Exclusive: Jhene Aiko reflects on the personal nature of her music, in-depth lyrics what it takes to get into her creative zone.
It can be said for the majority of artists in the music industry, but music is literally Jhene Aiko’s life. It’s therapeutic, depressing, enlightening, a stress-reliever—an overall rollercoaster ride with so many flips, spins and turns over the past three years alone. She entered the music biz at a young age but didn’t really capture our fullest attentions until she debuted with Sailing Soul(s) back in 2011. The Los Angeles-based singer is known for many things such as her numerous guest appearances on Rap records like Big Sean’s “Beware,” her super-tight relationship with Black Hippy, being signed to No I.D.’s Artium label, and her smooth opening verse on Drake’s “From Time.” However, it’s the authenticity in her songwriting and her ability to connect with audiences through her soulful records that has made her a fan favorite. Music has kept Aiko sane; it’s her go-to source when things aren’t going right, while letting out those emotions and turning it into positive art is her outlet rather than sulking over the negatives.
“I literally do music just because when I’m going through something, I have to write about it,” Aiko offered, during a recent phone conversation. “I like to sing, so I like to turn a poem or a short story into a song. I’ve never done it to be on the radio or be famous. It’s something I’ve just enjoyed doing, and I have to do it in order to stay sane.”
With much on the horizon—opening for Drake’s Would You Like A Tour? and a debut album entitled Souled Out set to release later in the year, we thought it was appropriate to catch up with one of the fasting-rising names in music and get a glimpse of her crazy work life and delve deep into her mind and find out what makes Aiko who she is.
Jhene Aiko Explains Channeling Personal Experiences Through Music
HiopHopDX: On “From Time,” you say, “I love me enough for the both of us.” Can you break down those lyrics for us?
Jhene Aiko: That part was basically about—I feel the only way to love another person or to really know what love is, is to first know how to love yourself. When I said that, I meant that I love myself enough to where no matter how you feel about me, it doesn’t dictate how I feel about you, because I love myself enough to know what love is—which is unconditional and understanding. I feel a lot of people say, “I love you,” just so they can hear you say it back to them. I feel when you really love someone, you can tell them you feel that way and not really care about them giving you the same type of answer. It’s about loving yourself enough; it’s not about receiving it. Love is about giving. Even though it is a simple line, it does have this large-scale meaning, because there’s so many different ways you can take it.
DX: Another favorite is “Bed Peace.” While it was still in its early stages, you played Drake that record plus a second record he liked...
Jhene Aiko: I played him “Bed Peace,” and I played him “Stay Ready.” Neither one of them had a feature on it, but I knew he would sound good on either. He really liked “Bed Peace,” but because of the timing, he was working on his album and couldn’t do it in the right amount of time. I’m always willing to collaborate with him, because I think out of all the people I’ve worked with, he’s the best collaboration that would come out of.
DX: And the featured artist on the “Bed Peace” record is your good friend Donald. He posted an open letter on his Instagram back in October about his concerns and anxieties. With you being very open with your past, do you feel you should ever put a limit on how much you reveal to the public through your music?
Jhene Aiko: I like to share my stories with people, because when you connect—especially through your suffering and pain—it just lets other people know they’re not alone and going through the same thing. And it makes it less hard to go through. If we all understand that we’re all going through something together, then it makes it less of a load to carry. I always say there’s never anything I’m afraid of telling about my personal life; I really have no boundaries when it comes to that. If it involves another person or someone else’s secrets, or someone else’s feelings, or something they might not want me to be the one to tell in a song, then those are the things I’ll try not to do. At the same time, if someone hurt me, I won’t be afraid to talk about that and say their name [laughs].
My song “3:16” is about a person. “Drinking and Driving” is a song I put out on Solange Knowles’ compilation CD she just put out. It’s about a real experience I had where I was basically driving and was thinking about doing something crazy. It’s good to let that stuff out. It’s better to turn it into art than do it. By all means, I feel however you gotta deal with depression or pain, deal with it in a way where you express it instead of internalizing it.
DX: You’re now touring with Drake, Miguel and Future, whereas in the past, you’ve toured with Lauryn Hill and Nas. What’s your whole take on the growth of Hip Hop from the Golden Age to the place it’s at now?
Jhene Aiko: I feel people are more open now to different types of people in Hip Hop. Maybe back in the day, it was only acceptable to be only from the ‘hood or from the projects. It was like only if you came from a certain area, it was acceptable to be in Rap. I feel now, it’s just another form of expression, and so you have people like Drake, or even me. I sing, but I feel I’m a part of Hip Hop because of what I sing about. It’s opening up, and the audience is expanding. Also, things are blending in together, whereas before you had a super strict Hip Hop artist. All the rappers now have different songs and collaborations that can be considered R&B or pop. From back then to now, everyone is opening their mind to what Hip Hop is.
DX: Do you feel Drake’s music would have appealed in the era of Hip Hop in the ‘90s?
