Women in Music 2016

Why Did R&B Singer Jhene Aiko Roll Out Her New Album at a Pot Dispensary?

In the week her first full-length album, Souled Out, debuted, singer Jhene Aiko cooked up a novel idea for its rollout: She performed for a crowd of 80 at the popular -- and legal -- West Hollywood pot shop The Farmacy.

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Aiko announced the pop-up gig to her 650,000 Twitter and 1.7 million Instagram followers an hour before the Sept. 16 show. "I didn't know what to expect, but I'm glad people came," she says. And while baked goods were passed around, everything was aboveboard with attendees all card-carrying medical marijuana patients. (In California, marijuana is legally available with a doctor's prescription.)

The set had the full support of her label, Def Jam. "They know I partake," joked Aiko, 26, who headed on tour with The Weeknd and Schoolboy Q three days later. "They have a good understanding of who I am. I come into the office and I'll take my shoes off."

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With the pot-centric gig, Aiko joins a growing trend of artists capitalizing on the marijuana legalization to push their music. This year sees the Smoker's Club tour hitting 37 cities starting Oct. 14. On the bill are Method Man, Redman and B-Real from Cypress Hill, rappers who have been touting their toking habits since the 1990s. "Up until this year, it had been a challenge to find brands wanting to be associated with marijuana, but that's changed in last 12 months," says tour founder Jonny Shipes, noting that B-Real will be hosting meet-and-greets and smoke sessions at dispensaries.

Aiko, a practicing Buddhist, grew up in Los Angeles and started out in the tween R&B world, contributing backing vocals and appearing in videos for B2K in the early 2000s. Later on, she honed her unique electro-soul sound through free mixtapes and in 2012 signed with producer No I.D.'s Def Jam subsidiary Atrium. A friendship with Drake led to their collaboration "From Time" (which they performed on Saturday Night Live), followed by her critically lauded Sail Out EP in November 2013. The promotion around Souled Out falls in line with Aiko's slow-burn build, which also includes a feature on Big Sean's "Beware." She has staked her spot as one of 2014's biggest R&B discoveries -- and the soundtrack to countless stoners' sessions -- by taking an organic approach. Aiko's chill vibe is working: Souled Out has sold 91,000 units, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and topped Billboard's R&B/hip-hop albums chart.

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"My music is word-of-mouth, one person at a time," she says. "These small things are like baby steps to connecting with the audience."

What's Aiko planning next? "We should do a dispensary tour!" 

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of Billboard.