Last seen singing with Childish Gambino and Drake, Jhene Aiko is much more than meets the eye.



SHOT AT Rockhouse Hotel, Negril, Jamaica

This feature appears
in the April/May 2014
issue of

Time moves a little more slowly in Negril, a sleepy village at the westernmost tip of Jamaica, where each morning a countdown begins to the most amazing sunset you’ve ever seen. Just after high noon, Jhené Aiko is standing on a craggy landscape wearing a white Agent Provocateur bathing suit that shows off the tattoos on her back. There are no boats visible on this stretch of the Caribbean, no jet skis roaring by, not a sound save for some spongy reggae, bubbling on the breeze. As the tropical sun radiates energy from an azure sky, the diminutive songwriter, singer, and MC stares silently at the endless horizon and soaks it all in.

“Throughout the ages, humankind has worshipped the sun in some type of way,” Jhené Aiko Efuru Chilombo, 26, reflects later over a plate of stewed oxtail. “That energy is the reason we’re here, why our planet is what it is.” Jhené has flown some distance from the ice and snow of New York, arriving at the secluded Rockhouse Hotel with her camouflage Hello Kitty backpack slung over one shoulder. She isn’t the first to fall in love with this Jamaican hideaway, which reminds her of Hawaii, where some of her Japanese relatives live. “I made a vow the last time I went to Oahu and Maui that that was going to be the place where I end up when I settle down,” she says. “It’s beautiful, but it’s also familiar. It feels like home.”

This scene she’s playing out right now—girl, sea, sun, sky—looks like something Matisse or Gauguin might have painted. It would make fitting cover art for Jhené, whose releases have all played with the ideas of sailing—as opposed to selling—the soul. Her much anticipated debut album, Souled Out, is due on Island Def Jam this May. On songs like “From Time,” off Drake’s Nothing Was the Same, she sings and raps in an ethereal voice so gentle it can seem childlike. But there’s no mistaking the hardness lurking just below the surface. Case in point: “The Worst,” the third single from her acclaimed 2013 EP, Sail Out, on which she sings: “Don’t take this personal/But you’re the worst/You know what you’ve done to me.” Like Drake, a good friend and frequent collaborator with whom she toured last year, Jhené works the space between MCing and singing, delivering stark, confessional songs that trace the lines between love and loss.

Her 2011 mixtape, Sailing Souls, which Jhené produced with the duo Fisticuffs and recorded with an impressive group of acquaintances from L.A. music circles—Ab-Soul, Kendrick Lamar, Gucci Mane, Miguel, and Drake—impressed legendary producer turned Def Jam exec No I.D. so much that he made her the first artist signed to his Artium imprint. “I could see a new R&B forming,” says No I.D., “following in the footsteps of Frank Ocean, Miguel, Weeknd, and Drake. She had these witty rap complexities to her lyrics, with these very digestible melodies. I knew it would connect and I knew that females hadn’t heard a female doing it.”

“The Sailing Souls mixtape, that was the height of me going through all of this stuff,” Jhené recalls. “I’d 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. It’s [easier] for me to write about that type of stuff than [happiness].”

The child of a Japanese, Spanish, and Dominican mother and an African-American, Native-American, German Jewish father, Jhené grew up in L.A.’s urban pop scene. Her older sisters, Jamila and Miyoko, sang in the group Gyrl, and Jhené landed a deal with Epic Records when she was 12. She released various remixes, soundtrack cuts, and features and toured with B2K on the Scream 3 tour. At age 15, she had a solo album deal on the table but decided to take a break from the music business instead. “I was in high school,” Jhené recalls, “and there was a new label boss who wasn’t well versed in who I was or my music. I was just like, ‘You know what? I want to get released.’ ”

When she got back into the game, she made sure it was on her own terms. “I wanted to do it independent,” she says, but No I.D. made her feel comfortable. “He wasn’t a label head. 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. He has proven so far that he gets it. He trusts me. He trusts that I know my vision.”

When she was 20, Jhené had a daughter by O’Ryan, the younger brother of B2K singer Omarion. They called the baby Namiko Love, meaning “child of the wave,” after a book by the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. “He has a story about how there’s no difference between the water and the wave,” Jhené says. “There’s no such thing as birth and death because the wave cannot die; it’s all water. Things manifest when the conditions are right, and they don’t manifest when they’re not right. But there are no ends, no beginnings, just continuation.”

Don’t let the philosophizing and innocent voice fool you; it was all real in the field for a girl growing up on Rodeo and LaBrea in the early ’90s. “I remember the L.A. riots,” Jhené says. “I was a baby, maybe a few years old, and where we lived everything was on fire. We drove up LaBrea to my grandmother’s house. Going up the hill, looking back, I thought the world was ending.” When she was 5, two men robbed Jhené and her dance teacher at gunpoint. “They put a gun to my head in the kitchen while we laid down,” she recalls. Jhené matured fast, listening to Snoop Doggy Dogg and writing her first rap at age 7. In elementary school, she was the girl who taught her classmates the words to Lil’ Kim’s Hardcore.

