Los Angeles-bred R&B singer, Jhené Aiko, recently inked a deal with No I.D.'s Artium Records, a label partnership with Def Jam Recordings. Inspired by Tupac and a host of others that made California the place to be, this 24-year-old mom and former T.U.G. princess has been in the studio working on her debut album.
In 2011, Jhené released her first official mixtape, entitled Sailing Soul(s), a mixtape she reveals was her shot at the image-driven entertainment industry.
AllHipHop.com had a chance to chat with Jhené, and she dishes on her time with the Chris Stokes' era, B2K, and her latest deal with No I.D.:
AllHipHop.com: I need to know how to pronounce your last name. I have no idea.
Jhené Aiko: It's actually my middle name, and it's Aiko. [I-e-ko].
AllHipHop.com: Awesome. I've been trying to pronounce it for like four years now.
Jhené Aiko: [laughs] I know! Everybody! They say Echo! I understand what they're trying to say.
AllHipHop.com:Word is on the block that you signed with Def Jam. What's happening?
Jhené Aiko: I signed with No I.D.'s label, Artium, which is a label under Def Jam. I've been recording just as much as possible. I write the majority of my music, so I really just like to take my time with the whole process. Just because anything forced just wouldn't be right. I'm pretty deep into recording. I just need to get the right batch of songs together.
AllHipHop.com: How did you two link up?
Jhené Aiko: I have a friend that I've known for some time, and he's worked at different labels for a while, interning and everything. Whoever he was working with, he would kind of put me in their ear. He started working with No I.D. His name is Noah Preston, and he just called me and my manager saying, "No I.D. wants to sit down with you and have a meeting." We kind've thought it was about production; we didn't really know that it was for the whole deal situation.
At the time, I was kind of skeptical about doing any deal with any label, but because he's a creative person, he's a producer, so he doesn't have the same attitude as a label executive. He's really about being creative, and about the art of it. It just felt really good, and it still does. It feels more like a partnership than "This is my boss!" type of thing.
AllHipHop.com: Why'd you feel hesitant at first?
Jhené Aiko: I was signed when I was 12, 13 to Sony/Epic, and it was just not a good experience for me, because I was so young, too. They could tell me how to dress; they were telling me what songs to sing and what image to have, and all that. It wasn't a pleasurable experience. I just wanted to make sure that this time they know that I know who I am. I'm not a child anymore, so I'm going to have input in all aspects of my career. Really, they have to follow my lead, because I'm not one of those people that's okay with just doing what people tell me to do, and just go on with whatever they think is right.
AllHipHop.com: And I did want to talk about that, too - your younger years, when you first got into the game, Chris Stokes, and that whole era of when people started to first find out about who Jhene was. How did you first link up with Chris Stokes and that whole camp?
Jhené Aiko: I'm the youngest of five. My older sisters did a lot of dancing since they were like five. They've always been into entertainment. My oldest sister was actually in their first video, in the "Da Munchies" video.
AllHipHop.com: Munchies? Oh, Immature!
Jhené Aiko: Yeah, she was in Immature's first video, which was "Da Munchies".
AllHipHop.com: That's taking it back!
Jhené Aiko: Yeah! So, since then Chris approached my mom about working with my sisters, in a group, and they started working in different groups that he had. They were actually signed to MCA when they were real young, in a group called 'Girl'. My family was around him, I was probably five or six when I first met him. I was always around him, and I was just sing just because my older sisters were singing. I just did the same thing. Whatever they were doing, I would just copy them.
One day, he heard me sing and was like, "Okay, well, when you're old enough, let's work with you!" I was into school and all that, and I was just like, "Yeah, whatever." And when he did the deal with B2K, it was like a piggy back deal, like "Okay, well he signed them, I'll also throw in her!" It was kind of like a thing that I didn't really have to work for. They didn't really showcase me or anything. It was that kind of deal. They didn't really care. It was a good experience. I'm definitely glad that I didn't pop, because it was totally not me. I wasn't even an artist yet. I was just a 13-year-old.
AllHipHop.com: What did you learn from that situation?
Jhené Aiko: I learned what I won't do in a situation, as far as with the label being able to just control your life.
AllHipHop.com: You don't like that aspect?
Jhené Aiko: Not at all. I have an authority problem. Every individual is like you're own boss, I feel like. Especially with being creative and being an artist, it's like how can you really call yourself an artist if you are just following directions and being told what to sing and how to dress and really not being you. I was on the "Scream Tour 3". I hosted it, opened and all of that. That was a really good experience to just get over stage fright and get used to being in front of a lot of people.
I have a daughter, she's three. I would tell her to wait until she's 18 to really start pursuing a career in entertainment if she wanted to, because I just learned that being a young teenage girl, especially going through the regular teenage girl stuff while you're trying to be an entertainment, and you have label people telling you, "You need to clear up your acne!", stuff that you're already going to go through. It's magnified. And, you shouldn't have to worry about that. You just be going to school and being a kid.
AllHipHop.com: Why'd you decide to leave T.U.G.?
Jhené Aiko: It was only really about two and a half years when I was signed. They start dragging their feet, and I just really wanted to finish school. I called my mom, and I was like I want to sit down with everybody and just tell them that I want a release. A new president came to Epic, and she was not familiar with me. She kept putting me off, and I was like is there any way we can just get released? They weren't going to drop me or anything; they were just going to shelve me. I knew what was happening. I was like let's just get a release from all these people so I can just be in school. I just started doing music on my own with the producers I had met while I was signed. I was actually not with T.U.G. for that long.
