By Shannon Carlin
Jhené Aiko was almost a teenage pop star.
At 12 she signed a deal with Epic Records, leading her to an opening slot on tour with R&B group B2K in 2002 and handful of movie synchs including You Got Served and Barbershop. The label wanted to turn her into another run-of-the-mill pop star, but Aiko wanted to write her own songs. By 16, she was asking to be let go from her contract.
Nine years later, the 25-year-old from California says that is still one of the best decisions she’s ever made. It allowed her to escape the fakeness of Hollywood and experience the real world by going back to school, holding down a full-time job as a waitress and eventually having her daughter Namiko in 2008.
Aiko has always lived by the motto that everything happens for a reason, so she doesn’t look back on her early years with any kind of anger. She goes with her own flow, an idea she termed “sailing herself” after a rather awkward label meeting in which it was suggested she try “selling herself.” The personal mantra has become a running theme in the titles of her releases, 2011’s Sailing Soul(s) mixtapeand new EP Sail Out.
These days, Aiko doesn’t really have to sell herself — Drake has done that for her. She not only sings (and wrote) the hook on Drizzy’s Nothing Was The Same track “From Time,” she’s shown up on his recent Would You Like a Tour? to represent her part (and would like to work with him again).
“I wanted to write something for him that he would like and the first thing I wrote was very personal,” she told Radio.com. “So when I got into the studio with him I laid down the hook, freestyled it. We had instant chemistry.”
But Drake’s not the only rapper who’s an Aiko fan. Sail Out sees her teaming up again with Kendrick Lamar on the track “Stay Ready (What a Life),” following their 2010 collab on his early song “Growing Up.” “As a lyricist, I’m always impressed by how much he can fit in a verse,” she said of the Compton rapper, adding that after hearing his rap for “Stay Ready,” a slinky song that has Kendrick spitting about monogamy, she decided to change her own lyrics up a bit.
“When I recorded the song, I wanted to keep it simple and sexy,” Aiko explained. “But when he sent me back his verse, I realized the song could be more than that, so I decided to elaborate on my original verse and stop being lazy.”
Aiko likens her songs to diary entries, and everything in her own life is fair game. Her latest single “The Worst” — which has her repeating the lines, “I don’t want you/But I need you,” over and over — was inspired indeed by a real relationship. The video, which features Aiko nonchalantly traipsing around her home as the police come to bust her for murder, is a metaphor for her “killing those feelings” she had for him.
Her songs tend to represent different sides of herself, explaining that “The Worst” channels her confident but stubborn side, while the mid-tempo jam “Bed Peace,” featuring Childish Gambino, represents her fun and irresponsible side.
“When I wrote ‘Bed Peace,’ I knew that I wanted to make something more playful because I usually make sad songs about heartbreak,” Aiko said. “So on this song, I took a different approach and decided to talk about what a perfect day would be like for me and a perfect lover. The song is all about slowing down every now and then and not worrying about anything but the moment.”
Another side to Aiko: her interest in toking up. Her song “WTH,” which stands for “way too high,” details a bad trip that has her hallucinating that she’s Alice stuck in Wonderland. Getting high isn’t an unusual topic in hip-hop, but some are surprised to hear a woman speak so openly about it. If you ask Aiko, though, she’s quick to say she’s not really writing about marijuana.
“My songs about weed are double entendres and are usually also be about love – like love as a drug,” she explained. So, no, you’re not going to find any songs like Afroman’s “Because I Got High” on any of Aiko’s albums.
“I think society and some people may look down on women smoking, but if that’s what you do then you should be able to talk about it,” she said in defense of her lyrics. “A few years ago, like during the Sailing Souls mixtape, I wrote and recorded most of those songs high. Now, I don’t smoke as often and I feel like I can channel a different high now. I feel like being high means thinking outside of your comfort zone. Whether you’re using weed to get there or your mind, being high helps you go places that you wouldn’t normally.”
Fans can expect Aiko to get even more honest on her full length debut, Souled Out — out in 2014 on the No I.D.-run Def Jam imprint Atrium Records — admitting that her need to stay open with her fans is something she chalks up to being a mom. “That is the type of mother I aspire to be as my mother was with me — open and honest,” she said. Several songs on her debut, including “You vs Them” and “Space Jam,” were actually inspired by her daughter, who also makes a cameo on the record. One of the few, since as Aiko says, she’s not interested in just being a go-to singer for rappers to show off. Rather, her goal is to stand on her own two feet through her own songs.
“I know that I will still be singing, developing as a person/artist and writing,” Aiko said of her future. “That is what I see for myself for the next five years and for the next 500 years. I will always find a way to connect with people through my art.”