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.
Are you a good liar?
I’m not a good liar. I’m more like, if there’s something I don’t want someone to know about, I’m just not even going to be around. I really like to just be an open book. If I do something wrong, I have to at least give hints so that you can find out. One of my biggest fears is to die with all of these secrets. I don’t know.
I really like to just be an open book. If I do something wrong, I have to at least give hints so that you can find out. One of my biggest fears is to die with all of these secrets.
Why is that a fear?
I have no idea. I have no secret that at least one or two people don’t know because it will die with me and what was the point of my life if people didn’t know about the bad and the good? I feel like sharing and connecting is what life is about and that’s what keeps everything going and the energy flowing.
I know very little about Buddhism but I think it has something to do with letting go of your ego. How do you follow that or reach for that in this business?
For me, it’s definitely a process. From the teachings and things that I’ve read, the ego is always there and the Id will always remind you that it’s there, but it’s about being aware that it’s not the boss of you and being able to ignore it. You have to recognize it in order to let go of it. Sometimes I get doses of it where I feel like it’s too strong and I’ll be reminded and I’ll be like, OK.’ I just try not to pay attention to those types of things. I don’t watch myself on TV. I don’t even like to look at pictures. It’s weird. I don’t like to get caught up with “who I am,” and I’m surrounded by all of my family. We’re very, very close and everyone keeps each other down to Earth and comfortable.
We’re not one of those families like, even though we’re encouraging and we’re proud of each other, we don’t make it larger than life. It’s definitely a process and by the time I do get to where I want to be, I probably won’t be doing music. I’ll probably be an author or doing something where I am more—because even for me, I don’t write or sing to be seen. I do like performing, I do like interacting with people that connect with my music, but for me it’s not that. It’s not to get on this TV show or to take this picture on the front of whatever, all of that is nice of course and it helps people connect with me more, but that’s not my reason. I think it’s keeping that in check and making sure you know that you’re not doing it for that reason. You just are aware that it comes along with your job.
I sense that just by listening to your music that you have a purpose for your music. It seems like you’re really telling your personal truth in these songs. Is that true that your music is very much from your life?
Everything. When I was younger, like I said, I had a diary and everything was me and my thoughts, that’s how I deal with whatever I’m going through. When I figured that I could turn those thoughts into songs, then that’s just the easiest thing for me.
A lot of times I would just go into the studio and whatever the track brings out of me, or maybe even however I’m feeling that day, that’s what’s going to be the song. And I just love writing, so once I feel like I’m done talking about what I’m going through then maybe I will go into creative writing. But it’s so hard for me to not put some of myself in each song, or even just compile different stories or talk about things friends have gone through. So maybe when I run out of my personal stories then I’ll be more creative with it.
Let’s not start talking retirement just yet. Looks like you had a fun night last night on Saturday Night Live. Is that really live?
Yes. I never knew that it was straight up. I was like, “When does this air?” They’re like “It’s on now. People just saw it,” I was like, “Oh!” Because in L.A. we get it three hours behind, but we were obviously in New York. It was live and it was intense because they’re just like, “Skit! Okay, c’mon perform!” It was crazy.
I was very nervous. I get very, very calm when I get nervous but then when it’s done that’s when I get like, “Uh… Was it okay?” That was a big first, SNL, because I don’t even personally think—obviously it wasn’t for me—but where I’m at right now, I didn’t expect to be doing SNL now. Even though I didn’t perform one of my songs from my project, it was my first time and it was crazy.
And the same week you were just on Fallon. You’re getting to be a pro at this T.V. stuff.
I’m definitely glad I’m doing it now so I could be more comfortable with it. Cameras freak me out a lot.
You seemed so chill at the photo shoot.
I do well with adjusting to situations but there are still thoughts in my mind. I’m not the most comfortable mentally. I’m more overthinking it and stuff like that and we’re in Jamaica for a photo shoot, so that made it a lot easier. I don’t even think it’s something I’ll grow out of because even as a kid—I can take pictures of myself, selfies, all day. Or if it’s someone I know taking the picture... But cameras and multiple cameras, it’s foreign. It looks alien.
