JHENÉ AIKO COPES WITH LOSS ON NEW ALBUM
Written by Joseph Collins
It has been three years since the release of Jhené Aiko’s debut album Souled Out. Her sophomore album, Trip, dances in to give fans a unique out of body experience on loss, drug side effects, and regrowth. Trip is packaged into a very convenient MAP (movie, album, and poetry book). While the album itself is laced with 22 tracks that see Aiko come to terms with the loss of her brother, Ayo, it is the short film that accurately takes viewers along for the trip. We don't just get to see Aiko struggle with drugs and loss, but we get to hear the thoughts that run her through it. I have always been the average Jhené Aiko fan after being formally introduced to her in 2011 via her mixtape Sailing Soul(s); I've always loved the handful of tracks that stood out on her projects and of course ate up her feature on Omarion's "Post To Be", but never did I digest a project of hers past a couple complete listens.
For me, her intricate vocals have always been bite-size appetizers of her thoughts and feelings, and they were never enough to keep me interested for long. I've critiqued her in the past for not having music that would stand the test of time because I thought that the lyrics would mean nothing to a future generation. Trip feels different, because Aiko presents a concept that myself and future generations will always have to deal with: the loss of a loved one. I can count on one hand the amount of loved ones I've lost, and while only a couple ever moved me to a sadness, Trip forces me to empathize with Aiko. I don't judge her for how she handles the loss of her brother, I instead just listen and in the process learn a lot about Penny as she takes us to our destination.
The movie begins with Penny, a nickname given to Aiko by her grandpa. The original poetry that is abundant in the film begins with Penny proclaiming that she hasn't written anything good since her brother left. "Jukai," the second track of the album slides into attention as Penny finds herself in the forest. "If anyone should try and find me / Just know I'm where I wanna be / I left the house all clean and tidy / Don't come searchin', please." If you close your eyes you can feel bright green grass poking at your toes. You can taste the mist of salty waves crashing on the rocks. This is where she writes before her solitude is interrupted by a stranger, Dante, a cancer whose favorite color is orange and who is afraid of the dark. They embark on a trip together and all of his qualities remind her of her brother. She's looking for her brother in men, and she has been since his death. It's all temporary, but you can't help but feel skepticism here as Penny embarks on a trip with Dante. This can't end well, right?
Dante and Penny's endeavors play out over the low beats of "While We're Young", as the smoke and mirrors disappear quickly and Penny is confronted with thoughts of her brother. She reveals to Dante that her brother died of cancer, the first time that she introduces him to the man that she is seeking within him. Eventually, happy memories filled with laughter and sun are juxtaposed with a quiet dark night atop a car. Aiko sings on the album, “Hell is not a place, hell is not a certain evil, hell is other people, or the lack there of, and there lack of love.” This is Aiko’s hell. Not only did my empathy for Aiko grow here, but so did my doubt. How could she come out of this alive? Not only was she on a trip with a shell of her former self and a Walmart version of Ayo, but she was living in hell.
Viewers are then taken to a scene where Penny sits in her room accompanied with a picture of Ayo and herself. "Picture Perfect" one of the many freestyles of the album assists the scene here. "So I keep you in frame / Keep that frame in my range / When I don't want to see / What is in front of me / I, I do see you perfectly." The listener then realizes the drugs aren’t an escape. Sure they might help her turn off the outside world, or help her get even closer to her brother, but only in her mind.
Aiko’s vocals on “Picture Perfect,” which pairs perfectly with the soft sounds of a piano playing, can be compared to a warm cup of coffee on a Sunday morning. The track is both calm and very soothing, differing from the imperfections that Aiko is going through at that moment. Nothing about her situation or her feelings are perfect. The fans looking at her videos, listening to her past music, and scrolling through her social media see her as someone without struggle despite the battle she's enduring. “Picture Perfect” shines a light on the way society can paint celebrities as those without problems if their posts are poppin’. In a way, it makes us all question those who we put on a pedestal, not knowing if their own mindsets are capable of doing it themselves. As pretty a picture as it is, Ayo has never truly left Penny, and how could she when she keeps him in a frame? When she sees him everywhere that she goes? When she holds him hostage in her thoughts, both sober or under the influence? "Is she really alive without him?" Penny questions. The scene ends with one of my favorite quotes from both the album and short film, "Is it strange that I can't wait to meet my fate just to see your face again?" I want to be very critical as Aiko plays with suicidal thoughts here, especially when she has a growing daughter that needs her; it seems selfish. But this is where the elements of loss coupled with drug use come into play.
Penny, very irritable after finding out that she is out of pills, realizes that she can't find her brother's love in any man. An elated moment in the project, it seems to be a breakthrough from the hysteria. I want her to pack up her shit and end this trip immediately, and I can’t help but feel that Ayo wouldn’t approve of her using strange men and drugs as an escape for reconnecting with him. Her brother's empty void can't be filled with temporary companionship. Penny says, "Fuck me for crying over spilled milk that I never planned on drinking," and it becomes one of the best quotes from the film as it shows her indeed crying over a connection with Dante that will never be her connection with her brother; it is just a mere reminder of her brother.