Jhene Aiko: I do. He does a really good job of combining all the things that have influenced him. That’s really important. Not only does it pay homage to who he’s listened to growing up, it’s just a nice thing to listen to, because a lot of us haven’t listened to just one single. And if you love music, then you love music; you listen to Rap, R&B or country if you really love it. It’s cool that you can hear in his music his influences from different types of artists. Definitely in the ‘90s, a lot of R&B type songs would’ve had shit [laughs].
Why Jhene Aiko Thinks Her Music Can Help Change The World
DX: Tupac is another one of your influences, as he has been for so many people. What’s one message you’ve learned from Pac that you’ll always carry with you?
Jhene Aiko: There’s so many. I became a fan of Tupac when I got older, because I was really young when he was in his prime. When I got into him, it was more me getting into him and his poetry. Of course I loved his music, but I really got into him as a person and his philosophies. I remember one thing he said, something in the Resurrection movie where he says, “I might not be the person that changes the world, but I might start the life in a person who does.” I take that with me, because what I want to do with music and with my life is to be a person that literally helped change the world. That’s a lot for one person to do, but if we all took on that responsibility, with whatever our talent is, [we could] start something in another person and do something greater than what we’ve done. I think that’s what he’s trying to say. If I’m not the one trying to change the world, I’ll start that in another person, and it’ll continue to where… We’ll never have a perfect world, but at least it’ll bring about balance of people trying to do great things.
DX: With a lot of female artists, they sometimes get swayed into crossing over into the pop category. But you’ve never seemed to come across that issue. Why do you think that’s the case?
Jhene Aiko: I literally do music just because when I’m going through something, I have to write about it. I like to sing, so I like to turn a poem or a short story into a song. I’ve never done it to be on the radio or be famous. It’s something I’ve just enjoyed doing, and I have to do it in order to stay sane. For me, that’s why I have songs that can be Hip Hop, R&B, or some that can be considered alternative. I don’t care—when I make a song, I don’t think where they’re going to play the song or if it’s a radio song, or if the record can cross over. That’s never something I think about when I’m writing songs. People will see with my album Souled Out; they’ll get a broader view of what I do as a writer and singer. I don’t think it’s pop, but I do think it’ll show people I’m not a collaborator-with-rappers type of girl. I grew up listening to different types of music, and as a person I don’t really pigeonhole myself to pretend to be any type of person. It changes with the wind, so I like my music to reflect that.
DX: Did you ever feel pressure from No I.D. to create more records on your own, to show people that you can hold it down on with just yourself on a record rather than a bunch of rappers on it?
Jhene Aiko: Yes! Yeah, it’s funny because I’ve always felt like that. With the [Sail Out] EP, it was just sort of the songs that were more Hip Hop influenced, J. Hennessy type of tracks. When I was recording them, we had features in mind. It was like, “Let’s make a song to see if so-and-so can get on.” It makes it less work for me, because I don’t have to write top to bottom. I can do two verses, a hook and leave 16 bars open to complete the song.
There was “The Worst” in particular, which was one of the last songs recorded for the EP, and I wanted a feature. Dion came in and he’s like, “I think you should finish your songs, and you do them.” He gave me a whole speech on how I don’t need features, and that I can do a song from top to bottom. I was like, “You’re right.” I’ll just write a 16. It took a while, because I didn’t know how many words you had to write into a 16 bar [laughs]. When I did it, I was like, “Wow, I just did a full song from top to bottom.” I was inspired to do more.
Jhene Aiko On Clever Lyrics & Collaborating With Her Daughter
DX: Without being what you called a collaborator-with-rappers type of artist, you also do a good job with double entendres in a lot of your songs. How often do you try to incorporate a Hip Hop element into your songwriting?
Jhene Aiko: Rappers are known for doing double entendres and wordplay, but John Mayer is a writer I listen to a lot, and he’s really good with words. I don’t think it’s a Hip Hop thing, but because rappers are really poets, it’s like a poet thing. There always has to be at least one thing in my verse that’s clever, so I don’t feel like I’m lazy. I have to say something clever, and it has to be something people will go back and listen to and hear new things each time. When I’m really lazy and just trying to rhyme, it sounds corny to me, and you can tell I didn’t try. I haven’t put out any songs like that. I’ve recorded songs like that just to be like, “Let’s hurry up and finish the song,” but I’ve always gone back in and changed it and been like, “No, I can do something way better than that [laughs].”
DX: You have that line in “The Vapors” where it’s like, “Can I hit it again.” Obviously people can interpret that two different ways. Is that like the inner-rapper, J. Hennessy coming out in you?
Jhene Aiko: Yeah, for sure. I love to talk about weed and personify it. I think the majority of people my age can relate to the feeling of loving and the feeling of being high. When I talk about weed, it’s also a metaphor for love, because love can get you high. I kind of like to even do a triple entendre and refer to my love as a drug, and it can mean a drug or also mean a person.