Were those your first two TV performances this week?
Fallon was my first time performing by myself. I had done Jimmy Kimmel with Big Sean, but that one was an outdoor concert. That was easy, it just felt like a show. I had done a few things when I was younger but that was another lifetime ago, so I don’t even remember the feelings or anything like that. So, yeah, I would say that was my first. It was very surreal. I’m ready to do the next one. I just feel like it’s all about getting better. If you have nowhere to get better then you should stop. I plan on always getting better.
You and Drake really had great chemistry in that performance. It looked like you were enjoying it. He added that “go to commercial break” line, did you know he was going to drop that in there?
On tour he would do stuff like that. At first, I want to make sure I’m doing everything right and he would throw me off a lot. He’ll just say something crazy or make me laugh. He’s fun, he does stuff like that but it was cool.
I saw on Instagram he had came through to support while you were on Fallon.
Yeah because he had been at NBC all week going through which skits he was going to do and stuff like that.
How did you end up being on his tour?
As soon as we did “From Time,” he was like, “I want you to be on the tour.” At first he was saying he wanted me to open, but whatever happened, and he was just like, “How ever we can get you on the tour, can you come out during my show?” I was like, “Of course.” He had mentioned it to me during that time and then a week before the tour started, he called me like, “I really want you to come and we’re going to try to work out scheduling,” and I was like, “OK. Whatever needs to happen.”
You were on the whole U.S. tour?
The whole U.S. tour. I missed one show because my daughter had a dance recital. She’s a dancer. She came with me for like a week on some of the west coast shows and that was really cool.
I noticed you FaceTiming with her before we went out to dinner in Jamaica. Is that tough keeping in touch and being a mom and being out here?
It is. My mom, she used to manage my sisters because they were in a singing group when they were really young and they would do traveling here and there and I remember being with my grandma or my aunt. I have a really big, supportive family and on her dad’s side, she has a big family also. Real family, it’s never a random friend. We’re all super close. We all live super close and I feel really comfortable when I leave. Of course, I miss her and she misses me. She’s in school and she’s in dance and her schedule is almost as crazy as mine and whenever she can be with me, she’s with me.
For me, I just look at it like I put in the work now, especially when she gets older and hopefully I can bring her with me and have a tutor, because she definitely likes it. When she came on tour for that week she was so impressed with the bus, like, “We can walk around in here?!”
What is her name?
Namiko. It means child of the wave.
Why did you choose that name?
I knew I wanted it to be a Japanese name. I was researching and I wanted it to have a cool meaning. I’m a water sign and there’s this story in one of the books that I have read by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk that I was talking about earlier at the tattoo shop.
He has a story about the water and the wave and how there’s no difference between the water and the wave. There’s no such thing as birth and death because the wave cannot die, it’s all the water. Things manifest when the conditions are right and they don’t manifest when they’re not right, but there’s no ends, there’s no beginnings, just continuation.
Water and waves have been very symbolic of that and it’s just a whole cycle and continuation of life. So yeah, when I saw the name and read it out loud I was just like, “Nami. Namiko.” A lot of people call her “Tsunami” because she has a lot of energy and is literally, she can be a Tsunami, basically. It was just fitting.
Her middle name is Love, so Namiko Love.
That’s a beautiful combination.
I have always felt very connected to the sun. Throughout the ages, all of humankind has worshipped the sun in some type of way.
Was that cover shoot your first time being in Jamaica?
Yeah. I loved it.
Do you like the Islands in general?
I have only been to Hawaii. To Oahu and Maui and I made a vow the last time I went there that that was going to be the place that I just end, where I settle down. In a lot of ways it’s obviously beautiful, and paradise and all that, but it’s also familiar. It feels like home whenever I’m there.
I have family out there. I think some of my Japanese family. My mom went to college out there all four years so growing up she would tell me about Hawaii. At one point in elementary I was like, “I’m going to go to school in Hawaii and you’re going to come with me and we’re going to live out there.” So yeah, I love it.
