Free-spirited Jhené Aiko breezes onstage like a barefoot gypsy, quickly engaging her audience with a quiet mystique. So much about the 26-year-old artist feels right for the time: Her vocal stylings are a moody mosaic of R&B and hip-hop, built around deeply personal lyrics. Then there’s her look, which straddles the borders of her African-American, Japanese and Native American heritage. Although some have followed Aiko (her name’s pronounced juh-NAY AHH-ee-ko) for years, many others came aboard more recently, grooving to her hit “The Worst”—a song about a complicated relationship that only fueled anticipation for her first full-length album (released September 9 on Def Jam Records). These days she also has heavyweights in her corner: Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino both, assisted on songs “Stay Ready (What a Life)” and “Bed Peace,” respectively, for her 2013 EP, Sail Out; John Legend sang background for Aiko at the 2014 BET Awards; and Drake asked her to be his guest on his international tour and on Saturday Night Live.
Aiko was quite young when she was first signed to a record deal. Back then, just 13, the Los Angeles native stood in the shadow of older sisters Mila J and Miyoko, who formed the group Gyrl. (Mila J’s video for her song “Smoke, Drink, Break-Up” was recently in heavy rotation on 106th & Park.) Aiko gained notice by contributing to the sound tracks of Barbershop, You Got Served and The Proud Family. But for a long while she felt inexperienced and allowed others to call the shots, singing backup for B2K and performing music that didn’t connect to her minimalist vision. In recent years, however, beginning with 2011’s mixtape Sailing Soul(s) and then 2013’s EP, she steered her career in a direction that suits her well. The title of Aiko’s new album, Souled Out, “is a play on the words ‘sell out,’” says the singer, who has a symbolic tattoo of a dharma wheel on her shoulder. The project reflects her intention to create music from her core. “It’s about the opportunity to be yourself, go with the wind and put soul into everything you do.”
Aiko brought not only her soul into the recording studio but also her heart: Her soon-to-be 6-year-old daughter, Namiko, lends her tender voice to the first single, “Promises.” Aiko wrote the song for her baby girl and in honor of her big brother, Miyagi, who died of cancer two years ago: “It’s asking Namiko to promise me that no matter what happens she’ll be okay.... And telling my brother I’ll always be all right, because of what he taught me.” The tune is Aiko’s favorite on the album, in part because her daughter’s performance brought an “urgency” and a “bright energy” to it. Listening to Aiko through songs like this—about life, death and all the little dramas in between—it’s no wonder we’re under her spell.