Not everybody smokes, everyone isn’t a hopeless romantic, and everyone isn’t in a relationship, so I like to keep it open so it can be for you no matter what.
DX: You’ve talked in the past about how smoking helps your musical process. How much does it help get you loose and allow you to tap into that creative zone?
Jhene Aiko: When I did my first mixtape, Sailing Souls, I pretty much had a nine-to-five, so I would come home and write and just release so much stress. For the Sail Out EP, I didn’t smoke as much. I don’t feel dependent on it, but it definitely helps get you to a creative place faster. I have a five-year-old daughter, and obviously I can’t be high everyday, so I limit it to when I’m working in the studio. Even then, I started to have sober sessions. It takes a little longer to get into deep thoughts, but I feel like you can channel your high. Once you’ve smoked enough to know what it feels like, you can remember that feeling and go back there without having to smoke. I do feel like it’s very important to my musical process.
DX: You also have a record in which your daughter contributed to. How cool of a moment was that for the two of you?
Jhene Aiko: It was amazing. She’s always in the car with me. A lot of times, I’ll have beats, and I’ll just write songs to beats, think to them and see what that beat makes me think. A lot of times, I’ll sing melodies to them while driving around, so that by the time I get to the studio, I’ll have the song and I’ll go in and sing it. I wrote about that song, riding around and singing it to her and she was singing along to it. I knew when I heard the beat—which was produced by No I.D.—I knew I wanted to make it into a special song. She was with me in the studio, and I wanted to write the song to her and my brother who passed away. I thought it would be so dope if she sang it with me and she had her own little part. She loves singing, so she was really excited. She didn’t need any Auto-tune or anything. She was on key and on beat; she has impeccable rhythm. It was fun and she’s like, “I want to do what you do when I grow up.”
DX: Are you going to encourage her to go into the music business?
Jhene Aiko: I’m going to let her feel her way around. She’s around it a lot, so it’s natural she’s going to want to do it. I’m definitely not going to be like, “No, you can’t.” I’m encouraging her to finish high school, because your talent will always be there, and I want her to really experience a childhood and friends before she jumps into anything. Whether she shows interest in sports, dance—I’ll encourage her into whatever she naturally feels drawn to.
Jhene Aiko Says “Souled Out” Has A Piece Of Her Soul In Every Track
DX: You mentioned in previous interviews that Souled Out would be your deepest album to date. How would you describe the state of mind that you’re in with the album?
Jhene Aiko: Souled Out is where I’m at now. It was pretty much the songs I did after Sailing Soul(s). I was in the vibe after working with a lot of rappers. When I started working with No I.D., his tracks are amazing, and it made me feel like I want to be introspective and talk about real life things that I’ve really been into besides heartbreak from a guy. Writing to his tracks are very therapeutic for me, so I feel like I’ve really dug deep into my whole philosophy on life. I had been through a lot since the mixtape. I was in a better place and a more mature way of looking at life. It wasn’t all about smoking, getting high or having sex.
I feel Souled Out is where I am now and my journey to becoming the person I wanted to be. No I.D. is an amazing producer, so the beats are amazing. A few other producers are on there too. It’s definitely going to be a complete album. When I say it’s my journey, it’s really going to tell a story, and I have some exciting plans for my album with the creatives. I really want it to be an album that anyone can listen to—your mom, little sister, as a man. I want them to take it in and get a good understanding on a woman’s mind. It’s hard to explain for me, because it’s just me. It’s completely a piece of my soul in every track. I’m excited for people to hear and understand what I can do as an artist.
DX: Souled Out is the most personal project you’ve done, so can you sense your own personal maturation from 2011’s Sailing Soul(s), to the EP, to now?
Jhene Aiko: Definitely. I feel with Sailing Soul(s) and Sail Out—even though I’ve felt like I dropped a few gems in each song—I felt like I grew. With a feel-good song, I always try to say something that I feel people can think about or go back and be like, “Oh, that’s what she meant by that.” Between the time, it was a natural growth. It’s been three years since 2011. I’ve definitely grown as a person, and I feel more comfortable sharing my stories, because the best feeling to me is the people that listen to my music understand I’m a normal person. When they come up to me, it’s very personal, and they always have a story about a song that has helped them. It means so much to me, because it was really something I went through too. It’s not like someone wrote the song for me and I sang it, and people come up to me saying, “Thank you for doing the song, and I have no connection to it,” because it happens a lot [to other artists].
With me, because I really wrote the song and really went through it, when someone comes and says, “My dad died of cancer, and the song for your brother really helped me get through it,” it makes me feel amazing. I feel with Souled Out, it’s a lot more of that, because it’s me being extremely open and me coming to terms with who I am, the things I’ve been through, and the direction I want to go with my life. For people who don’t understand the type of artist I am, it’ll show them that it’s deeper than Rap [laughs].