‘Chilombo’ Finds Jhené Aiko Escaping Into Oblivion and Returning Liberated

Jhené Aiko’s 2011 debut mixtape “Sailing Soul(s)” showcased a confident young artist especially well-versed in R&B traditions. Aiko quickly made a name for herself, featuring in songs by such illustrious names as Lil Wayne and Big Sean. Her first major label studio album, 2014’s “Souled Out,” was met with critical acclaim, and rose to platinum status. Aiko’s followup, 2017’s “Trip,” took a more personal direction and showed a new ambition of scale, with emotive, confessional songs exploring the various facets of personality that emerged from experiences with hallucinogens. The album came a year after rumor spread about Aiko’s romantic involvement with Big Sean, a topic that the media soon verified and continued to scrutinize, putting the singer’s private life in the public eye. The on-and-off relationship dissolved after a couple of years, and Aiko covered up her tattoo of Sean. Now, she returns with an ambitious, 20-track new record, “Chilombo,” recorded completely in Hawaii, and incorporating the island’s culture through the heavy use of traditional sound bowls, used for meditation and “healing.” The new album shows a seasoned singer-songwriter honing in on a sound of her own, inspired emotionally by romantic fallout, and musically by the outlet it led her to. The latest songs cover an impressive range in both singing style and subject matter. 

The introductory track, “Lotus,” begins like a blast from the past, with jazzy piano cloaked in vinyl crackle, and Aiko’s fanciful, expressive singing approaching the stuff of Disney fantasy. The few lines she belts out inform the album as a whole. She sings of how a man broke a woman’s heart “’Til it was open, just like a lotus,” and ends exalting, “She found her focus / The beast awoken.” Next comes “Triggered (freestyle),” an opportune title for 2020. Aiko has gone on record clarifying that the song is not exclusively about her relationship with Big Sean. It’s clear, however, that he is the main target of her ferocity and passion. A beat gives form to the atmospherics of the opener, whereupon the sonic mood of the record firmly takes root, and in moments, Aiko is mercilessly lashing out with such lines as “You are my enemy, you are no friend of mind, muhfucker.” She humorously verifies, “You’re motherfucking right, I’m triggered,” and warns, “You need to stay out of my way” with climactic melisma, as free-form piano gives the otherwise contemporary R&B stylings an extra dimension. Simultaneously, she betrays a vulnerability, admitting, “Ain’t no me and you without you in it.”

“None of Your Concern” builds on the brashness, with Aiko flouting a previous paramour whose identity is all too obvious. Aiko shrugs, “It’s none of my concern anymore,” but shuttles between emotions in a passive aggressive frenzy, dismissively reckoning, “Should’ve waited, should’ve never dated,” then desperately lamenting, “What’s better for you than me?” Backwards music makes for a trippy, rather ambient soundscape, drifting in and out of silence. The track features an appearance from none other than Big Sean himself, with an especially quirky verse, starting off stoic, then escalating into harmonized, breakneck speed outbursts. His desperation matchect surpasses it, as he feels compelled to persuade with entreaties like, “I made you come nine times in one day.” Rumor has it the two are now back together. 

“Speak” is a bit less overtly R&B in its instrumental stylings, employing more acoustic sounds. Aiko sings, “I’m putting on my new dress / I know you hate it.” Relishing the confrontation before letting loose, bellowing the word “free” over harp with total revelry and abandon. “B.S.” recruits H.E.R., whose lower, smokier tone proves an effective counterpart to Aiko’s lighter, airier sound. There’s a definite pattern emerging in the lyrics, as Aiko boasts about being, “Back on my bullshit.” When the two singers join for the lines, “Flex on my ex / In my model X,” which effectively encapsulates the tables-turned female voice. Regardless of where Aiko’s relationship with Big Sean relationship lies, the ups and downs seem to have helped the art. 

“PU$$Y Fairy (OTW)” places a muffled recording of Aiko alongside DJ Screw-style pitched-down snippets of, “I got pussy on the way” over a pastel ‘80s slow jam soundscape. A busy beat drops, and effectively seals the sound. As you’d expect from the title, this is the inevitable, gratuitous sex song. Aiko keeps the priceless titles coming, with “Happiness Over Everything (H.O.E.)” with Future and Miguel both featured on the track, to great effect. After six songs of smooth crooning providing a considerable buildup, Future’s first line of his typical aquatic Auto-tune lunacy rings like magic, shifting the soundscape slightly toward the absurd. Scraping drums add extra edge, and the three singers riffing off the titular line is something that must be heard. 