AllHipHop.com: You've developed this fan base of folks who love you! Right?
Jhené Aiko: Yeah, I guess. [laughs]
AllHipHop.com: After that situation, you started making your own music, and how were you able to connect with your fans, garner those amount of people when you didn't put out an album?
Jhené Aiko: The Internet is a crazy, amazing thing. I was home schooled, so I was always at home a lot, and just writing or staring at the wall. For me, that was just a great outlet to just write and be able to post things when MySpace got big. Then I started recording with my laptop on Garageband. Then I started experimenting with making my own beats. I would put the songs on MySpace and have them for download, and it was more of just a hobby. But there were still people there from the B2K days, and when I started really writing my own music, people were like "Oh okay. This is tight!"
I worked with a few producers that let me post their music also. It just kept people interested. I've always been big on the Internet, as far as just expressing myself, sharing poems, I had a blogspot where I would just post poems. I think that anytime a person is just transparent and just wants to themselves, and share what they've been through, then other people gravitate to it, because we all want to relate to each other and connect.
AllHipHop.com: How'd you end up linking with Kendrick Lamar?
Jhené Aiko: L.A. is a small place, especially if you do entertainment. A friend of mine ending up part of his management, and they heard the Drake, July thing that had leaked. He called me up like "I have an artist named Kendrick Lamar, he's really dope, I think you guys are on the same tip and I think you guys should work together." I hadn't heard of him yet and my friend at the time had been listening to him. Then I felt blown away because I hadn't really been listening to new music, even now I still just listen to '90s music, or when I find an album that I love I just listen to that, I'm still stuck on things from like two, three years ago. We went in and immediately just vibed, and that song came out effortlessly, we just finished it really fast.
AllHipHop.com: Do you care about the mainstream, commercial fame?
Jhené Aiko: Honestly, I don't. Of course, with a major label, there's bigger outlets that I can be exposed to, but I'm just like I just don't know if my music will translate to the people that listen to the mainstream. They're going to want to see me do different things and more things. Even as a person, I'm just lowkey. I don't really like going to the club, I don't really like to do a lot. I'm lazy. [laughs] It could become mainstream, but it would have to be in a weird way. I'm not concerned with putting out this album and having it sell 10 million copies. I know that my fans are going to buy it, and they're going to like it, and that's all that matters.
AllHipHop.com: Who are you working with? You got No I.D., so I don't know if you need to work with anybody else, but, are you?
Jhené Aiko: [laughs] One of the things with being with a label is I have so many more options with who I want to work with, and it's gets a little overwhelming because I'm usually the type where it doesn't matter whose beat it is. I got some tracks with people that work with The Weeknd, which are crazy dope. I got some beats from A$AP Rocky's producer. Key Wayne, who is one of Big Sean's producers. I just recorded some stuff to his track. It's a lot. Whoever I tell them I want to work with, they're like "Yeah! Here's some tracks!" That part is a little overwhelming because I'm not used to having so much to work with. I'm like "Okay, wait a minute, let me get some subjects to write about!"
AllHipHop.com: Who else are you looking to work with?
Jhené Aiko: I really want to work with Pharell. I know he's like super busy, though, so I would understand if that doesn't happen. I think he has that sound. I really want to work with Kid Cudi. I know he produces a little bit, but he's just so tight to me. I really want to work with with Drake's producer, 40. He has that sound that I was always try to explain to people, and it would start off like that, and all this music would come in, and I'll be like, "Noooo! I just want it be nice and mellow." Now, No I.D. is going to do some stuff from scratch with me.
AllHipHop.com: When should we expect an album?
Jhené Aiko: As soon as possible. Of course, it's different now with a label. I can't just record a song and put it out like "New music! Download it now!", which is killing me because I'm so spontaneous like that. I feel like when a song is hot, and I just recorded it, the momentum, I just want everybody to hear it. I understand there's a contract involved now, so I can't really do that. Definitely, they're on the same page as me. They want to do everything as soon as possible, without rushing it. I'm pretty deep into the project. I feel like every song right now is a keeper. If they agree with me, then we should we done and have something released by the end of the summer, which is what I'm really pushing for, fingers crossed. If not, it's definitely going to be worth the wait, because I really take my time with it. Not that I'm trying to compete with Sailing Souls, but I know that musically I've grown since then. It will be made clear in this album.
AllHipHop.com: What do you have to say to your fans?
Jhené Aiko: Right now, I would like to say thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for just connecting with the music and for having an open mind. I know I'm not the mainstream girl, I'm not the video vixen looking. There's a lot of things that are not what you're seeing now. I find it brave of my fans to stick up for me. It's like a cult following, and sometimes I have to tell people on Twitter, "Don't attack someone because they say they're not a fan of me. That's just their opinion of me." I appreciate that because that means that they're real true fans, and that they really are connected to me and my music.
I also want to thank everyone for being patient, especially in the internet age everybody wants everything fast. They want even the R&B singers to put out stuff like they're rappers. I think a lot of my fans do understand that I like to take my time and make it right and all that. I definitely will stay on this path that I'm on. They don't have to worry about me coming with a techno. I might be able to put something smooth on a techno beat, but it will still be me. I'll never compromise. They're always going to see me.