From vegan cafe waitress to breakthrough artist. That’s the short take on Jhené Aiko. But like most seemingly overnight sensations, there’s a lot more to her story.
Like the fact that Aiko has been “putting out music on and off for 10 years,” she says. Longtime fans of the petite 25-year-old singer-songwriter remember her vocal work with B2K. In the years since, she’s graced songs by such A-listers as Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Big Sean and Wale. But newer converts know her as the sultry voice on “From Time” from Drake’s Nothing Was the Same-and her resulting slot on his current 40-stop arena tour.
Now Aiko is ready to go from supporting player to stand-alone star with “Sail Out,” her formal solo debut, an EP intended to appease her growing fan base while they wait for her full-length, tentatively titled “Souled Out,” expected in the second quarter next year. “I’m grateful to finally put out something people can buy,” she says. “I didn’t want them to wait any longer.”
The EP, due Nov. 11, is the first project under Def Jam subsidiary Artium, the imprint established by noted producer/Def Jam executive VP of A&R Dion “No I.D.” Wilson, who signed Aiko as his first artist in late 2011.
“When I heard Jhené,” he says, “she immediately struck me as the first female voice in what I call the new wave of R&B. She understands full-on melodies and emotion but writes freestyle lyrics on par with hip-hop depth and complexity. In my eyes she’s a modern Sade.”
Jhené Aiko Chilombo grew up in Los Angeles in a musical family. Her pediatrician dad plays guitar and writes songs. Older sisters Miyoko and Jamila were in R&B group Gyrl. Signed at 13 to Epic along with B2K by management/production company the Ultimate Group, Aiko earned her first credits singing on various releases by the R&B act in 2002. But after two years under contract, Aiko asked to be released to finish school and “explore my options.”
She spent the next several years working with different producers and writing songs. By 2008, she’d given birth to a daughter-and the notion of recording a free mixtape. Aiko, who was working as a waitress at a vegan cafe at the time, says her daughter “lit a fire under me to finish the mixtape.”
Aiko released “Sailing Soul(s),” featuring collaborations with Lamar, Drake, Miguel and Kanye West, through her website in March 2011, leading to the deal with Artium and Def Jam that same year. “Jhené is a hidden secret that’s been blossoming for a while,” Def Jam senior VP of marketing Chris Atlas says. “She’s an artist very much aware of who she is musically.”
That self-consciousness courses throughout “Sail Out.” “If everyone stuck to who they are, there would be a lot more different sounds than we have now,” Aiko says. “Everyone is going after the same sound. For me, it’s about expressing my emotions in the most honest way I can.”
She wrote all of the EP’s seven tracks, including her ethereal 2012 breakout “3:16am” (featured on VH1’s “Black Ink Crew”) and new single “Bed Peace” featuring Childish Gambino. The single’s video premiered online on Oct. 28. Additional EP guests include Lamar, Ab-Soul and Vince Staples.
The day after “Sail Out” arrives, Aiko will also be featured on the debut release from Solange’s Saint Records, “Saint Heron,” a compilation focusing on genre-defying soul innovators. Following performances at the CMJ Music Marathon, South by Southwest and Rock the Bells and an opening slot on Nas and Lauryn Hill’s recent co-headlining tour, Aiko is sharing the spotlight with Drake until his Would You Like a Tour? run wraps Dec. 16.
“Her being featured within his set is a huge opportunity,” Atlas says. “It’s great timing. Both her management and the label wanted to have a commercial piece of product out while she is on tour so fans can see her and directly experience her and her music.”
According to Jhené Aiko, however, her collaboration with Drake makes sense for more than just marketing purposes. “My music is alternative,” she says. “It’s new-generation R&B, like Frank Ocean, Miguel and even Drake. It’s not in a box-it’s just us.”