I remember you saying something about the son, “s-o-n,” and then the star that represented Lucifer.
Yeah. So “Lucifer” means light bearer. The light bearer is Venus and a lot of people think that Lucifer is evil because in The Bible that’s the name of the devil. I’m not well versed in The Bible. I know stories, I’ve never read it front to back but I’ve been to church. I’m more into astronomy, so when I started learning about it and I saw that it would refer to Venus as Lucifer. And then I started reading stories about how it comes out while the sun is still out and it stays out longer than the sun and it gives off a lot of light, and it rivals the sun. And it’s the story of the son of God and the devil technically, It’s kind of like that story is just a take on astronomy. A lot of people believe that the 12 apostles are just a story of the zodiac.
Yeah. It’s really interesting to just compare and connect the dots and see. Either way, it’s a good story. I like to play with the word “sun” and “son” a lot because I have always felt very connected to the sun and I feel like throughout the ages, all of humankind has worshipped the sun in some type of way, as far as like what it does for plants and life in general. That energy is the reason we’re here. Why our planet is what it is, because of our distance to the sun.
You have the Rising Sun tattooed on your shoulder.
Yes. This tattoo was a tattoo that my brother wanted to get. He passed away and we had this tattoo memorial service.
Was he your older brother?
Yes, two years older than me. He wanted to get all these tattoos and he had this folder of all these tattoos, and I found a few things that I wanted to get in memory of him and that was one of them. It was 16 rays, which is special to me because “3:16”, March 16 is my birthday. It’s the sun, the Rising Sun. He played baby Jesus in a school play when he was a baby, in my older sister’s play, so we always called him baby Jesus.
I felt like, in some type of way, he was our savior. He was sort of the sacrifice and we learned so much about health and how to take care of ourselves when he went through what he went through. He was so enlightened. He was always laughing. He was a big kid at heart and this tattoo represents him, he’s the Rising Sun.It’s also part of a Japanese flag for fisherman to use for good luck, but unfortunately to Chinese and Koreans, it’s a bad memory but I like to explain to people that for me, that’s not the meaning. Just like the swastika, the Nazi meaning is not the original meaning of that symbol. But if someone has the tattoo of it, you have to be prepared to explain it all the time. I just have to make sure people understand, I’m not being insensitive, but for me it has a totally different meaning.
I remember the L.A. Riots. I was maybe a few years old, but I remember where we lived everything was on fire. The grocery stores, everything was on fire, and we drove up La Brea to my grandmother’s house. I just remember going up the hill, looking back and thinking as a child the world was ending.
The song you wrote for your brother is a very beautiful song. Did you intend for it to be heard by everybody?
I didn’t. I just was going through that and I had to express it. I had to express it and I was just like, ‘Okay.’ I didn’t know I was recording it at first, I was just like, I want him to hear it. I took maybe a week and a half writing it and recording it. It was going to be really hard for me to really record it at a real session so I recorded it on my computer and I sent in my vocals to the engineer, like Garage Band vocal, super auto tuned, so it sounds a little weird.
When it was looking like his last days, my sister was like, “You have to play it for him. This is something that he needs to hear.” My dad’s brother was also fighting cancer and we were going to see him in San Francisco and my brother’s like, we don’t know. Any day now, any minute now.
So we left and we’re like, we’re going to do a quick turnaround trip and the day we left is the day he passed away. My mom was with him, but it was kind of like he didn’t want me, my brother and sisters to see that happen. That same day she played him the song. He heard it that day.
Was it a very long illness?
It was two years. It was a brain tumor so it was inoperable. I would say the last six months it got progressively worse. He definitely fought a good fight, but after a while, you know. I would say if I go out anyway, I would go out how we did.
It was at my grandmother’s house, the house we grew up in, the room we grew up in surrounded by family. If there’s any way to go, that’s the way to go. He had the painkillers on tap. Like, “I need more.” My mom would roll him joints and make him edibles, so...