A sonic detour follows in “One Way St.,” which showcases a classic Okayplayer sound, with mellow keys over crisp, minimal kicks and claps. Aiko sings the refrain of, “Going the wrong way on a one-way street” with a playful indifference, as if shrugging it off and enjoying the ride. Guest rapper Ab-Soul has a flow that recalls Nas, who himself shows up a few tracks later. “Define Me (Interlude)” is a further detour, with Aiko at her most whimsically meditative, over the spacious backdrop of a gently rippling melody. The rebellious spark running through the album finds succinct expression here, as Aiko cooly taunts, “Try me,” and insists, “You cannot define me.” “Surrender” places Aiko over droney bells and atmospheric harmonics, her voice fragile and ethereal, and her phrasings veering closer, at moments, to the half-rapped stylings that singers like Tinashe occasionally dip into, as she sings, “I’m a boss bitch, how you don’t fuck with me?” In the end, Dr. Chill gives a monologue of spiritual offerings, declaring, “Surrender to Quantum Consciousness.” And, so Aiko did, thanks to the tropics and the sound bowls lying around

On the self-explanatory “Tryna Smoke,” Aiko dons an airy, wispy voice, fitting her musings, as she ponders, “If I could fly.” West coast wheezing synths hover over intricate guitar and bass interplay, and a pitched-down rap stutter chimes in to second Aiko’s affirmations. “Born Tired” is another acoustic-based number, following naturally from the preceding track, with Aiko singing, “I’ma need more fire… So pass that thing my way,” eventually sinking away into giddy la-da-das over harp trills. This provides a natural segue into “Love,” which begins with Aoki singing, “La-la-la-la-la-la-la love.” The song employs a variation of the most generic four chord sequence of all time, but is less catchy than most pop songs that use it as a basis, making for a rather underwhelming moment in an album rich with the fruits of strained amorous entanglements

“10K Hours” features Nas. The jazzy piano over a minimal boom-bap beat is a refreshing change from the preceding cliché. Nas sounds as classic as ever, and Aiko’s style on this number recalls that of Amel Larrieux. A song about love and loss, it centers around a refrain of “I’ve been missin’ you for ten thousand hours,” which amounts to just over one year, but sounds just about right. The elegant interlude “Summer 2020” lingers on the same titular phrase, providing an afterthought on the sentiment. “Mourning Doves” strips the music down to barely audible sustained bells and ambient noise, over which Aiko meditates on the end of a relationship. Her lethargic, drawn-out utterances give way to a bold, cascading melody that strikes profoundly over the threadbare backdrop. 

At this point, after a succession of sentimental songs, the overarching attitude has shifted considerably from the cheeky subversion of the album’s first half. The short but sweet “Pray For You” edges toward a middle ground, with Aiko maintaining, “I’m ready to let this go,” then adding, “But never will I ever not wish you well.” Intricate guitar work and propulsive trap-ish drums make for an effective instrumental conduit. Next, the John Legend-featuring “Lightning & Thunder” is easily the most classic song of the album, timeless and tasteful, an elegant duet, with Aiko and Legend displaying a remarkable chemistry. Lyrics like, “What kind of spell do you have me under?” are a counterbalance to those of songs like “PU$$Y Fairy.”

“Magic Hour” revisits the head-in-the-clouds space that Aiko has circled around throughout the album, with more lush ambiance and gentle guitar strumming, and delicate musings of, “Maybe I’m a miracle waiting for the miracle,” culminating in a snowglobe-type lullaby. “Party For Me” builds from the atmospherics, and a beat promptly drops, carrying us back to center. After all the ruminations on loss, Aiko ends on a positive note, demanding, “Party hard for me when I’m gone,” with a guest appearance from Ty Dolla $ign adding just the right amount of idiosyncratic cheer to effectively drive the point home. 

On “Chilombo,” Aiko achieves a striking lyrical balance between cheeky composure and emotional investment. Similarly, it shuttles seamlessly between designedly crass trendy fare and classic, time-tested sounds. Aiko stands out as an R&B singer who manages to show her skill and versatility without resorting to ostentatious displays. Her new set of songs showcases an erudite mastery of soul traditions, effectively conveyed by painstaking musicianship, and deservingly validated by an impressive roster of carefully coordinated guest appearances. Aiko’s relationship with Big Sean ultimately inspired some compelling songs, and ostensibly led her to express herself through outlandish outlets. The Hawain sound bowls, in turn, shaped and colored Aiko’s sonic direction, bringing an unanticipated, emotive ambiance and delicacy. R&B enthusiasts will surely find plenty to enjoy in the new album, and longterm fans will delight in the unprecedented focus and ambition.

Chilombo” is available March 6 on Apple Music.