In her first Complex cover story, "Inner Visions," Jhené Aiko opened up about her music, her spirituality, and dispelled various rumors about her private life and relationships with various rap stars including Drake and Childish Gambino. But as Peter Tosh once put it, half the story has never been told. In this extended version of the cover story interview she goes deep into her L.A. childhood, her first raps, and her Henny-drinkin' battle-rapping alter-ego. She also talks about why she walked away from her early pop career, how she made her first mixtape, and what made her sign with No ID. Jhené says her biggest fear is to "die with all these secrets," which is a good thing because after this interview she won't have many left.
Interview by Rob Kenner (@boomshots)
Did you always want to be a singer?
I used to want to get into communications. Anything with words, that was my favorite part in school, doing essays—anything that had to do with writing. And at one point because I loved food I was like, How do you get into being a food editor?
A food critic?
Where you write about it. That’s something I could do one day maybe.
Food critics need to be anonymous though, so you don’t get special treatment.
I could write anonymously.
I’ve never seen anyone get a tattoo before.
Really? I like to look while they’re doing it because it hurts less if you just hone in on what they’re doing. Even when I get shots I make them nervous.
When they draw blood, you watch the blood come out?
Yeah. Because it’s more like, if you don’t know when they’re going to do it, you have to just feel it out of nowhere.
I’ve been thinking about what you said, “Pain is temporary while suffering is optional.” That’s pretty profound for someone who stated out singing with pop groups in the beginning.
Yeah. I was young. I was 12 turning 13 or 14 and I was just singing demos, basically, songs that they had sent me. I didn’t have anything of my own to talk about because I was so young. When I stopped focusing on music and went back to school and I was living a real normal life, going through my own stuff, then I had a baby and then I went through this and that. All of my songs were just me venting.
When I was 12 turning 13 or 14 I was just singing demos, basically, songs that they sent me. I didn’t have anything of my own to talk about because I was so young. Then I started going through my own stuff. I had a baby and then I went through this and that. All of my songs were just me venting.
When I was younger I would write whatever I was going through. That was like my therapy. I always had a diary. I always would write and that was my way of getting through it. When I did the Sailing Souls mixtape, that was the height of me going through all of this stuff. I had just had my daughter and I was working at a vegan café and I wanted to do this mixtape, so I was recording after work. I just needed to release all my frustration and my heartache and pain, so pretty much it’s easy for me to write about that type of stuff rather than when I’m happy.
You had an album back in that earlier stage of your career that was going to come out. What happened?
At the time I was really young and the label I was with, they were just like, ‘She’s young. How are we going to play this?’ At the time I wasn’t really writing my music.
So they weren’t your songs?
They weren’t my songs. It wasn’t me at all. I was just kind of ‘whatever’ about it, so they were, too. It was just lagging and lagging and lagging, and I was getting behind on school work.
Where were you in your schooling then?
I was in high school and I was just like, ‘You know what? I want to get released.’ I was unhappy with—label stuff. There was a new president or something, and she wasn’t well versed in who I was or my music. They were basically going to just keep me there and have me record and not really do anything. My contract with my production company was coming to an end, so we had a meeting to renew it and I was just like, “You know what? No. I just want to finish school.”
But the same time, I was still writing and recording with the producers I had met and that I had made relationships with. I was always still interested in writing and singing, and I love to sing. So I would do demos for people and write hooks for people, but my main focus was school and working. I had a few mall jobs. I worked as a legal secretary. It was essential to me, getting to know myself.
That first mixtape was pretty official. Not only was it a great listening experience, it also had some major features on it. Were you just connected like that?
By that time, I had already met Drake. We had already did “July,” and that was on the mixtape. That came about because we worked on another song together and he heard “July” and wanted to use it. I didn’t even know until I heard the song on the radio, someone had leaked it I guess.
For the Kanye West one, I jacked his verse, it wasn’t a true collaboration. It was the BET Hip-Hop Awards cypher and I ripped the audio because I had already recorded the song, and when I saw that he said something about selling your soul and I was like, “Oh my God! This is perfect for the song I just recorded,” so I put it on there.
Kendrick, that was before he put out Overly Dedicated, or right around the same time and it was mutual. When I had my first session with Kendrick, I had never heard of him. We started writing and it was so easy. We connected musically. I'm from L.A. too. I respect the whole T.D.E. movement. For the Kanye West one, I jacked his verse, it wasn’t a true collaboration. It was the BET Hip-Hop Awards cypher and I ripped the audio because I had already recorded the song, and when I saw that he said something about selling your soul and I was like, “Oh my God! This is perfect for the song I just recorded,” so I put it on there. All the L.A. based people and Drake, I had already known them and they were down to be a part of it.
When you met Drake was it around the time So Far Gone dropped?
I believe it was right before So Far Gone. I had just found out I was pregnant. No one else knew and I was still just recording. I was doing music more at that point and I was just feeling my way around, seeing who I wanted to work with and what my song was and what I wanted to write about.
So I went into that session to meet him through a mutual friend and I had a friend come to write the hook, because at that point I was still being a little lazy with my songwriting and I was just doing it for me. I was like, “If it’s for someone else, bring in someone else to write this hook. I don’t want to use my good lines,” so he came and wrote it, I recorded it. Drake listened to it and he liked it but he was sort of like, “Well, let me sit with it,” and he ended up choosing to work on a song that was mine already, the “July” song. It was a full song I had done, which I didn’t write. So yeah, that’s how that relationship formed.
So he was not “Drake” at the time.
I knew him from Degrassi because some of my younger family members were watching it at the time. I would see it every now and then, but when I saw him I was like, “Oh. He’s that guy from that show.” He was nowhere near who he is today, even though the underground people that were listening to music were like, “He’s next! He’s next!”
When you talk about selling your soul, that’s a pretty high-stakes bargain, and those are pretty heavy thoughts for someone your age. Do you struggle with this idea of keeping your integrity in the music business?
Right before I wrote “sailing NOT selling,” maybe a few months before I started the mixtape, I went to this meeting. I don’t think I had recorded any mixtapes so far, but it was some stuff I recorded. I had put together this little demo of random songs. It’s not really my style, but it was a really random meeting.
The record executive I met with, he was like, “I’ve been a fan of yours since I was a teenager and I’ve always wanted to work with you. But I feel like every time you have these meetings you have to sell yourself.” And that just struck a chord with me because I was like, “No I don’t. Why can’t I come in here and be myself? Why do I have to come in and be extra and dance on the table and do backflips and stuff like that?”
I get what he meant. I don’t think he meant it in the way of, “You have to sell your soul to me if you want to get anywhere,” but it just made me feel a certain way. From that moment, I was just like, I’m not doing anything that makes me feel uncomfortable. As I get older and I’m getting deeper into the business I’m understanding things that are part of the business—endorsements, photoshoots and things like that—but I feel like everyone has their foundation of morals and beliefs and as long as you stick to those things, you’re not selling out.
Selling out is not necessarily about doing things for money. When you compromise what you believe in, then that’s selling out. If someone comes and says, “This is a really good look and we want you to model this line of fur coats.” If I say yes, that’s me selling out to myself because in my heart I know that I don’t feel like that’s something I want to do. So if I do that, either for the look or for the money, that’s selling out. I just feel like everyone struggles with that when you’re in this industry because when you get to a certain point and people are offering you things, you kind of get lost and you start doing things because you want that quick check or you want that “good look.”I feel like you can pick and choose. Like, I love coconut water, so let me do a coconut water ad. If I don’t like something—I don’t like lying, you know what I mean? As much as I can be honest, I would like to be.