Even as a kid he was the class clown. He wasn’t the type to have girls. He was just everyone’s friend and always happy, goofy. He was the type that all animals and all babies liked him so he was really like this shining light. I feel like sometimes when people have figured out life, they get to be at peace.
Some people would say his journey was complete.
Yeah and he got to teach us so many things in 26 years. Of course, in the moment it was hard to grasp, like ‘Why? He was such a good person. He didn’t get to do this or that,” but when I think about it and I think about how happy of a person he was, it was like “Yeah, he really came here and he did what he had to do.” And it’s five of us, well six because my dad has another daughter, but we all embody him and we all get to take him with us. Now his energy is dispersed amongst us.
Would you mind telling me about the last tweet he sent?
Yeah it’s, “Why aren’t you smiling?” When he first found out he had cancer he got into Buddhism. I had started getting into Buddhism when I was 15. Me and him were super close, almost like twins, and we would get high and have these talks like, “What is life” and go back and forth.
Not until he got sick did he get more and more into it so all of his tweets reflected—it’s almost like he had a crash course in enlightenment. He was so positive through the whole thing, he didn’t mention it. He would see friends out and they would see him walking a little different or he had put on weight, and he’s losing weight and he would never tell them like, “Oh. I’m sick,” he would say, “Nah. I’m good.” He was always tweeted really positive things, that was one of the things he tweeted, “Why aren’t you smiling?”
One of the last surgeries he had, he was cracking jokes in the ER.
Who made you want to rap at seven? Who were you digging that made you want to say, “I want to rap?”
Growing up in L.A. it was Snoop and The Chronic. My older sister she loved Snoop and she loved The Chronic.
So that’s why you said “You a G.”
More than likely, yes. I just remember Tupac and all the rap that was playing on L.A. radio, which was a lot of L.A. ’90s. I don’t know why I thought I was a rapper. [Laughs]
Was that just music for you? Was it real in these streets for Jhené?
It was real in the streets. The house that I came home to from the hospital was on Rodeo and La Brea, which is not the worst neighborhood but it was actually on Sycamore off of Rodeo and La Brea, and I just remember the L.A. Riots.
I was a baby. I was maybe a few years old, but I remember where we lived everything was on fire. The grocery stores, everything was on fire, and we drove up La Brea to my grandmother’s house. I just remember going up the hill, looking back and thinking as a child the world was ending. I didn’t understand. I remember my mom crying because, my grandfather, who’s Japanese, he worked downtown and she was like “They’re pulling people out the cars!” Just crying and not knowing.
When I was five years old, in the same area, I had a dance teacher. We had a dance recital where she would get a big check at the end of it. I went home with her and her daughter, because me and her daughter were best friends and we got held at gunpoint. They put a gun to my head at five years old.
It was two of them. They took her in the room and I don’t remember all the details but they basically robbed her and then the other one held a gun to my head in the kitchen while we laid down, at five.
So L.A., it was real. My brother and my sister, when they were really young they were in a liquor store, someone came in and shot up the liquor store. Gun violence is real. And we always lived in a neighborhood that was a few streets away from crazy stuff. We could hear the gunshots but we weren’t necessarily on the same block.
I always tell people that because they always think L.A. as Hollywood and I think of the real L.A., which is not necessarily the slums, but you’re still experiencing those same types of things that you hear about. A lot of it is just privileged kids, but they have something to prove, so they become a part of the gang and this is just the neighborhood they come back to go to sleep. They bring the violence with them. I’ve lived in the same area my whole life. I still live there. I love it. It’s not super unsafe but it’s definitely, yeah. Everything is there. You can experience it all in a few blocks.
What is the worst you’ve ever injured yourself?
