"Souled Out" features songstress Jhene Aiko bravely stretching out on her own, for which she should be commended. However, the album's lack of diversity and dynamism, in overall production, nullifies Aiko's magnetism to a considerable extent.
There’s something admirable about truly stepping out on your own, as your own person. You’re leaving behind that helping hand, that “co-sign,” and pursing your dreams, able to stand without the crutch. Los Angeles native Jhene Aiko has gained the support of numerous high-level, high-visibility artists, such as Drake, Childish Gambino, No-ID (producer and label boss at Artium/Def Jam), as well as TDE representatives (and former frequent collaborators) Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul. With the excellent Sail Out and some notable features, Aiko’s breathy vocals and sprite-like magnetism have gained a considerable following, creating a demand that’s grown exponentially over the last three years. In a very bold and courageous move, she has decided to use her debut album, the soul-bearing Souled Out, as her first foray as a truly standalone act.
The spaced out “Limbo Limbo Limbo” features loose, scattered bass lines and drums with the rhythm set more in tune with her voice than maintaining a certain measure. The track becomes an immediate indicator that Aiko intends to center the album on her emotion, and not any other way. Her voice will be the leader in this particular, very personal dance. The intimate, mid-tempo “W.A.Y.S” shines as a dedication to her daughter and brother, Miyagi, who passed away after a bout with brain cancer. Going with another common motif, in finding the appropriate strength through struggle, the Thundercat/Clams Casino co-production contains subtle nuances, which accentuate the lightness of her voice.
Slow-rolling and ethereal, “To Live and Die” features vocals from Cocaine 80s, as one of the few tracks that could be played in your ride (on a low volume). The well-written “It’s Cool” maintains a slight Portishead feel, with the production making excellent use of lyric isolation. Aiko’s vocals are grounded, as she puts the onus of the progression of her relationship on the object of her desire – here, we are in the midst of the album’s inner story arc. On the very next track, there has been a massive, somewhat confusing, change in said relationship; from a relaxed courtship with no immediate pressure, to Aiko running her object of desire off the rails. Her pain (from an unannounced event) runs deep, as she proceeds to attacking his parents for failing in a multitude of ways.
“Wading” uses her ability to present multiple meanings, while trying to, presumably, pull her mystery man into making a choice, asking, “Should I be wading for you?” The single “The Pressure” features more multi-meanings, centered on both the pressures of her profession, as well as dealing with her relationship. While she clearly wants him in her life, she’d like to sidestep the bullshit he’s coming with. In “Brave,” a track in line with Sade’s previous production, she’s in no state to maintain the relationship in truly healthy way, and informs him of this reality. However, she challenges him to stay the course, and see if she’s worth the headache, and heartache, inevitably forthcoming.
The album’s most heart-felt offering, “Promises,” features her daughter, Namiko, on the first chorus. Aiko’s exceptional lyrical ability cuts through, as an earnest and emotional dedication to her daughter and her brother. “Pretty Bird (Freestyle)” could be continuation of “Comfort Inn…,” as an acknowledgement of past pain and suffering, but with recognition of possible revival and rebirth that could be for the object of her desire, or the person she sees in her mirror. No I.D. provides strong production and Common delivers a standout verse on this, one of the best tracks on the album. One of the bonus tracks on the deluxe issue, “Blue Dream”, finds Aiko now becoming completely enveloped inside the dreamy haze of attraction. She finds her own personal truth, through his filter. Now, this could hold a double meaning, either with this mystery man, and the notable strain of bud she smoked during the creation of the tracks.
The album isn’t without faults, specifically with “Spotless Mind,” that titter into the area of monotonous "singer-songwriter.” A remembrance of better times, a grateful Aiko waxes nostalgic on “Eternal Sunshine.” Unfortunately, it stalls the album somewhat, muddling the momentum. While not an extreme negative, the production ends up, in large part, on the same plane as her voice, preventing the necessary contrast present in those stronger tracks. These parallels happen throughout the album, leaving it a little flat and inexpressive.
Songwriting will always be Aiko’s calling card, as she’s not going to be the chart-busting diva, over-singing with each track she is presented with. Preferring a more delicate approach, Aiko shows herself capable of holding her own, shining her own light. Could she have benefitted from more features? Perhaps. However, lack of features would not have held the album back, anymore than the aforementioned production already had. Aside from some predictable “wow” moments with the songwriting, the album leaves the listener less excited than he or she may have been following the smoothed out but vibrant Sail Out. While it does have a few intriguing high notes, Souled Out isn’t particularly remarkable as a whole.
There have been some comparisons to Sade, which are premature and lazy, with the main difference being the British chanteuse's eminence of highbrow class and reticence for the spotlight, only releasing material and touring when equipped to come out of hiding (often from plain sight.) Aiko’s soft and nurturing disposition should not be confused for reservation – her aura is front and center, for everyone to see and feel. Given she isn’t being positioned specifically as a singles artist to begin with, she will be afforded more opportunities in creating a more dynamic and diverse collection of songs.