Jhené Aiko surprised us all as she released her debut album Souled Out a week early as a free stream on iTunes Radio to tide us over until we can download or buy a physical copy on September 9th for its official release. While the free stream was certainly unexpected, Jhené’s debut LP is far from unexpected as pop, R&B, and hip-hop fans alike have been patiently waiting its release. Jhené already has a great catalog of features, working previously with some of music’s biggest rappers (Drake, Big Sean, Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino), but with Souled Out (which follows her 2013 debut EP Sail Out) she gives us our first full-length taste of what we can expect from Jhené Aiko as an artist.
Jhené Aiko is a true vocalist with a beautiful voice, which makes for an unique blend when mixed with her heavily hip-hop influenced instrumentals. It is no surprise that she is one of the most sought after hook features in rap. This album is certainly indicative to such a style, where nearly every track showcases her vocal range, complemented by production from the legendary No I.D., Key Wane and Dot Da Genius. Although she has already made plenty of connections in rap, Souled Out is all Jhené, with very minimal features. The mood on Souled Out is very soothing with Jhené’s soft voice, strongest however when met with her aggressive lyrics singing poetically about relationships and the heartbreak and confusion that comes with them. While not to the same quality of his debut album Channel Orange, Aiko reminds us of a female Frank Ocean in both her content and style of singing which mixes R&B and hip-hop.
While we were surprised that Jhené did no include her very successful single ‘The Worst’ onto the album, a great single that she has been frequently promoting throughout the past few months, the albums best track is “To Love & Die”. The track features complementing vocals by Cocaine 80s (the James Fauntleroy and No I.D. collective) and gives us some of Jhene’s more aggressive vocals and lyrics.
“Now many men, many, many, many men, wish death upon me. Have mercy on me. Cause I’m just a prisoner of your army of one. But I’ll fight till the death, or until your heart is won.”
With a reference to 50 Cent’s ‘Many Men’ and on a No I.D. beat with her soothing vocals, this track is what has drawn us to Jhené over the past two years. ‘The Pressure’, the album’s lead single, also heavily showcases the hip-hop elements of the album, with strong crashing synthetic drums beginning the track and persisting throughout. In promotion of the album, Jhené also released her video for ‘The Pressure’ while linking fans to the album’s free stream. The video, directed by Childish Gambino and Calmatic, follows Jhené in her attempts to balance her career with her personal life.
Where the album gains in production, vocals, and content it lacks in diversity. The rap influenced R&B productions mixed with lyrics about relationships make for great tracks, but begin to sound similar and the messages begin to be redundant by the album’s closure. While it may not always be the best move to live by your features on a debut album, and many artists steer away from such a style for a debut, this album could have likely improved with features from some of Jhené’s associated acts. This is not to say that the album is not consistent in its quality, no one track stands out as poor, and every track mixes good production and vocals. ‘Promises’ however, is certainly a track that separates itself from the others, being the album’s most personal and heartfelt song. Opening with a sound clip from her late brother Miyagi, who passed away to cancer in 2012 and her daughter Namiko, Jhené sings about making promises to her daughter that she will always be alright and dreaming about and missing her brother. Just over a year ago, Aiko and her daughter were involved in a car accident, and when mixed her daughter’s singing on the song’s chorus, this song is especially personal and another one of the album’s stand outs.
Souled Out further confirms Jhené’s talents which she gave us a preview to with her debut EP. Her smooth vocals, soft voice, laid on top of well produced R&B and hip-hop blends makes for a unique experience and shows the gray area between the various genres. If Jhené was not already enough of a sought after feature in hip-hop, she certainly will be as her album spreads and her music continues to develop. She may remind us of a female Frank Ocean, which is nothing but praise, and may sing about similar topics that you find throughout R&B, but Aiko certainly has her own voice and its nothing short of an amazing one. The album is a small step up from, but very similar to, her debut EP Sail Out and gives up optimism to hearing how she may improve and expand her lyrics and style with her next projects.