jhene-aiko-souled-out-coverJhené Aiko – Souled Out
Def Jam/Artium Records; 2014
BUY: iTunes | Target Deluxe Edition

Two years. Technically, three.

That’s how long fans and followers of Jhené Aiko have waited for the singer to release her debut album, Souled Out.

When Aiko first delivered her sailing soul(s) free-EP back in 2011, it was leaps and bounds one of the most refreshing drops of the year. The following year, in 2012, Aiko announced that she had begun work on Souled Out and had enlisted with Def Jam Records. Allying herself with No I.D. and his mini-group Cocaine 80s, Jhené became one of the most sought-out feature killers in late 2012 and 2013. In 2013, attempting to make the wait more bearable, Aiko set free the sail out EP, a brief but satisfying project that also birthed Aiko’s first major radio single with “The Worst.”

And now, here we are in 2014: faced with the question of whether Souled Out – and the long road of delays and perfecting imperfections and getting the timing right and Aiko being moved under No I.D.’s Artium Records imprint with Def Jam – was worth the wait.

To Aiko’s credit, she doesn’t abandon the formula that she’s built on and developed since soul(s). Soft and subtle instrumentals, hard drums, and sweeping strings – mostly produced by No I.D. and Fisticuffs – are the norm, creating lush soundscapes that compliment Jhené’s voice. And that voice is stronger and more confident than ever before.

Before, Aiko relied on a soft-spoken tone, one that was right at home on “Bed Peace” and “Hoe” and on Drake’s “From Time,” to name a few. On Souled Out, the songbird’s high notes and runs take over with no hesitation. Her wails embody longing and promise on “Pretty Bird (Freestyle).” On “To Love & Die” – arguably Souled Out’s most radio-ready song – she floats along the song’s hook; and on “Brave,” her runs go to work as she croons, “You’re so brave, stone cold crazy for lovin’ me/ Yeah, I’m amazed/ I hope you make it out alive.” Which is not to say her meek voice doesn’t still show up in places. Aiko’s voice has an almost bedtime story quality on tracks like “Spotless Mind” and “Promises” (which features Aiko’s daughter Namiko and the voice of her belated brother Miyagi).

Jhené ‘s forte, however, is matters of the heart. While she dabbles in discussions of spirit and peace of mind (on the standout cuts “W.A.Y.S. (Why Aren’t You Smiling)” and second single “The Pressure”) and even spends a moment slipping into her J. Hennessey rap alter ego on album closer “Pretty Bird” – with Common returning the solid Aiko did him on “Blak Majic” and channeling Def Poetry on the track – the meat of Aiko’s subject matter is always love. “Brave” is seductively daring, with Aiko insisting that she’s a mess and that loving her is dangerous but for the one who takes the chance, the risk will be worth it. “Lyin King,” arguably the third part to “Comfort Inn Ending” and “The Worst,” has Aiko all but putting a curse on the man who broke her heart – “It’s okay, you just don’t know no better – you’re better off, be-ing alone.” This after having all but accepted that she’d fallen in love with someone she was “just tryna fuck” and stuck around because she wanted something permanent from a temporary situation just a track before on “It’s Cool.”

Souled Out’s only flaw, perhaps, lies in the way the album’s put together. “Limbo Limbo Limbo” is a sleepy start to an otherwise seamless album, and “Wading” is just as slow and droning as the two songs that precede it. Perhaps putting “The Pressure” or “The Promises” up ahead would save the album from drifting into lullaby territory when it’s really just mood music. And, admittedly, some of the earlier songs Aiko released might have been right at home on Souled Out. “Mirror” especially comes to mind.

Souled Out is not for the “turn up” or for the clubs. It’s an album of self-reflection, of a young girl who was uncertain about herself taking a few hits from life and love and growing into a wiser, stronger woman. Ironically, Aiko doesn’t “sell” her soul on the album at all; it’s her at her most vulnerable and genuine, and for that, it works.