Album Review: Souled Out by Jhené Aiko

This year’s revelation, Jhené Aiko has released her debut LP this week through Def Jam.

The album was preceded last November by the EP Sail Out, whose 3rd single “The Worst” became a hit this spring. In reality, though, Jhené has been trying to break through the music industry for over a decade.

Souled Out could be described as an alternative R&B album. Stylistically, it draws from the drowned-out and spacey sounds of Drake (with whom she’s collaborated, lending vocals on “From Time” on his last album) and The Weeknd. The moody and atmospheric productions with electronic beats and reverb effects that have characterised the sound of contemporary R&B for the past 2 or 3 years here are front and center.

The four producers who worked on the album found a way to keep everything cohesive, giving the songs a distinctive sound while making them feel part of the same project. Jhené’s songwriting is also what keeps everything together: Souled Out is a concept album that chronicles the journey of a woman who’s gone through heartbreak and is now finding the light. The striking and ethereal artwork is also a representation of this newfound enlightenment.

According to an interview Aiko did with The FADER, the lyrics revolve around “relationships, life lessons, philosophies and truths.” Nevertheless, the production is what carries most of the tracks with the lyrics taking a backseat. On “Spotless Mind” she refers to herself as a “wanderer” over a smooth and chill guitar-driven track filled with layers of adlibs; “W.A.Y.S” and particularly “Promises” reference her daughter and her late brother, to whom she asks for forgiveness for not having a lot of time to dedicate to them. Jhené also seems to have a predilection for Rap lyrics to quote in her songs: much like “The Worst” referenced Jay-Z’s “Excuse Me Miss.” “To Love and Die” contains an interpolation of 50 Cent’s “Many Men (Wish Death).”

The album is short on guest stars, which is strange considering her mixtape and EP were pretty large on the features, Only the standard edition closer “Pretty Bird” features Common in a long freestyle of Jhené adlibbing over a sparse beat and a sultry, jazzy saxophone loop in the background.

While it has been compared to Sade, Aiko’s vocal style recalls the soft and innocent cooing of Aaliyah more than the British chanteuse. Her limited range is not an obstacle to the melodic structures of the songs and she knows how to effectively use what she has to create an atmosphere and compliment the productions. “The Pressure” (the current single and, arguably, the best track on the album) probably best showcases this characteristic.

In short, Souled Out is a rather strong offering and a valuable collection of songs for those listeners who are attracted by this new wave of R&B music that’s distanced itself from traditional sounds and has attempted to bring new life to a genre that’s been accused of not having much more to offer lately.

 

Grade:

70/97

 

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