Friday, September 29, 2017

album review: 'trip' by jhene aiko

I'll admit I'm a little at a loss here. I wasn't expecting this, there was no warning, the singles were scattered with no big promotional rollout - the record just came out of nowhere last Friday, leaving a mostly bewildered audience to respond to its meandering eighty-five minute length and array of unexpected guest stars. But it was more than that - even despite more artists choosing to embrace surprise albums for the immediate spark and impact, I've seen more fail than succeed and as much as I'm a fan of Jhene Aiko, I was concerned that she just didn't have enough clout - even with a project as large as this - to truly grab the conversation.

Now in a just world she'd have that clout - I've gone repeatedly on the record saying that her 2014 debut Souled Out was criminally overlooked and underrated, and while I've never really been a fan of her work with Big Sean in TWENTY88, there's something just wrong that her biggest hit to date is a collaboration with Omarion, DJ Mustard and Chris Brown where she talks about a guy 'eating her booty like groceries'. But Souled Out was not exactly an easy record to process - it was very low-key and subtle, the instrumentation was a lot warmer and organic than the R&B that was popular in 2014; hell, if she had released it two years later I imagine she would have gotten a lot more critical acclaim. And I've always liked her writing and eye for detail, and her exploration of themes that always had a lot more complexity than folks gave her credit. So while I was a little reticent about a record that was eighty five minutes long and primarily focused on an extended drug trip, she's earned the benefit of the doubt with me, so what did I find on Trip?

Here's the thing: my biggest commentary surrounding Jhene Aiko's debut was that it was underrated, but I think the more apt term is misunderstood, which can certainly happen when you make a low-key release that can seem deceptively lightweight if you aren't willing to dig into the details. And Trip is very much the sequel to that, not only that this album's framing device of an extended trip is masking a lot more emotional complexity than many will give it credit, but it also has a narrative arc that means it's not nearly as listless as many will claim. Now does that mean some of the grievances aren't valid? Of course not: it certainly runs long and there are definitely artistic choices that deserved a little more refinement or consideration, and I wouldn't quite say it's better than Souled Out. But when it comes to this brand of meditative and surprisingly complex R&B, Jhene Aiko is criminally underrated, and Trip is a double dose of that evidence.

And I'm going to start with Jhene Aiko herself because arguably she's doing more of the heavy lifting this time around vocally than even on previous records. I've already said in the past that I'm a fan of her naturally expressive voice that can play coy as a defense mechanism while showing remarkable subtlety, a factor that makes up in spades for her limited range, but this record is asking her to do a fair bit more even along with phenomenal multi-tracking. We'll be getting to the thematic arc in a bit, but to take her from the slight daze of intoxication to sifting through the reasons for feeling so lovestruck and vulnerable, from outright defensive and hostile to moments of genuine terror on songs like 'Overstimulated' and 'Bad Trip' that sound almost a little too real, she's proving through a layered performance that the drug trip and even the "love story" she's living have roots in something much deeper. And it's a damn shame her guest stars are just not on the same page in terms of delivery. I'll give points to Kurrupt for showing up as the hard-edged but genuinely concerned older friend figure, and the interplay with Brandy on 'Ascension' was flat-out excellent, and hell, even the half-stoned Dr. Chill has his place even if he does feel a little lacking in dimension. But despite the fact that Big Sean is her real life boyfriend and is clearly trying, it's the same issue as with TWENTY88, he's just not nearly on her level, and while Swae Lee isn't terrible on 'Sativa', you have to wonder if they only got him because they couldn't get The Weeknd, who'd probably add a fair bit more nuance all around.

But again, the majority of the story here is not about these characters, it's about Jhene Aiko's personal journey, so let's dig into the content. Now again, like with Souled Out this is not a record that's aiming to be overly complex in the writing style, which makes the details of the arc all the more important. Right from the first track it's apparent that Jhene Aiko is taking drugs for more than just reckless hedonism or even an escape - for her it's meditative in trying to form a connection, and yet when an unnamed guy quickly enters her story, it's clear that him 'saving' her on the end of 'Jukai' is a willful deflection on her part. But for as head-over-heels as Jhene might seem on the next few songs, the imagery on songs like 'Moments' and 'Only Lovers Left Alive' seem oddly panicked and desperate, even apocryphal in the last case. She also seems keenly aware of his flaws, which seems to inspire him to further blur her consciousness with more drugs - and note that her male costar is no longer her actual boyfriend but now more of a stranger. And yet you can tell she's still straining to trust him, provide less of an overtly sexual connection and more just a sense of closeness and emotional intimacy... and yet you can tell that with each song where she's trying to find some balance, she believes it less and less. Now this takes us to 'Never Call Me', which does fit the distrustful arc but also features the most references to her real life divorce from producer Dot The Genius, which I will say does hurt the verisimilitude of the record a bit, but it's here where we head into the most harrowing part of the record, starting with 'Nobody' where Jhene sees the lingering pains she'd been trying to paper over surge to the surface - none of which gets better when the guy tries to help by just giving her more drugs. And what makes it abundantly clear the drugs are only a layer to this story is that these songs are not psychedelic or delirious, instead wracked with mournful layers of grief surrounding the passing of her brother from cancer in 2012 that she's never properly processed...

