Jhené Aiko has been called the female’s answer to Frank Ocean. That is probably an overstatement.
Aiko recently released her third album, “Chilombo,” a full six years after her debut album and three since her sophomore release. Between then and now, she’s been nominated for Grammys, toured with J. Cole and seen both sides of a very public relationship with Big Sean. With all that time and drama to marinate on, it’s no surprise that “Chilombo” clocks in at just over an hour. Regardless, that’s an ambitious amount of music to release, and it necessitates that every song earns its place on the tracklist. Across the 20 tracks that made it onto this album, not every song does.
The biggest problem with Aiko’s songs is, at a base-level, she isn’t a very good songwriter. In no way does that mean she lacks talent; she’s a phenomenal singer and is excellent at establishing an aesthetic. She simply appears to lack the ability, or perhaps merely the experience, to consistently conceptualize intriguing ideas in her music. Thus, the idea of “vibe” becomes a crutch. At points of the album it feels as though I’m listening to the musical equivalent of an old-western false front: it looks great, but tips over with a slight push.
That may be the biggest tragedy of Aiko’s career: she displays boundless raw potential, but has failed to capitalize on it by releasing a project which deserves to be remembered. There’s more than enough to pique the attention of an audience, but not enough emotional grit to sustain her artistry. That said, this album is not entirely devoid of soul or charm, and has no shortage of great moments that struggle for air above the rest of the album’s many songs.
The opener “Lotus” sets a good pace, with lo-fi trappings and ultra-laidback crooning granting the listener entrance into Aiko’s dreamy, tranquil R&B soundscape. There is little pizazz, no theatrical entrance, and there shouldn’t be. That’s not the portrait Aiko is painting on this album. This is R&B impressionism. A few songs later on “B.S.,” Aiko and fellow R&B singer H.E.R. trade verses over a drip-drop synth pattern that counters their watery, smooth vocal delivery. It’s a fun track that culminates in a mantra referencing Aiko’s Tesla Model X.
Further down the tracklist, “Tryna Smoke” features an excellent, funky bass arrangement which grounds the mixture of breezy singing and pitched-down rapping on the hook. If the comparisons to Frank Ocean are to be considered, this song is as “Channel Orange” as it gets. Immediately next, a softly picked guitar line guides us into serenity on “Born Tired.” The relaxed instrumental and lowkey vocals are an excellent break from — or perhaps just spin on — the melodic R&B/club musings she has given us thus far. Not long after, “Mourning Doves” continues this train of thought with a spacey, lo-fi inspired track that features samples of actual doves in its mix. It’s a wonderful tune that epitomizes a pure kind of chill that many artists strive for and fail to achieve.
From the jump, however, there are pieces of the album that don’t fit quite so well. “Triggered” is noted as a freestyle, and it certainly sounds like one in the sense that it lacks direction and feels substanceless as Aiko rambles about bitterness towards an ex. “Happiness Over Everything (H.O.E.)” stars an unintentionally hilarious duo of guest vocals from Miguel and Future, as while the former sings an awkward set of lines about female sexuality, the latter repeatedly spits the word “freak” in the background. Following this is “One Way St.,” an otherwise great song muddled by an Ab-Soul verse which, while not objectively bad, is sonically out of place not only on the song but in the greater context of the album.
When the album works, the listener is drawn in enough to go back to its better tracks. However, these tracks aren’t representative enough of the entire project. There is simply too much here for anything to make a strong statement. Hopefully by her next album, Aiko can master her craft well enough to create a definitive work.