Real-life Jhené is much more affectionate. She once gave a guy flowers from Walgreens (“He was like, ‘You’re making me feel like a bitch.’ He liked it, though.”) The biggest splurge gift: a boat ride, at $200 per hour, for a day-time excursion that she references on “Comfort Inn Ending (Freestlye),” singing: “I should’ve never fucked you on a boat on your birthday.”
“A girl knows at least one David, one Dominic, and guys do it all the time. They say names,” she says. “I’m always myself with guys. I’m always super open. I reveal a lot when I talk. So they know that when I write a song, it’s because I’m over it. It’s not something that hurts me anymore.”
The fresh greenery at Los Angeles' Descanso Gardens for this cover shoot provides the perfect backdrop for a woman whose longtime vice has been kush. The sounds of a flickering lighter and smoky inhales are worked into the hook of Jhené’s songs “Higher” and “WTH,” an acronym for “Way Too High.” No longer the wake-and-bake type, she now prefers vapors or papers over blunts as an occasional stress reliever and creative agent. “Everyone’s [singing] about weed now, ‘cause that’s the ‘in’ thing to do. I’m like ‘Do you even smoke?’” says Jhené, without singling anyone out. “You can tell when it’s contrived. You don’t have to do it. Talk about what you do.”
Against the floral backdrop, Jhené looks like Mother Nature’s offspring. She’s quiet, almost awkward, in front of the camera, yet photogenic by nature. She looks nothing like a mean girl. But as the designated plaything of the family—the youngest of five—her temper flew.
She was used to sharing space with her two older brothers, two older sisters and mother (Jhené also has another older brother and a younger sister) in a two-bedroom apartment in Slauson Hills, which overlooks Los Angeles. Her siblings made her schlep around laundry. They beat her up (typical). And when her sister needed mani-pedi money, Jhené went door-to-door collecting unwanted knick-knacks, like playing cards, to sell. “I thought I was tough because my brothers and sisters would boss me around,” says Jhené. “My sister would boss me to give her massages. So when I went to school, I took it out on my friends. I think I was a little bitch.”
Jhené’s school—the magnet side of Baldwin Hills Elementary—was the destination for kids who racked up the most demerits. It’s also where she met her future daughter’s father, Sonnie O’Ryan (singer Omarion’s brother). Jhené rolled with a mixed circle, “the weird nerd girls,” she says, who thought they were the shit in their own world. She was the schoolyard’s Lil’ Kim, known for blurting profanity and spitting lines off Hard Core, specifically “Dreams,” a song about being pleasured by ’90s R&B singers.
Doing hood rat things was part of Jhené and her best friend Tynetta’s agenda. In fourth grade, they took a midnight Metrolink bus ride to Compton—“I told everyone about it. I felt so brave,” says Jhené. She gradually smartened up and later realized she was a lightweight after downing a whole bottle of brandy with two friends while one of their moms weren’t home. She woke up to vomit in the sheets. “I just remember having a ridiculous conversation, being loud,” says Jhené. “I probably had a hangover for the next two days. Until this day, I can't drink brandy.”
In between being a public school terror, Jhené discovered music. A turning point came in second grade, when she performed 702’s “I Still Love You” at a talent show with friends. “That was the first time that people heard me sing and they were like, ‘Oh, you should be a singer when you grow up,’" she says. “From that point on, I started singing every day and practicing.”
Writing was another outlet. Her first piece was a rap, co-written by her mother. “There was something special about her observations in her writing exercises,” says her mom, Christina Yamamoto. “She was in the fourth or fifth grade and she wrote a poem about a woman that nobody really notices.” Jhené took note of everything: from her cramped environment to her brother’s losing battle to cancer. “I was around a lot of noise and chaos. Everything—the noise, the lights—would bother me,” says Jhené. “I always tried to go somewhere quiet.”
The mischief only lasted through high school. Music eventually became her focus. Her dad, a doctor, was also a self-taught musician with a studio in the garage (her parents divorced when she was eight). Her mom co-managed her sisters’ R&B group Gyrl, which also included her big sis Mila J.
Initially, Jhené was just the kid sister who could parrot their songs to them and memorize verses from 2Pac, Notorious B.I.G. and Brandy. Jhené credits the latter as her invisible voice coach. At 12, she landed her own deal with Epic/ The Ultimate Group (T.U.G.) Records, which housed a then-pubescent Omarion and Marques Houston. Here, she played B2K's hook girl. Throwaway records from her past—like the 2002 record “Dog,” a bonus cut from B2K’s Pandemonium—show the sassy yet sweet side that’s become her M.O. (Sidebar: Lil’ Fizz appears on the track, rapping, “I’m the Jay Z of my generation.”) Jhené recalls being assertive even then, pushing back on a video director over his choice of footwear. “For my first video, the director was like, ‘She needs to wear heels to make her tall,’ and I’m like ‘No, I’m not tall!’” she says. (She ended up wearing the Converse heels. They were comfortable.) “When I was younger, I thought that I had to do that,” she argues.
Being marketed as Fizz’s cousin and controversy around T.U.G. CEO Chris Stokes (those abuse rumors) didn't make for the ideal career path. So Jhené broke away at 16 and enrolled in independent studies, finishing high school and taking college courses at the same time while pregnant. Her mental growth spurt came at 20, when she gave birth to her daughter, Namiko Love. Since she and her daughter’s father, O’Ryan, weren’t together, Jhené house-hopped from her grandma’s to renting a room at her friend’s mom’s place, either sleeping on a futon or the floor. She matured quickly. “I felt like an old woman trapped in a child’s body. I realized how much responsibility I had,” says Jhené. “Little things like going to the store to get toilet paper or dishrags makes you realize that you’re an adult.”
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