In this essay, writer Ashley Lyle explores the depth and richness of an ever-evolving artist and songwriter.

“We’ve met, right?” It was a question asked to me at a party in Malibu by an artist I hadn’t become acquainted with personally but musically knew since I was 11 years old. I first heard of Jhené Aiko in 2002 on B2K’s Pandemonium album. She had a song, “Dog,” that I played incessantly as a pre-teen. It was the quintessential bright melodies mixed with the sassy lyrics of a young man trying to run game on a young woman that got me.

Fast forward 10 years later, and I was begging my assistant dean to allow me to bring her to Stanford University’s campus for an annual concert festival. I was in touch with her agent, CAA’s Caroline Yim (who remains in that role), and was looking forward to her making a debut on our campus. At this point, her debut mixtape, Sailing Souls, was the soundtrack to my own coming-of-age story as a girl who made it out of Memphis and was slowly making her way through life. Records like “Stranger” spoke to the ubiquitous cynical nature of experiencing heartbreak across different relationships. It hurts, but it’s a familiar pain as she sings, “I meet ‘em everyday.” Posts from her Tumblr page brought her to fans who were finding their own ways to express themselves outside the confines of filtered and pristine editorial and social media.

Aiko’s latest album, Chilombo, is a personal project for the singer, who realized that making music was not only healing for her but also for the world. She utilized alchemy crystal bowls to produce vibrations elevating listeners to a higher plane beyond their trials and tribulations. Ethereal sounds can be heard throughout the album, and Aiko’s heavenly vocals deliver stories of love, loss, reflection and introspection.

It’s not only the signature sweet-and-sultry sound of Aiko that makes her one of the most prolific artists of the modern era. She’s also one of the best songwriters. After giving birth to her daughter in 2008, Aiko began to steer away from her early teeny-bop days and put pen to paper on her very real experiences of coping with life. What she came up with in 2011, with Sailing Souls, was an album ahead of its time—prefiguring the music industry’s grappling with the direction of R&B music, whether to call it alt-R&B or “progressive,” as defined by the new naming of the Best Urban Contemporary Album Grammy. The critical acclaim from her debut mixtape and the hard work of her and her manager, Taz Askew of Art Club, led Aiko to a deal with Dion “No I.D.” Wilson via ARTium/Def Jam.

If you only put on a Jhené Aiko record and miss the words, you miss out on an artist who vividly paints impeccable storytelling coupled with passion and emotion that might go over one’s head if you’re only listening to its sound. “Comfort Inn Ending (freestyle)” starts off with her singing frankly, “Thought I told you not to trust these hoes / Say they love you and you know they don’t” before going into a five-minute narrative of an up-and-down relationship and the regret that comes with giving energy to it. On the bridge of  “The Worst,” she croons, “Don’t take this personal but you’re the worst/ You know what you’ve done to me / Although it hurts I know I just can’t keep running away.” In one of her most riveting songs she’s ever written, “Triggered,” Aiko launches into a stream of consciousness about dealing with bitterness and resentment from an on-and-off relationship. Lyrics like “I’m about to burn this b***h down / Think I need to lie down” and “Don’t know what I’m capable of / Might f**k around and go crazy on cuz” depict rage—but the piano playing in the background and her soft vocals make this hit the most beautiful song of rage. Sometimes you can scream in what you say and not how you say it.

Aiko adds a special flair to records she’s featured on as well. In 2013, she assisted J.Cole on the hook of “Sparks Will Fly"; that same year, she was also featured prominently on Big Sean’s record “Beware” with Lil Wayne. Her singing duets are equally impressive, including cuts like “Skipping Stones” with Gallant and “First F**k” with 6lack (both of whom are Grammy nominees).

Aiko, a Grammy nominee in her own right, has nothing to prove. A consistently strong career spanning decades makes Aiko one of the greats—an artist others will reflect on years from now and see her enduring significance, akin to that of someone like Sade. She has the range. Do you see it?

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