Lyrically and conceptually, Jhene Aiko deals in the dark arts. Like her previous projects — 2011 mixtape Sailing Soul(s) and 2013 EP Sail Out, home to her signature hit “The Worst” — the 26-year-old singer’s major-label full-length debut, Souled Out, paints her as a deeply philosophical artiste who empathizes with flawed characters. The set’s meditative mood, Aiko’s trademark, could be construed as one-note, but it’s also a strength: The album plays like a love song on infinite loop, all dreamy echoes, twinkles and eeriness.
Aiko has recorded and toured with Drake, and his moody alt-R&B explorations are an obvious inspiration. But unlike him, she mostly operates in the abstract, delivering lyrics as Twitter-ready mantras (“You have got to lose your mind to find your peace of mind,” she sings on “W.A.Y.S.”). It’s poetic, but it comes off as amateurish at times (“Broken hearts are made for two, one for me and one for you,” from “Brave”).
Still, few artists can elicit a sense of isolation or heartache better. The male subjects of her songs are often unworthy of her love: “You just don’t know better, you’re better off being alone,” she sings on “Lyin King.” But amid all the sulking and self-reflection, there’s also subtle strength. She scolds her suitors sweetly, like on “Pressure”: “I don’t want to see you go, but I don’t have time to solve this/And you don’t have the right after all you put me through.” There are no vocal aerobics; everything’s soft and gentle. But her message still comes across urgent, relatable and full of angst.