Jhené Aiko's Journey: From Idolizing Brandy to Being Inspired by Kid Cudi

Jhené Aiko
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Jhené Aiko

The R&B singer talks us through the music that shaped her vision

As part of Ford and Billboard's Ford Front Row series, we're bringing you closer to your favorite artists. The third event of the four gig series will be headlined by Jhené Aiko at the Buckhead Theatre in Atlanta on September 25. Before the night kicks off, we asked Aiko to go deep with us on the music that changed her life. Aiko was raised in Los Angeles. “I grew up listening to all the West Coast rappers,” she says. Her youth was soundtracked by staple superstars such as Tupac and Snoop Dogg. Being the youngest of five, the house was full of '90s classics. “TLC, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Sade, Lil Kim…” she says, reeling off the list.

Her first concert was the Janet Jackson Velvet Rope tour; a seminal moment for the budding young performer. “I was in the third grade,” she laughs. “It was a little sexual. It was cool because she incorporated a lot of theatrics. I remember being wowed by the stage production. I'm not big on dancing but I like visuals. She had everything and much more.”

LA isn't all about hip-hop and big arena shows though. When Aiko got a little older, it was the likes of Fiona Apple and Alanis Morissette who threw her palette wide open. “My musical tastes kept evolving,” she explains. “They still do. I keep discovering music from the past.” Of all those '90s heroes, however, it was Brandy who really shaped her influence as an all-encompassing performer. “She has the perfect voice,” she recalls of her early fandom, picking out Never Say Never as her personal favorite record, next to Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP. “That was really special to me. He is also a big inspiration; the way that he puts words together is like no one else.”

The interest in language, lyrics and poetry always came before melody for Aiko. It's no surprise that today her biggest influences are keen wordsmiths too, the likes of John Mayer and Kid Cudi being top of her list. “John Mayer is my Number 1,” she says, talking up his album Continuum as a huge love of hers. She maintains, however, that when it comes to making her own music she doesn't take references directly from other music. Her songs are born from more holistic subjects: nature, people, travelling.

Besides, Aiko admits that she doesn't listen to a lot of trend music. Her tastes are more nuanced. Of today's artists she shouts out to Rae Sremmurd, Big Sean and Childish Gambino. “He's pushing the limits doing all that he does,” she says of the latter. “It's different and nostalgic. Big Sean is the best. He puts his heart into everything. A lot of rappers survive off negativity or conflict, but Sean does a great job of keeping it real and keeping it positive.”

Beyond artists, Aiko cites Chicago producer No ID and her frequent collaborator Fisticuffs as examples of timeless behind-the-scenes talents. “I've noticed that a lot of the newer artists today are inspired by one another,” she says. “It's good to hear that. Everyone's coming together to create this unified sound. All the genres and lines have been blurred.” Indeed, with a new project on the horizon that idea of being beyond genre is something Aiko has built a reputation for herself too. Incomparable and hard to define, her art is truly unique.

Listen to Jhene Aiko's Ford Front Row Spotify Playlist Below