Jhene Aiko stands around 5 feet tall and weighs perhaps as much as a decaf macchiato; the 2015 Cadillac Escalade stretches 18-and-a-half feet and tips the scales at nearly 6,000 pounds. Right now, the buzz-building singer-rapper -- she has performed with her friend Drake on "Saturday Night Live" and with John Legend at the BET Awards; in September she’ll release Souled Out, her debut album -- is piloting the massive Caddie oceanside in the L.A. neighborhood of Marina del Rey, purring a melody.
"The car drives really smooth -- it definitely doesn’t feel as big as it looks on the outside," she says from the front seat, looking like Fay Wray wrapped in King Kong's fist. "It doesn’t pick up speed like my BMW" -- a 4 series she selected after her Prius was totaled in an accident (she wasn’t driving it at the time) — "but it doesn’t feel as heavy as I thought it would."
The Escalade has a long -- and for Cadillac, extremely profitable -- relationship with urban artists. Starting with the Escalade’s second generation in 2002, which introduced the SUV’s distinctive slanted prow, the many rappers who have featured the Escalade in videos or name-checked it in lyrics include Big Tymers, Lil' Kim, Nelly, Kanye West, OutKast, Ludacris, Jay Z, The Game, 50 Cent, Usher and Ja Rule. Hip-hop's embrace of the Escalade and its effect on sales (in 2006 alone, more than 62,000 of the high-margin brutes were sold) worked like a pair of defibrillator paddles on Cadillac's wheezing corporate corpus. The 2015 Escalade that Aiko steers with her slender hands represents a stem-to-stern reboot that boasts an even more aggressive fascia. It features stacked LED headlights, a 6.2 liter V-8 engine with 20 more horses than its predecessor and a refurbished interior bristling with technology, including a heads-up display, five USB ports, 4G LTE wireless connectivity and automatic braking when the car perceives an imminent collision. Triple-sealed doors, double-paned glass and active noise cancellation lend the impression of driving a leather-lined bank vault.
"I like SUVs because I'm small and this is my time to have an advantage," says Aiko, who grew up in Los Angeles' Baldwin Hills but didn’t get her license until she was 22. (She's 26 now.) "I'm the youngest of five. All of my brothers and sisters wanted to drive -- I was always OK with not driving." Her first car was the doomed Prius. "I was in the backseat with my daughter [Namiko, age 6]. Someone made an illegal U-turn in front of us. It happened so quick. I was the only one injured -- busted my chin open, chipped a tooth, broke my wrist." Scary as the accident was, it didn’t change her view of driving. "I still like to take really long drives," she says.
It's that time behind the wheel that nurtures her creative process. "I love to write in my mind as I’m driving -- I put on a track, an instrumental, and just ride around and see what I come up with."
Aiko sings in ethereal, Japanese-inflected phrasing reminiscent of Sade that can pivot, in the space of a single song -- as on "The Worst," from her acclaimed 2013 EP Sail Out, into impassioned streetwise rap: "Everybody’s like, he's no item, please don’t like him/ He don’t wife them, he one-nights them..." On "Comfort Inn Ending (Freestyle)," a bonus track from the EP, she embroiders large swaths of the song with introspective lyrics that teeter between rap and jazz-style scat. Her ability to float above the beats but ground her songs in pure melody with provocative themes has drawn comparisons to Frank Ocean and Drake.
She also literally road tests her works in progress. "Definitely, that's one of the major tests: Can I ride around to this song? And if I can't, then I'm like, 'We need to fix the song so that it's one of those songs you can put in the car and drive to.'"
Aiko pilots the Escalade along the slips of Marina del Rey's Fisherman's Village. As she maneuvers the big SUV into a parking space, the mapping function in the Escalade's infotainment system perceives that we're approaching a hazard and suddenly announces, in a Siri-like voice over the Bose surround speakers, "Caution: Ferry."
"Wow... thanks, Escalade! I've never heard her voice before,” she marvels, then adds conspiratorially, "Ooh, who is she? God, is that you? I knew God was a woman."