August 1, 2013


R&B Singer Jhené Aiko Is Ready for Her Close-Up

Roger Kisby/Getty Images
Roger Kisby/Getty Images

For R&B fans, few albums are more anticipated than Los Angeles-based singer Jhené Aiko's Souled Out, her debut album set for release later this year after years of disruptions, distractions and frustrations.

Aiko began her career as a teenager, contributing songs for teen R&B group B2K in the early-2000s before attempting to forge a solo career. After a self-titled debut album was shelved due to label conflicts, the singer left the industry, returning years later with the 2011 mixtape Sailing Soul(s) featuring Kanye West, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Miguel and Gucci Mane. Aiko also has become the go-to female vocalist for Lamar's Black Hippy crew, appearing on tracks by Ab-Soul and ScHoolboy Q.

After high-profile appearances on Big Sean's "Beware" and J. Cole's "Sparks Will Fly," Aiko caught us up on the status of her debut album, working with Drake and making sure you pronounce her name right.

What's the status of the album and what’s taken so long?

I am extremely hard on myself and it can always be better to me. There’s been a lot of going back and changing a couple of lines. I like to ride around and listen to my own music just to make sure it’s fresh, but I’ve also been recording more and more songs. Even though the album was complete this time last year, I wrote better songs and after that, I’d go back and look at the older songs and say, "How do I make these old ones better than these new ones?" I could probably put out two albums back to back at this point.

What details can you share about the album?

It’s going to be between 12 and 13 songs with a few bonus tracks. There’s no release date yet, but it'll be out for sure this year. I am going to do whatever I have to do and my management and I are all on the same page that it needs to come out this year. We’re just waiting for the right timing of everything just because I truly believe in filling out what’s missing and not just putting it out and having it get it lost in whatever else is out. I want to make sure everything is done right.

['Souled Out'] is 98% finished. We’re fine tuning. It’s done.

What percentage of the album is finished?

I would say it’s 98% finished. We’re fine tuning. It’s done.

Has the label been receptive about how long it's taken or have they tried to speed up the process?

No, not at all. I am signed to No ID’s label [Artium] and through his label to Def Jam, so he’s pretty much my point person. So basically we are in control. Any time I talk to him, it’s like "Well, what do you want to do?" It’s a pretty cool position to be in. Although, if it’s up to me, and I have time, I will keep doing more songs, so sometimes I do need someone to say, "Well, this needs to be done." I have to step up my bossiness because everyone trusts that me and my team know what we’re doing. And we do. I work intuitively, and I’m like, "Alright, now’s the time, now we need to put out the song, this week, go."

How do you know when a song is finished?

I know when a song is done when I can just listen to it and want to hear it and not think of it being me. I put on a song and I’ll keep picking out what I want to change and stuff like that, and once I feel like it’s at its best, then that means I'll just want to put it on in my car, ride around listening to it and just forget that it’s me.

You recently tweeted, "I just finished the most important song ever". What song was that and why was it so important?

The title is "Promises" and it will be on Souled Out. It’s to a No ID beat, which was my favorite track he ever played me, and I had my daughter sing part of the hook. It’s to my daughter and brother. [Aiko's brother Miyagi died in 2012 after a two-year battle with brain cancer.] I’m not going to call it a freestyle, but I went in and sang how I was feeling. These are my promises to my very important people and I wanted to just say how it is and how I feel.

Being from a musical family, was it easier to decide to include your daughter on the track or was there any hesitation?

Ever since she was born, she has had this personality all her own with things that I haven’t even showed her. Singing is something that she just automatically does. She is with me most of the time and I’ll just put on tracks and come up with melodies and she'll be in the back coming up with her own melodies and words. I knew I wanted that song to be dedicated to her and my brother and I was sure she would love to be on it and actually sing with me. I am very confident in her as an individual and I know that she will never do anything she doesn’t want to do because she is so headstrong, even as a 4-year-old. So I would never force her to do anything that she doesn’t want to do and she naturally wants to sing.

Do you consider yourself a very competitive person?

I think I compete with myself. I’m hard on myself. I compete with people who you don’t expect me to compete with. I will hear a Kendrick Lamar song, or a Drake song and I will be like "Oh no, I need to make a song better than that." People will say, "Really, you’re not thinking about Rihanna, you’re not thinking about Beyonce?" No, I consider myself a lyricist and that is the audience that I want. I want somebody that really loves Eminem and Jay-Z to want to put on one of my songs and appreciate what I wrote or freestyled.

People will say, “You’re not thinking about Rihanna; you’re not thinking about Beyonce?" No. I consider myself a lyricist and that is the audience I want.

Drake confirmed your appearance on his unreleased song "Momentous Occasions." What can you tell us about the track? 

I am not going to say too much. Recording the song and working with him, period, was a momentous occasion. Because I think he is amazing, like a magical being for me, like a unicorn or something. He is somebody I like to listen to to get inspired and helps me write from an honest place. Recording that song was more of a personal experience because we sat with [Drake producer Noah] 40 [Shebib] and I got to help pick the beat, take it home and record to it. That was more of a collaboration than other tracks I've done.

Your first name is pronounced "Juh-nay." On a scale from "Smiling graciously" to "Wanting to punch someone in the face," what's your reaction when someone calls you "Jenny"?

I have gotten it all my life. Even in school, the teacher would stop during roll call and I would raise my hand because I already knew that they came to my name. I have gotten jehine, gin, and I’ll just respond; I don't correct people. I only want to punch someone in the face when it’s something like if a person is introducing my video. You had time to ask. You knew you had some questions about how to say my name, but wanted to assume you knew how to say it. I've had people ask me, "How do you say it, I'm about to introduce you, wait one more time?" And then as soon as I go on they'll be like 'Jhianko' and I’m like, 'alright, that’s who I am today, I guess.'