Wednesday, September 10, 2014

album review: 'souled out' by jhené aiko

So in case you haven't noticed, the biggest new wave in pop music seems to have finally materialized... and it's R&B and soul.

Now this sort of thing comes in cycles, usually on the opposite side of when pop music goes for shiny, electro dance pop, but when you think about it, R&B hasn't exactly been dominant in mainstream music in quite some time, not really since the early-to-mid-2000s. I mean, of course there was always Beyoncé, but she's a force in and of herself. This sort of evolution is broader, and like most musical waves, it was driven by the rise of the glitchy, off-beat, minimalist indie R&B that would come to win tides of critical acclaim at the beginning of the decade. And now that it's finally reached the mainstream, we're getting all sorts of new R&B acts cropping up.

Jhené Aiko isn't quite one of those 'new' acts, in that she's actually been involved in the music industry for over ten years and got her first steps in the door thanks to family connections to B2K. She could have started her career right then, but label tensions, pregancy and a desire to continue her education caused her to take a long hiatus from recording. She eventually returned in 2011 with a well-received mixtape and EP, and even a few legit charting hits that I wouldn't quite say were stellar, but weren't bad either. They showed that Jhené Aiko did have an impressive amount of charisma and vocal presence, and enough wit in her lyrics to back it up, so provided the production was on point - which is often was, thanks to collaborating producers Fisticuffs and No I.D. - I mostly liked her material. That being said, I was skeptical going into this new album Souled Out, mostly because Jhené was saying it was going to be a concept record, and those sorts of ambitious projects right out of the gate can misfire if not directed carefully. So what did I find here?

Well, holy crap, I didn't expect this. Folks, with Souled Out, Jhené Aiko might have delivered one of the best R&B records of the year, a full-fledged concept record that feels fully formed from start to finish and features some real standout work. And in a year where so much R&B has sounded drained of life and washed out, Jhené brought a sound that doesn't just have life, but unique personality and vigor to make a surprisingly quick and impacting listen. Is it perfect? No, I wouldn't quite go there, but I think this album is great, and it might just line up as one of my favourites of the year.

So let's start with Jhené Aiko herself - and I know what a bunch of you are thinking right now, 'Mark, you just came down on Banks for sounding detached from her material, and for the fact that her R&B vocals are not top-form, and yet you're supporting Jhené Aiko?' Well, yeah, because Jhené's bringing an entirely different stage persona to the table: a much more experienced, love-scarred woman who has lived enough life to have a grip and self-awareness to boot. The detachment becomes necessary with that sort of persona, because it's a survival mechanism, and that harder, quiet confidence thus enables the vulnerable moments to shine all the brighter in contrast. It helps that Jhené Aiko has the charisma and personality to back it up, and she's subtle enough to underplay many moments to draw the listener in. 

Now it also helps big time the production is so goddamn on-point, and what's amazing is that it was such a simple shift in instrumentation that won me over: Jhené Aiko uses guitars. It lends what could have come across as a very icy and reserved album a lot of character and unique warm textures that lends it a lot of flavour. And of course the tight work from Thundercat on 'W.A.Y.S.' is great against the great distant thunderclaps of percussion, but it's not just him. 'To Love & Die' actually manages to make a bleak military take on 'love' and relationships come across as dramatic and no incredibly silly thanks to subtle supporting work from the Cocaine 80s, 'Spotless Mind' has these great warm guitar tones and subtle organ support, 'It's Cool' has a slick smooth jazz sort of vibe with great spiky guitar leads, the subtle melodic interplay at the back of 'Lyin King' with the guitars and keyboards', the pseudo DJ Mustard keyboards on 'Wading' yet on a mix that feels so much more spacious and opulent and gorgeously organic, and of course the scratchy quiet piano and rich mix of 'Eternal Sunshine'. That being said, my favourite instrumental on this album is easily 'Brave' - the Spanish horns, the echoing guitars, the strings, how every sound seems to shimmer away into the mix, and that swell after the chorus is potent as hell. No I.D. is at his absolute best with production on this album, Jhené Aiko is perfectly placed in the mix, and 'Brave' might be one of the most gorgeous songs he's ever made, a noir-inspired epic that recalls images of The Godfather and feels like it earns that drama.

So what about the lyrics and themes, the area where Jhené Aiko's big ambitious concept comes under scrutiny? Well, it holds up - shockingly well, actually, considering she's really not playing in all that unique territory. The arc she's telling - a woman getting over a traumatic breakup from its instance all the way to attaining closure at the end of the record - it's not an arc that we haven't heard a dozen times or more in R&B, but the high notes are hidden in the details. For one, while there are a few slipups in Jhené Aiko's technical songwriting - a few flubbed rhymes, a few lyrics that feel a little oddly structured - her songwriting from a craft point-of-view is incredibly solid, and fits her delivery damn near perfectly. And the narrative that she crafts flows together pretty damn well too. I really like the opening tracks sets the emotions not so much with anger but in a haze of frustration and confusion, being trapped on a ride and not having the control of one's own emotions and destiny. This adds another element to the emotional arc beyond getting over the guy in question, but regaining control and acquiring real emotional stability, an arc that Jhené Aiko shows real investment in paying off.

And what's all the more impressive is that she frames this record excellently. As early as 'To Love & Die', she highlights her hard-edged pursuit and how that can hurt just as many people as she might want to love and then leave behind, and while she has hard words for why the relationship doesn't work on 'Spotless Mind', it also shows the person she connected with is really just like her, only lacking her ability to keep changing. Much of the symbolism goes back to water and constant movement - clear symbols of the fluid passion Jhené Aiko is hunting for and pursues with impressive intensity - and both 'It's Cool' and 'Lyin King' shows both sides of that coin as she describes how she tried to brush away the initial pain of the separation before really bringing out her anger. And from there we get her process to find someone new, from the missed connection of 'Wading', the dismissal of the pressure and old longings on 'The Pressure', and the challenge to the new connection on 'Brave', which feels like it has earned its weight because Jhené Aiko has put her vulnerability and true nature on display across the record and the song earns its drama. And then this album does something very mature: drawing up on the metaphors surrounding memory from the excellent film Eternal Sunlight Of The Spotless Mind, a film referenced all across this album, she chooses to put the relationship behind her and only hold onto those memories that help her feel better going forward, albeit unlike the film she's going with someone new. That's not saying there's not a place for those memories - the second-to-last track 'Promises' highlights how the loss of her brother to brain cancer still is with her, but the promise that she makes is that she and her daughter will be all right. And unlike the pleas she says to herself at the beginning of the album on 'W.A.Y.S.', this time she believes it too.

In short, I love this album. I was floored by how much I love this album, because most R&B records don't hit me like this. But between the gorgeous production, Jhené Aiko's great delivery, the lyrics interweaving the Eternal Sunlight references and symbols throughout this album... yeah, this is one of the best albums of the year, hands down, and a sign that Jhené Aiko is a fantastic talent unlike most in the indie R&B scene today. I'm giving Souled Out by Jhené Aiko a 9/10 and the highest of my recommendations. Folks, there might have been a lot of albums released in this vein recently, but you definitely do not want to miss this one. Check it out.

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