Four months ago I was in a car crash. I was sitting in the back seat. A car made an illegal U-turn in front of us in L.A. My daughter’s father was driving and my sister was in the front seat. We were going to drop me off to rehearsal in my car. My poor Prius was totalled. I broke my wrist. I busted my chin open—seven stitches—and I chipped my tooth. I had never broken a bone before. It wasn’t like a really bad break. I had a cast on for what seems like too long. My daughter was in the car too. But I was the one who was injured the worst. My daughter had a tiny scratch from the seat belt. And why I broke my wrist, I was trying to keep from banging heads with her on impact—I reached out and her car seat broken my wrist. To me it was so traumatic, seeing her after the crash when she was screaming. It was like a movie. But she’s not even scared to drive in a car now.
I look up to Drake. I think everything in his whole career is commendable. He can act, he can rap, he can sing. I can relate to him. He’s mixed, I’m mixed. Everything he does, I just take note because I feel like he’s doing a really good job of just being well-rounded.
The crash also marked the end of your vegetarian phase, right?
Not the end. It paused it because I was doing really, really good. I was vegan for six months and prior to that, the month before I started vegan I was vegetarian. It’s something I had always wanted to do since elementary because I loved animals and then I learned the health benefits so I started doing it. Everything was better. My mood was better. As soon as I left the emergency room I was like, “I want chicken!”
Everyone was like, “Yeah. Your body is craving it because you need the extra strength,” but really, vegetables and stuff would give you more strength and healing power. I think it was more for comfort. It was something I felt like I needed.
That set me all the way back and I started eating meat again, so now I’m slowly trying to get myself back. It’s a process. If you really want to make that change you have to work stuff out of your system, and not just do it cold turkey. At least me. I know if I did it like that I would flip-flop.
What is the worst you’ve ever embarassed yourself in front of someone you idolize?
Idolize? Well, someone I look up to. This is recent. This just happened last night. It’s very embarrassing because—well, it’s more embarrassing for him. OK, let me just tell you the story... Last night on SNL... I look up to Drake. I think everything in his whole career is commendable. He can act, he can rap, he can sing. I can relate to him. He’s mixed, I’m mixed. Everything he does, I just take note because I feel like he’s doing a really good job of just being like well-rounded. And not only that, I think he’s really talented. I’m always asking him for advice with stuff and I’m always trying to figure out how he deals with being such a big celebrity.
Last night during the goodbyes on SNL, we’re all standing there. And obviously, he’s the only person that I know on the stage. I’m already nervous. The whole time I’m at SNL I’m nervous. And everybody starts hugging each other, and I’m just standing there. And right when I turned around, he goes to hug me and it looks like I totally dissed him.
So they made a gif of it, and it really looks like I was like, mad at him or something. It was embarrassing to me because it’s like, “Oh I don’t want him to think that he brought me on SNL and I’m like, ‘Anyway...’ ” He knows what it was, what happened. Watching it back it totally looks like I did. And it went viral today. Reading it online they’re like “Oh you curved Drake on SNL.” It just looked so bad. He tried to hug me and I turned away. I was so embarrassed. But he knows what it was.
People like to make up their own stories, don’t they?
They do. I’m the queen of awkward situations. Me acting naturally is awkward. I have to purposefully act normal for it to not be awkward because, I don’t know, that’s just me. I’m not aware of my body language or facial expressions so whatever.
As a woman in entertainment business, hip-hop in particular, and celebrity in 2014, people want to put things together. Like you make a song with, Drake you perform with Drake, you go together. How do you deal with that?
I just tell the truth. If someone asks me something, without compromising whatever that person—I’m not going to tell their secrets, or anything if we are friends. I ignore it if it’s negative. Sometimes I respond and I’ll be like, “No. You don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s not what it is.”
I like to explain myself a lot. I like for people to hear it from me just because at the end of the day I’m a person like you’re a person and you wouldn’t want someone to think something is true about you that wasn’t, or if it is true you would own up to it. It’s new to me, so I’m still learning.
I told [Drake] about it. I knew that he was going to see it eventually so I told him about it. I’m like, “Remember when you went to hug me and I turned around? They made a gif of it and it looks like I dissed you but I just wanted to let you know it looked like that. But you were there, you knew what happened.” He was like, “You go on the Internet too much.” And I was like, “You know what? I probably do.”
