“I say, ‘Alexa, play Jhené Aiko on Pandora,’ every single morning.”
That was me being a fan when I sat down late last month with one of my favorite singers. She’s dripped in a reflective silver Dolce & Gabbana tracksuit with white ankle booties. Despite being a little under the weather, the Los Angeles native braved a nearly six hour flight to New York City to play her new album, Chilombo, to a studio full of label reps, journalists and streaming service adjutants.
“Oh, thank you. Does she know my name? Like, how to pronounce it?” Aiko asked, waving a waist-length jumbo box braid away from her face.
“She knows,” I said, trying without luck to get comfortable on a too plush deep purple couch in one of Germano’s recording studios in NoHo.
Incense is burning and I’ve just listened to Chilombo in its entirety, which is how Aiko prefers fans to experience her new project that’s equal parts healing and bops. Every song was originally freestyled and had an undercurrent of crystal bowls meant to stimulate different chakras, or energy points, in the body. The R&B singer got into alternative medicine, meditation and sound healing after having too many side effects from prescriptions. So what is Aiko healing from?
“I make music for healing purposes, for myself,” she told ESSENCE after the listening session. “It’s like journaling or when people paint. It’s sort of an escape. It’s turning pain or frustration into something; into art. Sharing it is also therapeutic because when people express to you that they are relating to it, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m not alone in what I’m going through.'”
The singer gave this album a name she knows intimately. One her father, Dr. Karamo Chilombo, chose himself during “the Malcolm X era,” Aiko said. The moniker is perfect for an album that is peak Aiko. There’s soul-tugging vibes, an interlude that she produced herself; even real lightning and thunder from a rare rainy day in LA. “I recorded it on my phone and thought this would be perfect,” she said of her mantra music.
If 2017’s Trip was Aiko’s escape from her grief through psychedelic drugs, Chilombo is her reclaiming of power through vibrational healing. And before you think it’s too hippy-dippy, the single “P*$$Y Fairy (OTW)” is a clear indication that in everything Aiko does, including the albums that made us fall in love with her, her 2013 debut Sail Out and her 2014 follow-up Souled Out, there’s balance. Let’s be real: she did have all of you, and your cousins, singing about eatin’ booties and groceries. So there’s that. There’s also collabs with John Legend, H.E.R., Miguel, Nas and, of course, Big Sean.
The two have been in the studio so much recently that they “already have a few” songs that could work as a follow up to their 2016 beloved project Twenty88, an album the two had to fight to release, the Detroit rapper recently told Joe Budden. Thank gawd record labels don’t know everything.
My church aunties used to say whoever you spend New Years with is the person you’ll spend the rest of the year with. Aiko spent it with her on-again, Big Sean, at a party thrown by Jay-Z and Beyoncé. After dating for years, fans noticed in early 2019 that that two were spending less time together. And Aiko getting her tattoo of the Detroit rapper covered up was seemingly an indication that she had moved on, but Instagram doesn’t lie. First it was Hawaii, where her great-grandmother was born, then Diddy’s 50th birthday party, then the Roc Nation brunch. Each posted picture of the two forced fans to simply “like” their relationship because the comments were conveniently turned off.
“The internet has made everyone aware of their opinion,” the empath explained when asked about her smart social media boundary. “As many people as there are in the world, that’s how many opinions there are. If you let that many opinions affect your own opinion, and your own way of looking at things, you’re going to be so confused.”
Suddenly in the studio, the vibes were off. The incense was running out of the door thanks to a flurry of people entering and leaving, coming and going, opening and closing. “Can we stop? Oh no, not the interview, but the opening of the door,” she politely instructed.
Where were we?
“Whether it be something with me and Sean, or me and my daughter,” she said, referring to her beloved Namiko, her 11-year-old daughter with O’Ryan, Omarion’s brother, “I just love the feeling of taking that away from people; their need to have to say something or have to give their opinion because I personally have never been that way—well maybe when I was younger, or high or drunk.”
“I share about one percent of my whole being with the internet,” Aiko admitted. “Even in my songs, that’s literally one moment that I’m talking about or when I felt that way. There’s so much more to my relationship with my [late] brother [Miyagi], or with my daughter, or with Sean. People hear a song like ‘Triggered’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, do we hate him now?’ In the grand scheme of things that was like a moment.”
It might’ve been “a moment” for Aiko, but for us, her fans, it felt like shots fired. Released on a late summer night when we were already in our own feelings, “Triggered” said everything we ever wanted to say to that ex who we deeply loved, but who “ruined everything,” as the lyrics perfectly detail. And what’s even worse is that if they would just get it together, we’d “calm down eventually,” but right now “I’m triggered, I am not okay/you need to stay out my way.” Woo! In the midst of Aiko reading him, it also felt like she was reading our diaries. But how did Sean feel when he heard the track?
“He was just like, ‘Wow, I’m not your friend.’ I was like, ‘Well, I was feeling that in the moment. This is just a song. This is not 100% about you,'” Aiko recalled. “Those are the things that I may feel, and I know that they are irrational and coming from just an angry emotional place, but that’s what’s so beautiful about art is that you can just throw paint on a blank canvas, and do something crazy and that’s your release. You didn’t hurt anyone, you know? I feel like, especially because we have a personal relationship, and a true friendship, that’s why I could play it for him, and be like, ‘Yeah, sorry. I kind of went really hard, but don’t think that this is a personal letter to you.'”
But so much of Aiko’s music is personal. Like how the 2015 video of “Eternal Sunshine” reenacted a really bad car crash she was in with her daughter and O’Ryan; or how her daughter adorably sings on “Promises,” which also features the voice of her late brother, who died in 2012 from brain cancer; or when her friend Kurupt appears on a stand-out track from Trip, “Never Call Me.”
The song was famously inspired by the dissolution of her two-year marriage to Dot Da Genius, whom she wed on a Las Vegas whim in 2014 after knowing the producer for a couple of months. “So let’s stop pretending like we were in love/We never shared anything, but the drugs,” Aiko sings on the track. “We were both numb, never had anything real between us.”
We’re all healing from something.
Leaning forward, the singer says reflectively, “We never moved in together. That’s why when people were like, ‘Oh, you left your husband.’ I’m like, honestly, Sean is more of a husband as my friend. I didn’t really know him…I found out he had a girlfriend the whole time. It was crazy.”
Aiko’s honesty is refreshing. It’s why we’ve connected with her from the beginning; she’s unafraid to lift the details of her diary to solidify a connection; to heal; to forget. She makes breakups sound beautiful; perhaps worth it. In a class of artists afraid to say something wrong, afraid of call-out and cancel culture, Aiko proclaimed boldly: “I’m an open book.”
“Earlier you asked, what am I healing from? I don’t know. I feel like we’re all healing from something.”
Chilombo, Aiko’s third studio album featuring her Platinum-selling hit, “Triggered,” is set for release on March 6.