The pint-sized singer gets you lifted with her spacey soundtracks
Born: March 16, 1988
Hometown: Slauson Hills, CA
Claim To Fame: 'Sailing Soul(s)' mixtape; "3:16 A.M."
My Obsession: Cats. I'm like a young old crazy cat lady
Poke around the Los Angeles studio where Jhené Aiko created her 2011 mixtape, Sailing Soul(s) and it's easy to grasp the singer's source of sensual inspiration. The studio itself is a turn-on: Mirrors line the control room ceiling, while candles flush the walls with a reddish glow. There’s even a neighboring shower with see-through glass panels and an elevated platform. But you might hesitate to get comfortable—this very recording hub is a renovation of porn god Ron Jeremy's old movie set.
"I recorded in a sauna that they converted into a booth, revealed the 24-year-old vocalist (name pronounced JAH-NAY AI-EE-KO). "I'd always joke and say that's why everything is coming out so hot. Don’t take the Slauson Hill, Calif., native’s (née Jhené Aiko Chilombo) humble brag lightly. Her moody mixtape procured a cult of emo admirers, forging free-spirited advances ("Hoe"), baby papa drama and preggo anxieties (see the abortion-mulling “You Vs. Them”) onto wax. “I was like ‘should I be a mom or should I be a singer?’ but found that I could be both,” says the Aiko, now mother to 4-year-old daughter Namiko.
Before the multiethnic songstress—she’s Japanese, Black and Native American—experienced her own musical solstice, the youngest of five trailed the family hustle. At 12, she signed to T.U.G./Epic Records, former home to manager Chris Stokes’ short-lived teen group Gyrl (Aiko’s older sisters Miyoko and “Mila J” were members) and defunct boy band B2K, for whom Jhené opened on 2003’s Scream Tour III. After the five-year partnership staled, she networked her way onto tracks with then-Internet-famous MCs like Drake and Kendrick Lamar. The aforementioned Souls, laced with whispery vocals and pensive lyrics, sealed a deal with legendary beatsmith No I.D. for his Def Jam-parented Artium imprint. “She has a signature voice [and] is real adamant about her melodies, flows and wordplay,” says frequent collaborator Ab-Soul of Black Hippy, who cites Frank Ocean as a worthy comparison. “She could almost hop into a BET cypher [because] she's got bars but is still elegant R&B.”
The petite singer admits she'd formerly hit bongs to craft hit songs. "Until recently I got high writing because I wanted to be super honest," says the inked-up Pisces, who boasts 13 tats. “I learned to channel that high without needing any substance." Her 2013 debut LP, Souled Out, reaches new emotional heights, led by the suicide-probing single "3:16 A.M." Yet there's something for the tough-guy playlists, too. “You can still feel like a G when you’re listening to me talk about being depressed,” she says. “You can relate to it. That’s important that we don’t just listen to music to be distracted. We can actually listen to music that helps us get through things.”