Published Sep 05, 2014With the release of long-delayed major label debut Souled Out, Jhené Aiko demonstrates that, while she might not officially be the heir apparent to the Aaliyah legacy, she's sitting on the throne until someone else shows up. Much like the late singer, Aiko won't win any "Best Vocalist" awards anytime soon, but makes up for it with copious amounts of charisma. In that respect, Aiko is virtually critic-proof, an instantly relatable, indescribably popular entity whose shortcomings as a vocalist are trumped by her ability to gauge the temperature of the modern R&B genre and give the people what they want.
Ostensibly created as a "concept album," Souled Out tracks her life experience viewed via her relationships — "we live by the love, die by the love," she croons on "To Live and Die" — her late brother's memory and young daughter's vocals (on "Promise"). "Pretty Birds" is produced by her mentor No I.D. and features a surprising and satisfying Common guest appearance, while the acoustically driven "Spotless Mind" vibes on a level that shows why Aiko comes off as wiser than her 26 years. "Brave" is an airy yet grounded number; "It's Cool" is just that, a breezy slice of R&B that gives a glimpse of her artistic ceiling; producer Dot Da Genius lends a hand on midtempo joint "Wading"; "The Pressure" and "Eternal Sunshine" are clear standouts that display raw vulnerability and contemplative vibes that warrant multiple plays.
Aiko's artistic approach is steeped in earnestness, a natural "keep it real" energy that permeates the project and overpowers her twee vocals and rudimentary lyrics. Even overlooking her penchant for similar-sounding vocal runs and an elementary command for songwriting, Aiko has got it. Souled Out is an intriguing record from an intriguing artist who has tapped into the zeitgeist and delivered something that is both reflective and forward-looking. (Universal)