Introspective R&B artist Jhenè Aiko shapes her own soulful sound

Jhenè Aiko
Cassidy Sparrow/Getty Images
Jhenè Aiko

Jhenè Aiko is not your typical pop star. In an age when too many artists desperately court mainstream success with lazy hooks and numbingly familiar beats, Aiko makes music on her terms, and by doing it her way she has developed one of the most identifiable sounds and uncompromising visions in pop.

As ambitious as she is creative, the 29-year-old Los Angeles native, who opens for Lana Del Rey at the TD Garden on Saturday, spent four years plumbing the depths of her personal grief after the death of her brother Miyagi in 2012 to craft last year’s brooding double-album “Trip,” which was accompanied by a short film and book of poetry, “2Fish.”

The often beautiful, introspective “Trip,” featuring Aiko’s small epiphanies, gauzy mix of R&B and hip-hop, and lovely vocals, documented her difficult journey through grief into acceptance and reconciliation. Now months after the release of the trio of revealing projects, Aiko has come out on the other side of her pain while understanding that the real healing has just begun.


“I’m on the right path — a better path than I was before, but I think it’s going to be an ongoing journey. It’s a daily thing now and part of my evolution,” Aiko says by phone from Los Angeles. “There’s still so much to work through and understand about myself, but I know it’s a slow process. I’m definitely in a better place. I’m still trying to make sense of it all.”

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The prevailing themes of “Trip” — grief, yearning, loss, and spiritual enlightenment — are not standard pop music fare, but Aiko and her many collaborators, including 6lack, Mali Music, Brandy, and a variety of top-shelf producers, managed to create a seamless sonic tapestry that balances the different mood shifts without getting weighed down by the existential questions the singer-songwriter explores.

Aiko says it was important for her to confront her sorrow instead of shying away from it. “Pain is something most people try to run from but when you see someone expressing it, it’s relatable because we all go through pain, and it isn’t something we should hide. We are taught that pain is a bad thing, but it’s not — it’s just a part of life. It’s something we should embrace and learn to get through. We need to talk about it. That’s what I tried to do with my music.”

Aiko, born Jhenè Aiko Efuro Chilombo, was raised in a large, mixed-race family from Los Angeles and began making music by the time she was 13. She struggled to find her identity as an artist until 2011 when she released her raw but well-received mixtape, “Sailing Soul(s),” which hinted at the deeply personal, dreamlike sound she has refined over the years with 2014’s excellent “Souled Out” and last year’s “Trip.”

The prolific artist, who also records under the moniker Twenty88 with her boyfriend, the rapper Big Sean, trusts her audience enough to create music that ignores easy accessibility and sloganeering to focus on depth of feeling and emotional openness. The vulnerability and honesty in Aiko’s work, as if she’s opening a window to her heart, has endeared her to a large swath of R&B fans.


“When I started working on my mixtape, I had been dealing with different producers and other people’s songs that they’d written previously, and I knew it just didn’t feel right, but I also knew that I loved the art of music and writing. I just wasn’t old enough to properly express my own story and emotions,” she says about developing her sound.

“I had the vision of my music in my head, but I didn’t know how to achieve it. Once I started the mixtape, it just started happening naturally.”

She maintains she didn’t pay close attention to pop while growing up but absorbed the songs her brothers and sisters were listening to and found herself creating her own music in her mind. “I was home-schooled since seventh grade, so I often just sat in silence and came up with melodies on my own. Whatever music I create comes from deep inside my own head. I’m never influenced by what might be hot on the radio. I try to stay true to my thoughts and process as possible.”

Judging from the patient, meditative, semiautobiographical 23-minute short film she made with Tracy Oliver, Aiko may have a future beyond pop music. The singer says making the movie, also called “Trip,” opened her eyes to all opportunities, including writing and directing films.

“For the movie, I went back to my notebooks I’ve been keeping over the years, and I just adapted a lot of the poems and stories into the script. It was like reliving certain memories or dreams or things I’ve fantasized about, or I just relived things that really happened. I was completely in control over it, so I was really comfortable. I definitely want to do more of that.”


The “Trip” album and film both examine escape from reality through self-medication (especially hallucinogens), but that’s certainly not a path the singer advocates. “I was just taking drugs to deal with things. In the moment it will help you reach the emotion more quickly — it’s a shortcut. In the long run, though, it definitely affects your mental health, and for me, it’s not worth it. You have to figure it out for yourself what works for you.”

‘We are taught that pain is a bad thing, but it’s not — it’s just a part of life. It’s something we should embrace and learn to get through. We need to talk about it. That’s what I tried to do with my music.’

She adds that she is working to find a new way to soothe the soul in a different manner. “I’m exploring the healing aspects of sound. I’ve been studying different tones and sounds and how they can physically heal us as a people and a planet. That’s part of my purpose, to help heal people, and it’s something I need to segue into and bring my audience in on.”

Aiko hesitates for a moment to consider her words carefully, as she tends to do quite often, and continues. “I don’t want to force it on people. I want them to understand what I’m trying to do. I go through so many different emotions, and I’m constantly making music and writing poems and stories — so I keep sharing them. It’s a release for me. The people who can relate, those are the people who can continue to share our stories together. And that process is healing for me and my audience.”

Jhenè Aiko

Opening for Lana Del Rey. At TD Garden, Jan. 13 at 8 p.m. Tickets $39.50-$125,

Ken Capobianco can be reached at