At a party recently, some guy confused Black Street and Boyz II Men. I corrected him. Though 15 years later, who sang “No Diggity” is not too much more than a minute piece of trivia for most people, his close-enough guess is telling about the public’s perception of popular R&B: it’s all the same. Fair enough. Most of the mush sent into the world is Nth-rate Beyonce and Rihanna imitation, drive time radio fillers with little uniqueness. On one end of the dial you get earthy Sade, and on the other boisterous R. Kelly. There’s scarce space for anyone in between unless he or she’s got a particularly spectacular six-pack.
It’s no offense to Jhene Aiko’s stomach that she’s not been making heavy radio rounds. Though she is now independent, she was once signed to a major label and in 2003, as a teenager, released the generic single “No Love,” which garnered the medium acclaim expected of a factory-produced song. After her label failed to put out her album, Aiko asked to be released from her contract. She received it, and after settling into motherhood, Aiko began writing on her own. Earlier this year, she released Sailing Soul(s), a step forward sonically made by scaling back gaudy production and unnecessary vocal fireworks. Sailing Soul(s) starts with the stark “Stranger,” where she sings, You said you were different but you’re the same stranger. The beat, by her frequent production partners Fisticuffs, has a crisp snare ping and a druggy organ, over which Aiko sounds somehow breathy while still sweet and light. She’s powerful because her delivery is effortless. “I think if you sing too much or if there are too many instruments, that takes away from what you’re saying,” Aiko says. “‘Stranger’ is about meeting the same type of people every day, particularly guys. They’re all different, they all have their own approach, but the underlying thing that they want, which is usually sex, is the same.” This theme isn’t all that unique in the world of R&B—sexual advances, unwanted or otherwise, are the makeup of most songs—but with Aiko’s pale languor, the early stages of romance are authentically, if semi-miserably, illuminated.
“I’m not a loud person,” she says, explaining the retreat from the bubblegum of her youth. But despite a concerted effort to mellow out, much of Sailing Soul(s) is playful and attention grabbing: jazzy songs, riffs on weed and told-you-so chants, all of which seem to be part of Aiko’s day-to-day MO. She’s just happy to put it to song, no matter where it ends up. “When I was younger and doing those songs, I wasn’t unhappy because I would just listen to the demo, and it would be like, ‘Sing it like this,’ and I’d be like, Oh, okay. It was fun, like karaoke,” she says. “But as I got older I was like, No, I have my own stuff to say, and I don’t wanna sing it like that. I’ve got my own voice.”