Jhené Aiko is the worst at color-by-numbers music and her die-hard following is better off for it. Ask that one fan who almost became a suicide statistic twice before Souled Out pulled her through. She’ll tell you how Aiko’s lyrics have an authentic presence made for millennials. So will her competition if they’re honest.
STORY: Adelle Platon | PHOTOGRAPHY: Jared Ryder
Almost 24 hours before Valentine’s Day, Jhené Aiko drops the L word. After wrapping a performance of her biggest solo radio hit “The Worst” on Conan, the petite folkstress—who has even opted for heels over her traditional barefoot routine—professed her love to the orange-haired host on-camera. He reciprocates before purring like an enticed Pepe Le Pew as she asks him to be her Valentine. Despite Conan indirectly turning her down (“The wife gets mad”), Jhené’s cheesy grin shows no hard feelings. “That was super surreal for me because I’ve been watching Conan O’Brien since middle school,” Jhené says over the phone. “I didn’t know how I was gonna react. When I’m a fan of someone, I turn into a dork and I’ll say the first thing that comes to my mind. It’s usually a little awkward.” Late-night introductions can be tricky, but Jhené’s a pro. The previous week, the Slauson Hills native performed on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (before his Tonight Show takeover) then popped up at 30 Rockefeller Center on Saturday Night Live for a surprise rendition of “From Time” with Drake, her eventual tour mate on his Would You Like A Tour? outing and earliest high-profile supporter since her 2011 claim-to-fame mix tape sailing soul(s). The after-hour presentations help during a shifty time in R&B, where “R” could mean “real” or “ratchet.” The 5’2” soulstress joined a crowded class of freshmen in 2014 including singers Tinashe, whose high-energy gigs resemble 2005 Rihanna circa “Pon De Replay,” and August Alsina, a street-bred thug whose struggles add bulk to his notes. Still, Jhené’s Def Jam/ Artium debut Souled Out (released Sept. 9) reeled in 70,000 units its first week out while Tinashe’s Aquarius pushed 19,000 and Alsina’s Testimony rolled out 63,552. She even outsold veteran diva Mariah Carey’s latest LP, Me. I Am Mariah … The Elusive Chanteuse, which clocked in 58,000 units. But the numbers aren’t the story here. They’re just a byproduct. The story lies between her self-penned lyrics, which is what makes Jhené a stan magnet for females.