The depth of Jhene Aiko’s imagination is bold enough to conjure caution but warm enough to wade in. The R&B songstress, who routinely combines hypnotic poetic flare with bare-skinned sensuality, has made a career of evaluating then celebrating her complexity. Her 2013 debut EP, Sail Out, introduced the world to a woman claiming stake in the same vulnerability that she was expected to run from. Aiko’s first full-length album, Souled Out, came exactly one year later and dove deeper into existentialist thought. Avoiding the dreaded curse of the sophomore slump was light work with a release like Trip, released by the singer in 2017. Like the title implies, escapism served as the nucleus of the project with Aiko testing the waters of chemical experimentation.
For some, it’s been easy to write off her catalog as pure melodrama; a young girl hyperbolizing every personal experience and relationship to drum up intrigue and keep the spotlight solely on her. Her first two albums, while breaths of fresh air in the R&B realm, felt more jovial than weighty. They prioritized flowery ornateness over gravity—but that’s not to say they didn’t have an impact. Aiko’s lyrical stylings have infinitely shaped the genre’s newest crop of singers. From SZA to Summer Walker, there’s no doubt that her discography ensured that these women could be audacious and explicit on their tracks yet still experience success.
Aiko—like any artist—is evolving and growing into her power with every creative endeavor. However, she is the most remarkable when she is venomous, when she is unapologetic, and when she is feeling herself. Chilombo, her third album, is a culmination of all the lessons learned; where clarity reigns supreme and she has no problems owning up to her mistakes. The project, which pays homage to her surname (and by default, her heritage), was recorded in scenic Hawaii and finds Aiko trying to reclaim her center after a devastating heartbreak. She has always made transparency her strong suit, but Chilombo expounds on her candidness and shows that post-breakup, she is more comfortable with herself than ever before.
It also paints a much richer picture when it comes to Aiko’s totality. The introduction, “Lotus,” comes off as sonic serenity complete with lugubrious piano chords. However, the tale that Aiko is about to narrate serves as the opposite of tranquility: “There was a woman born from a Lotus/Her heart was golden, deep as the ocean/And then this one man, he came and broke it/’Til it was open, just like a Lotus/Oh, yes, there were explosions/She found her focus, the beast awoken.”
As the story unfolds, Aiko delves into her amorous dilemmas on her “Triggered (freestyle)” in which she gleefully trades in an amicable ending for pure revenge: “Cause when I get mad/I get big mad/Should have never did that, get back/’Bout to feel the wrath of a menace.” Her pleas go from contained to completely unyielding; the hurt and anger she’s experienced at the hands of a careless lover have seemingly laid the path for destruction. But on “B.S.,” featuring a cameo from H.E.R., she is way more cool and callous with her boasts because the same ex who scorned Aiko is practically non-existent: “I am on my own now/I am in control now/I need you to go now/I can fix my own crown.”
“Pu$$Y Fairy” is the artist relishing in the power of her own anatomy. For her, love and sexuality are inextricably linked and on this particular track, the chemistry her and a conquest possess is simply undeniable: “Cause I got you sprung off in the spring time/Fuck all your free time/You don’t need no me time/That’s you and me time/We be gettin’ so damn loud/That dick make my soul smile/That dick make me so damn proud.” The soundscapes are mellifluous on “Pu$$Y Fairy,” making Aiko’s proclamations that much more robust.
“Happiness Over Everything (H.O.E)”, alongside Future and Miguel, strives to be an ambitious anthem that empowers women to embrace their sexuality. It also encourages them to make that dreaded first move on a potential lover. However, a cliché chorus (“I hope she don’t think that I think she some kinda ho/I don’t care, that just lets me know that she knows what she wants)” coupled with Future likening himself to Jesus Christ makes the song feel too cheesy to stick. “10K Hours”, a collaboration with Nas, is a compelling—and slightly despondent—walk down memory lane. Once the rapper takes the reigns on his guest verse, it becomes apparent that he’s reminiscing about his former wife, Kelis: “Ten thousand hours turned to ten thousand bridal flowers/What was mine is ours/How many soulmates we get in this lifetime?/Right now’s the right time, you the wife kind.”
“Pray For You” stands out on Chilombo for an entirely different reason: it shows a moment of growth, acceptance for Aiko who has struggled with this notion throughout the entire album. Her ecclesiastical offerings are her purest form of selflessness: “But never will I ever not wish you well/Though we’re not together, God bless you still/It’s gonna get better/I know it will/Just hope you know, I still/I’ll pray for you.” “Lightening & Thunder” is a pure blues ballad about longing that John Legend accentuates with his grit and vehemence. However, Chilombo ends on a high note with “Party For Me.” By recruiting Ty Dolla $ign—one of hip hop’s most notorious hedonists—she truly drives home her quest to celebrate life while she can.
Chilombo, despite all of its ups and down, is about pain, resilience and growth. For Aiko, heartbreak has never sounded so intense, so all-encompassing, so arduous. But as she goes through the motions of misery, it’s clear that stepping into the woman she is meant to be actually becomes her saving grace. Aiko’s honest and gutsy approach to songwriting has always made her conspicuous, but her newest album reveals how it makes her whole. She basks in the limelight because of its warmth and the fact that she knows that she is never alone; her legion of loyal listeners continue to stand by her side knowing Aiko is as human as they are. And that will always be her most admirable trait: the way she wears—and covets—authenticity like a second skin.