Jhene Aiko Gets Personal In Studio Debut ‘Souled Out’

3.5 Stars

We’ve heard her on tracks with Drake, Childish Gambino, Ab-Soul, and J. Cole. We know her intoxicating, breathy voice—but we’ve never seen her like this before. Jhene Aiko’s major label debut, Souled Out, delivers a surplus of beautiful beats tailored to fit her hypnotic voice seamlessly, with executive producer No I.D. on the instrumentals. This is an album certainly not fit to blare through the speakers at Arc Nightclub, inspiring sweaty freshmen to do unspeakable things—as many of Aiko’s notable past appearances have been. Rather, it is a sentimental collection that begs for a little more of a reflective atmosphere than Arc. While the album can feel repetitive at times, it’s an overall success for Aiko as her first full-length, major label production. She may not be Beyonce, but she’s pretty damn good.

The first track, “Limbo Limbo Limbo,” produced by Dot da Genius, opens the record with a punch. Eerie, monotonous synths begin the song only to evolve into a beautiful blend of bass drum kicks, hard-hitting snares, and curious guitar riffs.

On the following track, “W.A.Y.S.,” Aiko’s voice takes a more powerful tone as she applies a somewhat choppy vocal rhythm to a hip-hop beat. The lyrics here are encouragingly human. (“Life only gets harder / But you gotta get stronger / this is for my brother / I do this for my daughter / That’s why I keep goin’.”)

Namiko, Aiko’s daughter, is featured on the 11th track of the album, “Promises,” a beautiful dedication from a mother to her daughter. If you have any sort of dislike for Aiko, listen to this song—it’ll likely change things.

While songs like “Promises” act as the main emotional substance of the album, “Pretty Bird” and “It’s Cool” provide listeners a window into Aiko’s experiences with love—and then perhaps encouragement for those going through difficult times. “It’s Cool,” the fifth song on Souled Out, describes the development of a deep love for a man who was, at first, just a physical interest. (“And I’m not even gonna front / At first I was just tryna f—k / But you have got me so in love / So deep in love, so please be love.”)

“Pretty Bird” features G.O.O.D. Music’s Common, who adds an inspired verse toward the end. While the phrase “pretty bird” makes up 75 percent of the song’s lyrics, it’s sung so magnificently that it does not feel the least bit redundant. Common closes it out with a smooth, spoken-word, 16-bar verse. (“Ripped apart and get put back together / Them the ones with the most beautiful feathers.”) Common provides a welcome change of pace to the album, building up the record’s energy.

Other highlights of the album include “To Love and Die,” featuring Cocaine 80s, and “The Pressure.” “To Love and Die,” produced by No I.D., is a romantic ballad about Aiko’s fight to regain the affection of a lost lover. Interestingly, Aiko borrows a few lyrics from 50 Cent’s 2003 hit “Many Men,” followed by the powerful statement of, “I’ll fight till the death or until your heart is won.” One of the first singles from the album, “Pressure,” couples smooth, ambient synths with simple percussion to create a relatively peaceful track that shows off Aiko’s vocal talent.

Common provides some diversity to an album admittedly filled with quite a few similar vocal performances, and the album could benefit from some similar appearances from other rappers. Songs like “W.A.Y.S.,” and “Spotless Mind” have instrumentals that would essentially be a sin not to remix with a rap verse. Otherwise, Aiko’s major label debut is wildly successful. Smooth, seductive vocals and exceptionally well-produced tracks make for a killer listen.

Featured Image Courtesy of Def Jam Recordings