I probably read too many comments, too many opinions. I’ve been there. I’ve been a person that would be like, “Hmm.” I was never vocal about it but I’ve had those thoughts like, “Oh this must be this or that. Or that wasn’t good,” when I was a teenager. Now because I do this job and I understand what you go through and all that, I’m more understanding. No one is perfect. There’s a saying, “Promote what you love rather than bashing what you hate.”
If you’re always talking about what you don’t like or how this person doesn’t do this right or whatever, to me, it shows your insecurity as a person. You don’t have to express that. That’s just you putting out negativity in the world. If something strikes a chord in me, I go, “Well, why don’t I like that? Why does it make me feel this way?”
It always comes back to me. An insecurity or a jealousy and if it is that I go, “Well, you do this good,” and it diminishes and I can say, “She’s a good singer. She’s pretty.” You can start having good opinions about things. There are some people who are always like, “Ugh! I hate this. I hate that. He sucks.”
I just want to be the person that helps people get out of that way of thinking. I know there has to be a balance of good and bad. But it’s unnecessary to be negative like that.
How did you meet Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino?
We have the same publisher. One of his best friends is one of my brother’s best friends. Fam went to school with my brother that passed away. He had said something to Donald, so they set it up with my publisher to meet after Kimmel. They came and we have the same sense of humor, very sarcastic and dry. It was automatically like, “I like you! We can be friends.”When we left we were like, we need to work and I was like, “I’ll send you something tomorrow.” I sent it to him and he called me and asked me a few things about the song. That’s when I had just thought about the John and Yoko visual, [and told him] “So this is this and this is that. We’re going to do a visual.” He’s like, “I’m down. I get it.”
A few other people had sent me verses and I was just kind of like, “Hmm.” They didn’t take the time to understand it like he did and they didn’t send it right away like he did. It was meant to be him on that song.
A lot of people think you two are together, maybe because of the cover of the ‘Bed Peace’ single. Putting that visual out to the Internet, you know people are going to make up their own mind. Did that bother you?
It didn’t bother me because he’s an actor. We’re both creative people. We are friends and we hang out, we’re friends. I was interviewed by someone and they asked me, do we go out? And I said, “No we’re just friends but I’m also single, so you never know what friendships can develop into or if we’re going to be friends in a few years. We like each other as people, so you know, who knows?”
I’m very honest about that. If someone is just straightforward, and they’re like, “Do you date?” And if we’re not dating I’ll be like, “No. But that doesn’t mean I hate him or I think he’s ugly.”
So there’s no one guy in your life right now?
OK, so here’s the thing. I’m about to give you—not a bullshit answer. There is. But I’m single. Not by choice. Only because I found now that when I talk to guys, they’re sort of wary because they know about Donald, they know I’ve worked with Drake. So it’s always like, they don’t take me serious. They’re always side-eyed, suspicious. But I’m very loyal in relationships.
If I’m your girlfriend that’s it. I’m practicing to be your wife at that point because I treat it very seriously. I feel like I was born to be a mom and a wife and totally domesticated. I’m not going to spend my whole time trying to prove to that person that I am really who I say I am. You have to give stuff time for them to really see that like, “Oh you’re really not, like, a whore,” because that’s what I always say when I’m posed with those questions. “What about when you go on tour?” It’s just like, if I’m with you—what do you mean? I’m not a man. I’m a woman. I can control myself.
Is that really how it is? Women can control themselves better, you think?
I believe so. At least in my case. I feel like I can control myself but if I’m single, if I don’t have anything I’m obligated to do for you. At the same time I’m a woman, I would like a man to take control and say “I want you to be with me. No, I don’t want you to talk to those guys.” Give me rules, yeah, why not. Be a man.
But I can say that there is a person that I hope that we grow to blossom and be everything a beautiful couple can be.
Was that in place before you did this last body of work?
No. I mean, we met before that but it’s sort of a new thing.
Is this someone who’s in the industry?
