"Sail Out is going to be my last project that has so many rap features on it," says Jhené Aiko in an impish voice from her home-base in Los Angeles. The 25-year-old singer is addressing her new seven-song EP (out now on Def Jam) and sees four of its tracks embellished with rapper cameos: Black Hippy members Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul show up, as do Vince Staples and Childish Gambino, with the latter's couplets co-starring on the single "Bed Peace." Aiko has emerged as a go-to muse for rappers over the last couple of years — her sweet and breathy voice has infused songs by Drake, J. Cole and Big Sean — but while proud of her hip-hop connections, the singer now wants to "show people I can do other things than just sing with rappers." Aiko considers Sail Out a warm coda to those days that also offers a coy look into where she's heading next.
Raised in Los Angeles, Aiko found herself surrounded by the tropes of the music industry from an early age. She was at one point signed to labels under the Universal and Sony umbrellas, went along with a ruse to try and cast her as the cousin to Lil Fizz from late-Nineties R&B troupe B2K, appeared in a number of music videos, and wrangled a song on the Barbershop soundtrack which saw her name lined-up alongside those of P. Diddy and Ghostface Killah. But she found herself dismayed by what she perceived was the false side of conjuring up an image and promoting an artist on a major label and went back to school as a self-imposed exile from the music world.
Aiko's first demoralizing run through the industry wasn't in vain though, as it eventually inspired the singer to put her faith in what she saw as her true artistic ideal: She flipped the concept of being asked to "sell" herself into a preference to "sail" and with that launched 2011's Sailing Soul mixtape. Produced in large by the Fisticuffs duo, it was a 13-track delight that saw her trilling in terms that reflected who she was, including an upbringing that was in a large part soundtracked by hip-hop and showed her not shy of adding impact to her vocals with the occasional curse word. She credits this willingness to embrace the more colloquial nooks of language in part to her adoration of the late-rapper and rebel-to-his-generation Tupac Shakur.
"Everything I do as a person pertains to my singing and I look up to Tupac 'cause he spoke his mind and always expressed himself even if it contradicted what he said the day before," Aiko says about channeling Shakur's spirit through her song-writing. "If you express everything all the time you're gonna look a little crazy but that's how you think in your mind and I think I do the same thing [as him]. As a singer, it can be a little weird 'cause people aren't used to a singer saying the f-word or a singer talking about gang violence in her neighborhood but I incorporate everything I feel into my music. I feel that's what he did too."
Aiko writes modern R&B songs that come across like they are created in a similar manner to a rapper crafting a verse. This has helped endear her to a current crop of rappers who see her as less a hook-slinger-for-hire as an equal collaborator on a song. Her relationship with Kendrick Lamar, hip-hop's current critical darling, goes back to the Compton-raised rapper's 2010 mixtape Overly Dedicated where she appeared on the airy "Growing Apart (To Get Closer)." She says working with Kendrick during those days helped prompt and offer direction to her own musical path.
Counting on close-knit relationships with rappers has helped fortify Aiko's career, and Sail Out benefits from this creative kinship, not least with her West Coast peers Kendrick and Ab-Soul. The project's feathery second single, "Bed Peace," also casts her and Childish Gambino as John Lennon and Yoko Ono in its video. "I'm obsessed with their relationship and obviously John and Yoko are ambassadors to peace and I want to bring that to people my age," she explains. But the most intriguing part of Sail Out comes from its bonus track, "Comfort Inn Ending (Freestyle)." While the remainder of the EP is produced by Fisticuffs, this track is helmed by No ID, the executive-vice-president of Def Jam who in the past has proved instrumental in the careers of Common and Kanye West.
At first the songs that make up Sail Out were all ear-marked for Aiko's debut Def Jam studio album, but as the recording sessions tallied up there became a contrast between the songs produced by Fisticuffs and No ID. So while No ID oversaw the entire process of making Sail Out, the EP is a continuation of Aiko's mixtape style while the album, on which she says No ID handles the majority of the production, will introduce a new element of her talent. "The album is on a different scale of lyricism and production," she says. "It takes everything I've done so far a little further." She adds that "Comfort Inn Ending (Freestyle)" is "a good glimpse into what you're gonna see on the album."
That peek suggests a grander and more dramatic musical style, to which Aiko sings powerfully. The lyrics are still phrased as if in hip-hop parlance, but by stripping the song itself of the usual rap cameo, Aiko's vocals become more affecting and the song resonates with a haunting intensity. It sounds like an artist stepping out from the comfort zone provided by regular collaborations with others. If bigger name rappers helped cast off Aiko's ship, she's now the one firmly at the helm as her maiden voyage begins in earnest.