Jhené Aiko’s sullen soundtracks to life have become blueprints—and status updates—for every emo millennial. With her mellow, free-spirited aura, she’s their modern-day Sade. But R&B’s miniature sex bomb also has a dark side
STORY: Adelle Platon | PHOTO: Steve Erle
If Jhené Aiko had her way, she’d be walking around barefoot. Even in the desert on a 96 degree day. In turquoise denim short shorts, a floral midriff-baring top and a camel-colored floppy hat that screams J. Lo, this hippie chick peaks at just above 5’2. A soft sheen glistens over her sandy complexion. It’s two days before her second performance at California’s Coachella Arts & Music Festival. For lunch, she suggests Nature’s Health Food & Café, a Palm Springs oasis where slim, beachwear-clad customers sip bright juices. The eatery provides comfort for the 26-year-old singer who used to work minimum wage as a waitress at a vegan restaurant.
The inside feels like a bohemian haven, with electric fans as the primary cooling system and the smell of earth and veggies. After placing her order and depositing a total of $20 in the tip box, Jhené sits at a wobbly table and bites, not nibbles, at her food—a towering plate of Greek salad and soy chicken tacos. “I don’t think anything about me is loud,” she says. “I’m not going to walk into a room with crazy accessories, high heels and red lipstick. I blend in.”
Jhené’s moody melodies about all things tender (love, sex) and taboo (abortion, suicidal thoughts) have made her an unfiltered voice for 20-something rebels—and heartbroken millennials consider her debut project, 2011’s sailing soul(s), to be an emo manifesto. If Drake is the king of feelings, a rapper whose exes get prime real estate, then Jhené is the woman’s side of the story. But it’s more than just male-bashing anthems. “Drake’s a conversation with a woman on a level of honesty,” says producer No I.D., who signed Jhené to his Def Jam imprint, Artium, in 2011. “Jhené represents the woman who talks to herself and deals with the good, the bad, the happy, the sad, the spiritual and the ghetto.”
Her breathy medium-range vocals initially had fans connecting the dots between her and the late Aaliyah (see also: Cassie). Jhené addressed the comparisons in a Kanye-style Tumblr rant in 2012, writing: “I AM NOT YOUR NEXT BEYONCE, I AM NOT YOUR NEXT AALIYAH. I AM NOT CASSIE’S COMPETITION, NOR AM I RIHANNAH’S [sic].” But her subtly seductive aura better qualifies her as this generation’s Sade, a musical and visual minimalist. While serving as Drake’s plus-1 on last year’s Would You Like A Tour?—a byproduct of their duet, “From Time”—Jhené performed barefoot in a teeny bra-like top and a flower-child skirt. Besides going shoeless, she also studies Buddhism.
“When she was doing her mixtape [sailing soul(s)], she was describing the sound she was going for,” says her older sister Miyoko. “I remember saying, ‘Oh, you wanna be like a hip-hop Sade.’ And she was like, ‘Exactly.’” Jhené welcomes the title where it fits. “That’s great if people think that because she’s amazing,” says Jhené. “That’s someone I’d love to be in the same lane as.”
The ultra personal approach has enticed a cult following; her Sail Out EP has sold 216,000 units, and its lead single “The Worst” topped Billboard’s Hip-Hop/R&B charts. Coupled with an alluring yet down-to-earth image, the mainstream appeal is strong. Jhené’s petite, tatted frame (she’s racially mixed, of Japanese, African-American and Native American descent) brings out heart-eye emojis in women and men. Drake has playfully cozied up to her on stage, and Childish Gambino professed his love on record (she denies dating either of them).
What adds depth to the pretty face—and distinguishes her from Sade–is Jhené’s exploration of her dark side. In the music video for “The Worst,” she murders an ex-lover, wearing only lingerie, before cops haul her away. And “Comfort Inn Ending (Freestyle)” shows her keying a Porsche and burning a pile of Jordans as she ticks off a laundry list of men who did her dirty. These are fantasies, of course. “I’ve never killed a guy, and I’ve never went to jail, but those are the things I have to get out of my head some way,” she says. “It’s writing a song and then turning my crazy thoughts into those moments where I’m like, I could really do that, but I’m not going to.”
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