Kind of. Not in it like how I’m in it.
Because that presents its own unique set of challenges.
It does. But it’s definitely someone that understands.
I wish you the very best.
Like I said, you never know. I feel like if the options aren’t open, keep the options open until it’s a defined thing. Me, I’m a free spirit. I don’t know what the future holds. I could meet someone tomorrow and I’ll have to call you and be like, “remember that part, where there’s a person? That changed. It’s a new one.” Just because you never know, I’m young.
I have to ask about the tweet about your ideal date.
It was a Tumblr question. Someone asked me about the perfect date. That was a great list of activities.
The observatory was the most intriguing part.
I love the observatory. I feel like I have to space my visits there because it’ll get played out after a while. Me and Donald were supposed to go to the observatory but he left out of town. Have you been?
Yeah. Since I was a kid.
Yeah. I love planetariums. The New York one?
No the Griffith Park. What is it called, with the theater. The observatory is the whole thing, and they call the theater something else. Yeah the planetarium. That’s where you sit in the chair and the stars move all over the ceiling and then they flash the pictures of the zodiac over the stars. Have you been in Grand Central Station?
They do that there?
Why can’t you trust girls who don’t like Hello Kitty?
I tweeted that a few months ago. I never trust a girl that doesn’t like Hello Kitty. It doesn’t have to be super girly. I feel like she appeals to every girl and it’s you giving into your femininity by accepting—why not like Hello Kitty? It’s a cat. If you’re not into pink there’s a green character, blue.
Did you learn the hard way? Did a girl who didn’t like Hello Kitty that betrayed your trust?
I’ve just learned that if a girl doesn’t like Hello Kitty she probably takes herself too seriously, is into designer, even though there are Hello Kitty collaborations that could satisfy the designer girl. There’s different ways to enjoy Hello Kitty.
You’re passionate about Hello Kitty.
I am because I don’t like pink. My daughter likes pink Hello Kitty stuff. I have all the black Hello Kitty stuff, the camo, the leopard print, you know. It’s no one person, but I’ve noticed when someone is like, “Ugh! Hello Kitty it’s so childish.” It’s like, really? Calm down. It’s cute, OK?
Tell me about No I.D., how you met him and how has he impacted on your work?
When I met No I.D. I thought it was about production. I got a call from Noah Preston, who’s my A&R at Def Jam now and he was like, “I’m working with No I.D. now and I want him to meet you.” I’m like, cool. At that meeting is when he was taking the position at Def Jam and that he wanted me to be his first act over there and I’m like, “Wow! OK.” At that point I had met with a few other labels, it was right after the mixtape release.
I sort of wanted to do it independent but he really made me feel like he really understood because he wasn’t a labelhead. He’s an artist. He’s a creative person and producer. Not only that but he’s a vegetarian, he doesn’t drink alcohol anymore, he just seems like he’s where I would like to be. We ended up having talks about Buddhism and about spirituality and everything was just very compatible. It just made me feel like, yeah, this is a good partnership.
He gets it. He trusts me. He trusts that I know my vision. He’s just always like, “You tell me,” and I obviously respect him as an artist and I know what he can do for me, as far as bringing my music to another level because usually I’m like, “I don’t care who you are. If you don’t get the vision, it doesn’t make sense.” He has proven so far that he gets it.
Who is J-Hennessy?
J-Hennessey is who I am when I drink Hennessey.
It starts with a drink.
It starts with a drink of Hennessey. Obviously my name is spelled J-h-e-n-e, so I had this friend in middle school that used to call me J-Henny. When I grew up, that was my drink of choice, Hennessey. Hennessy and apple juice or Hennessey and ginger ale. It tastes really good. It tastes kind of like a holiday drink. Happy juice.
I feel like I have a lot of different sides to me, probably too many to name but J-Hennessey is like my rapper, hip-hop, more aggressive side of me where I feel like when I’m mad, I feel like I can battle rap a rapper when I’m J-Hennessey. She’s not the best rapper alive yet but she may be. She’s on her way.