussion we are introduced to a girl in the midst of turmoil, lost in an ego-driven relationship. “W.A.Y.S.” (an acronym for “Why Aren’t You Smiling?”, and one of the last things her late brother, Miyagi, ever tweeted) combines the gentle, repetitive guitar and echoing drums of co-producers Thundercat and Clams Casino to create a sense of emotional awakening apparent in the motivational hook, “I gotta keep going”.
On the album’s most earnest track, “Promises”, Aiko offers an intimate dedication to her brother, and daughter, Namiko, (who is featured on the first chorus) discussing the challenges of celebrity and motherhood. “Pretty Bird (Freestyle)” wraps up the album’s evolution with a message of enlightenment. Acknowledging the emotionally tasking nature of self-expression, Aiko ends on a note of rebirth and revival, with Common providing the album’s last word.
One of her strengths, the feathery, dazed quality of Aiko’s voice has been paired with a similarly lullabic production. In individual tracks, this parallel amplifies the muted honesty centred in Aiko’s writing. Standout songs such as single “The Pressure”, and celestial “To Live and Die” featuring vocals from Cocaine 80s, benefit from the melodic symmetry. However, the album as a whole suffers from a lack of dynamism, that, while perfect for a brooding summer’s afternoon, does not do justice to Aiko’s magnetic vocal ability.
Souled Out is a love letter to endurance. It chronicles an emotional journey, that, while mostly autobiographical, touches on universal experiences of pain characteristic of the genre. The production brings together a cohesively lush sound that is to be expected of the album’s collaborators, yet cancels out the very same timbre that draws audiences to Aiko’s voice. The album’s lyrical catharsis creates a sense of both beginning and ending Aiko’s career – a debut that brings closure to a period in the artist’s life and opens up endless possibilities for her musical direction.
Her 2016 Single, “Maniac”, released ahead of her upcoming sophomore LP, teases a more confident, distinct sound, exploring a darker and more playful side to Aiko. We’re excited to see where this one goes.
Souled Out is out now.