The Morning Call (Sunday)
Releasing emotions by writing songs becomes Jhene Aiko’s art
NEWYORK — Jhene Aiko is rapping on the phone.
When the R&B darling recalls the first song she ever wrote — a rap when she was about 5 or 6 — she spits out the lyrics like it’s her latest hit.
At the time, the early ’90s, Aiko was obsessed with the debut rap single from Raven-Symone, “That’s What Little
Girls Are Made of,” which was written and produced by Missy Elliott.
“I wasn’t old enough to know how to spell things correctly,” Aiko, 32, recalled, saying she also drew inspiration from Dr.Dre and Snoop Dogg. “My mom helped me write it down.”
It’s no surprise that Aiko remembers the lyrics she crafted as a child — songwriting is not only important because it’s part of her job as a singer and performer, it’s a big part of how she lives her life and expresses her thoughts and feelings.
“Whenever I’m going through anything really, whether it be something painful or something that’s making me happy, I’m inspired to write,” she said. “Even when I was younger, I’ve always felt a need to share my feelings. I would write little poems and leave them around; little diary entries and I would just sort of leave it open. I don’t like things to fester inside of me. I like to just get it out and share it.”
Aiko’s healthy practice of releasing her pain and happiness through songwriting has become her art: It’s how she has crafted songs over the years that have helped her become an R&B star, with relatable and direct lyrics about love and life and everything in between it.
“It’s never just, ‘Girl I love your music.’ It’s always a story that’s super personal, and we end up crying together because it’s always very deep,” Aiko — whose sound is a mix of neo-soul, hip-hop and ambient R&B — said of conversations with her fans. “They would always mention, ‘This helped me get through a really tough time. I feel like this healed me.’ Or even, ‘When I put it on, my baby goes to sleep.’ This is the lane. This is a part of my purpose.”
Aiko especially hit new heights with “Chilombo,” her gold-selling third album that’s launched four platinum hits. The album, one of the rare R&B projects to stream extremely well during a time where young rappers have dominated the scene, scored three Grammy nominations, including album of the year — pitting Aiko against acts like Taylor Swift, Coldplay and Post Malone.
“It feels great. I thought that (‘Chilombo’) was some of my best work,” Aiko said. “Whether my work gets recognized by award shows or not, it’s still an accomplishment to even complete a full album and to write a full album. I don’t put too much pressure on myself to win awards or do numbers or beat out whoever for how much airtime I get on the radio. …
The main reason I make music is because I love it, and it’s not really about the awards. But it is nice to see.”
“Chilombo” is also up for best progressive R&B album, while Aiko’s soulful collaboration with John Legend, “Lightning & Thunder,” is nominated for best R&B performance.
While Aiko is used to writing her lyrics and thoughts down, her latest album features her freestyling more than her
past projects. In front of her computer and a microphone, she would just sing or rap what was on her mind, regardless if a beat was playing or not.
“Those are when I’m just in a very fluid (mood). I’m having a stream of consciousness. Sometimes I feel like I black out, and it just happens,” she said. “If you were angry at that time, if you were in love at that time — that’s how you felt ... create and let it go and keep creating.”