Without the drugs to cloud out the outside world she is actually realizing that Ayo is gone forever, and this becomes the power of the project. The anger stems from her not being able to take the “trip” that drugs give her to that special place where her brother is a little bit closer, something this trip with Dante cannot give her. And while the two trips differ at this point in the film, she needs more drugs and Dante’s companionship to continue.
On the 12th track of the album, “Nobody,” Penny tries something new. The track gives off a mellow vibe that fits perfectly for anyone listening in the dark or on a drive around the city alone. If you have a playlist that includes Drake’s “Marvin’s Room” it needs to be accompanied with “Nobody”. What’s great about hearing it at this particular point in the film is that Aiko is asking for solitude. She is ready to end the trip and get back to the ways that she copes with her brother’s death alone. At the end of the track shetries a new drug that sends her on a bad trip; and while this could have been avoided if Dante had left her, you can’t help but wonder what would have happened if she did end the trip. Maybe she would have found her own way out or maybe she would have just slipped back into the endless cycle that got her here. Aiko isn’t trying to escape at all - if anything, she’s using the drugs to spark new experiences with Ayo. Throughout the film viewer are reminded of Penny Proud from the cartoon series, The Proud Family. The cartoon production here plays out over another freestyle, “Mystic Journey,” and with the twinkles of the melodies and the softness of Aiko’s vocals I’m able to compare Aiko’s Penny with what a fully grown Penny Proud would have looked like and embodied.
Eventually, Aiko quietly settles into her bad trip, differing from the earlier tracks on the album where she has a complete meltdown at the end of “Overstimulated”. The acting in the short film coupled with the emotions she produced at the end of the track have me eagerly wanting to see Aiko in a movie or television role. "Bad Trip (Interlude)" plays, "I'm having an awful time / You said you would get me high / But you took me out my mind / Way down to the other side." You can hear the betrayal in her vocals here, knowing it was all meant to be fun and temporary, but it went too far. This becomes an exploration of reminiscing and long term mourning that we can find ourselves in after losing a loved one; and our ways of coping sometimes are against all of the dead one’s wishes. Aiko has to move on or this trip will be for an eternity; in order for a rebirth she must reach her destination.
The Brandy assisted track, "Ascension" is the penultimate track of the album and in Cinderella fashion, Brandy plays fairy Godmother to Aiko as she seeks retribution. "I lost my way / I lost my way again / Then you showed up and I got up / Yeah, sort of / Found my way again." The two sound like a mix of what you would think heaven sounds like. Aiko’s vocals are overshadowed by the vocal bible, but even though the match up is a bit weird considering the difference in singing styles, there’s enough runs and soulful cries of expression to please everyone. Listeners hear a different Jhené in the last couple tracks of the album. She’s found her way again and also her confidence.
Trip is about Jhené Aiko balancing the highs with the lows, and not letting the lows, no matter how low they may be, get the best of her. Aiko's project forces you to continue the trip no matter how dark and cold it gets, all because you're never that far from home base. Fans are taken on an hour and twenty two minute trip that sees Aiko suffer and we watch her try to cover up the suffering with drugs and temporary companionship early on with tracks like "Lsd" and "While We're Young.” Aiko is able to flex a different style in the ode to 80's pop track "OLLA (Only Lovers Left Alive)" with her TWENTY88 member Big Sean. When the smoke clears, she falls from her "Newer Balance," the best freestyle of the album. For 1:06 Aiko sings over John Mayer’s guitar. In the freestyle she is yearning for this authentic guy who is exactly who he says he is. “I got a strange feeling / That maybe I am dealing with a / Smooth player / Ooh I’m praying that you are who you are saying.” It’s ironic because she ends up being the smooth player in the short film. Ultimately, she is standing on her own two feet at Trip’s end. What makes the project special is that she regains her strength on this journey through a collection of mystic, mellow, and soulful R&B that finds her loving her daughter on "Sing to Me.” The suicidal thoughts that I wanted to criticize Aiko for are forgiven as she is woken up to her daughter’s cheerful cries of "I love you” and Aiko comes to us renewed at the end of the trip, still loving her brother, but with a regained sense of well being and closure.
Overall, I rate Trip, the beautiful re-debut of Jhené Aiko at an 8/10. All the places that I felt she came short on Souled Out were overextended with this project. The visuals merged with the album itself and the upcoming poetry book “2Fish,” gave me a wider lens to view the versatile artistry of this woman. My favorite track, which I’m sure she is saving a dope visual for since it was left out of the short film is, “Sativa,” which features Swae Lee. The vibes from the track alone have me begging for a full album between the two. In a landscape of R&B where the wave of what is “hot” is ever changing, I know that I will be able to continue to wear Trip out until her next LP.