But despite their age gap -- and the fact that one woman has been a single mother for nine years and the other is, well, the teenage daughter of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith -- Aiko and Smith have much more in common than an interest in the supernatural. Both were born, raised and home-schooled in Los Angeles. Both were signed as children and marketed to the mainstream -- Aiko as an adjunct member of R&B boy band B2K, and Smith as an actress (2007’s I Am Legend), then as a kiddie-pop star with 2010’s “Whip My Hair,” which peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Then, with money and fame hanging in the balance, they each walked away. Aiko took about six years off before starting an alt-R&B solo career flexible enough to allow for esoteric side projects like Twenty88 -- her duo with boyfriend Big Sean, whose self-titled album Aiko has described as “combining stuff like robots and sex” -- and a forthcoming poetry book titled Trip. Willow returned in 2015 with avant-garde soul album ARDIPITHECUS, and often posts genre-flouting collaborations on SoundCloud and a now-defunct YouTube channel (“Frequencies by Willow”) with everyone from The Internet’s Syd to her brother Jaden.
As plates of pasta arrive, Aiko and Smith dive into a wide-ranging conversation, often completing each other’s sentences as they discuss their respective decisions to, as Smith puts it, “take control of not just my music, but my life -- if shit goes south, it’s my fault, but if it goes good, that’s mine too,” and affirming their vows as artists to, in Aiko’s words, “usher in new ways of thinking.”
You last toured together in 2014. Willow, you were 14. What was that like for you?
Willow Smith: Coming out of the “Whip My Hair” days, that was the first time I’d ever toured with artists I listen to [in addition to Aiko, Syd and SZA]. I’d started playing guitar, and that tour really solidified: “OK, I want to be a live musician, to have a music career, for real.” Being around people who were so confident and so set in their artistry was a huge step in the direction of understanding who I really am.
Jhené Aiko: We did that for each other. I’d never considered myself a performer, but now I’m super into how I present these songs. This time, I want to take the audience on a journey, have them feel what I went through -- I want them to think they’re tripping balls. People like Willow and me, we’re super connected to this music and our message. We really want to change the world.