And then the themes snap into place - because again, this was never fully about the drugs or even about the other guys in the situation, but dealing with grief and loss. And thus it makes sense that when she first starts her trip she's immediately waylaid, or that the guy who she desires that emotional closeness with 'reminds her of her brother' - or that said guy, who can't effectively fill that hole, only seeks to numb her further because that's all he really can do. But once that guy is out of the picture - and after Dr. Chill tries to ply her with more drugs, a detour that I'd argue isn't quite necessary - she resumes her attempt to form any sort of connection with that brother or at least come to some sort of peace. And while there is some feeling of fulfillment - her daughter tugging her back to earth with 'Sing To Me', and both 'Frequency' and 'Ascension' seeming to imply some moment of balance that she knows he's now in a better place, we then get the title track with the statements that the men in her life can't save her or the world - she can only do it for herself, and while that guy might hop along for the ride, his love and presence brings both good and bad, the sort of oddly weary comedown that feels like a credits moment more than directly connected to the album itself... which is exactly how the short film Jhene Aiko released with this record ends. But even beyond that, without the film itself which reinforces this dramatic arc, the themes do feel a bit scattered on the album alone - which yes, was a similar issue to Souled Out, but perhaps a little more tightness in the writing could have pulled things together a bit better.

Granted, that's pretty much the same statement you could make about most of this project, because if we are looking for the area that's attracted the most valid criticism, it comes in the composition and arc of the album. Not the production, let me stress this: the blissed-out warm haze that colors Jhene AIko's records is often by far my favourite part, and the full organic presence of these tones does wonders in complimenting her voice and flow. And while I'm always a sucker for great guitar-accented R&B - in this case supplied across the record by John Mayer of all people, helped by producers who let just enough feedback in - it's the added instrumentation that lends this record so much character, from textured percussion to watery touches of synth to the welcome horn section. The thrumming cellos beneath 'Jukai', the sharper hip-house vibe of 'Only Lovers Left Alive', the bubbly tap of the bass opposite the piano and deep kickdrum on 'When We Love' with the gorgeous sax accents, the breathy ocarina tones against the faded cloud of melody on 'Bad Trip' that lead into the clipped spikes of melody puncturing the mist on 'Oblivion', the gentle organ and strings swell that pushes 'Ascension', and the thick thrums of bass against the live drums, harp and cello of 'Overstimulated' that might be the most powerful track on the entire record. Hell, even the trap-leaning beats on songs like 'While We're Young' and 'You Are Here' have an organic depth and melodic foundation I really do love. Now it's not always perfect - that weedy little pickup and cushion of murmurs that anchors 'Never Call Me' isn't all that great, and I ran out of patience for the oily knock and pitch-shifting of 'Psilocybin' incredibly quickly - but again, the larger issue is compositional: that this a record that runs twenty-two tracks and eighty-five minutes, and for as much as the dramatic arc does a solid job sustaining that length, there are definitely songs that run longer than they should and interludes that feel redundant, especially opposite songs that coast more on vibe than a strong defined hook and identity of their own.

But as a whole... look, the guest stars don't always deliver, it's definitely flabbier than Souled Out and doesn't quite hit with the same depth or punch, but there is an emotive complexity and gorgeous production style that works for me as well as it did on Jhene Aiko's debut, and as I really like this album. There's a fair bit more going on than many will give credit, and when you factor in a lot of beautiful melodies and a really impressive lead performance, I think it's enough to give this a 8/10. Again, it's a lot to ask when you have a record this long, this mood-centric, and this subtle, but if you're a fan of this style of R&B or you really liked that SZA album from earlier this year... trust me when I say if you give it the time, it's definitely worth it.

No comments:

Post a Comment