Phases of the moon arc across the skin on Jhené’s shoulders above an image of Buddha, who holds a lotus blossom. “The first funeral I went to when I was, like, 5, was for my great-grandmother,” Jhené recalls. “She was Japanese, and she had a Buddhist ceremony. That was my first religious experience. My mom’s mom would take us to the Christian church. Her sister is Catholic, so I used to go to her church sometimes. And then my father is a doctor, so he’s very, like, scientific…. But I gravitated towards Buddhism because it’s sorta free. It’s not very preachy.”

Up on her left shoulder there’s a Japanese rising sun with 16 rays extending outward. Jhené was born on March 16 and swears by the Bible verse John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son….” On the song “3:16 a.m.,” she sings: “Outer space, that’s where I’ve been goin’/To a place, a place where nobody knows/Floating at a pace where now you see her and now you don’t/I do not feel the fear of fallin’, I wanna fly.” Some of the designs on her back contain worlds within worlds. Many are tattoos that her older brother, Miyagi, wanted to have before he died two years ago at age 26. There’s another one on her left wrist, tiny characters posing a query that’s etched into her skin, a reminder of the last Tweet he ever sent: “Why aren’t you smiling?” Good question.

“When he first found out he had cancer he got into Buddhism,” Jhené says. “I had started getting into Buddhism when I was 15. We were super close, almost like twins. We would get high and have these talks, like, ‘What is life?’” When he got sick, her brother had what Jhené calls “a crash course in enlightenment.” He never spoke about his brain tumor. “He would see friends and they would see that he was walking a little different or had lost weight but he would never tell them, ‘Oh, I’m sick.’” Jhené put her feelings into the song “For My Brother.” He first heard it the day he passed away. Afterward, Miyagi’s sisters held a tattoo memorial service. Even Miyoko, who was scared of needles, got one. She cried the whole time and didn’t feel a thing. Jhené got the rising sun on her shoulder to represent her brother. “Waves of sadness crashing against shores of unsureness,” she sang for him. “So hard for me to understand when doctors they cannot cure this.”

Standing on the rocky shore, Jhené looks down past her toes at the waves below. A school of baby barracudas float in a cove of sapphire-blue water shot through with golden sunrays. She takes a deep breath and jumps, plunging into the endless water below.

Shall we sit you up or lay you down?” asks tattoo artist Luke Wessman when Jhené arrives at Sullivan Street Social Club tattoo parlor in New York City. “That’s what he said!” she replies with a laugh.

“Pain is inevitable,” says Jhené, seated stone-faced on the table as Wessman uses a cluster of seven needles to apply shading to a new design near her collarbone. “Suffering is optional. You’re gonna have some pain but it doesn’t have to make you suffer.” “Especially with medication,” jokes Miyoko, who travels everywhere with her sister. Jhené laughs and continues, “Physical stuff doesn’t make me cry. I’m more hurt if someone hurts my feelings.”

While Wessman works, Jhené reads her iPhone wrapped in a brand-new Hello Kitty case. (She and Miyoko have a rule: Never trust a girl who doesn’t like Hello Kitty.) After popping tags at the Hello Kitty boutique on 42nd Street the day before, they headed up to NBC Studios, where Drake was hosting Saturday Night Live. Jhené joined him onstage to perform their romantic duet “From Time” live on national television.

The song tells a tale of two old flames as they consider rekindling the spark. After Drake delivers a devastating semi-a capella version of “Hold On, We’re Going Home,” Jhené steps into the blue light surrounding him, clutching the mic to her chest as a younger girl might hold a hairbrush or a teddy bear. She sings in a breathy voice that approaches but doesn’t hit every note head-on. Like Drake, her melodic art is not about perfect pitch but immediacy and visceral impact. It’s that palpable realness, that Facetime confessional slice-of-life quality that makes live performances like this one compelling.

Jhené and Drake share a playful, unplanned exchange. “You need you some of this Drake love,” he boasts. Jhené replies, “None of that fake love,” but Drake presses on: “Tell Lorne to cut to commercial break love. So that we can make love.” Jhené nods and laughs as he asks, “You know what I’m talking about?” While she adjusts a stray lock of hair, he instructs the audience “Y’all make some noise for Jhené one time,” then moves in for a kiss and hug that will have the Internet going nuts for some time to come. Drake gives her a delicate peck on the hand as the crowd cheers and Jhené steps into the shadows.

It was a magical moment, but right now, on Wessman’s table, Jhené’s looking at something else—a GIF of Drake and her during the closing moments of SNL. While credits roll, cast members and the guest host applaud and hug each other. Then, just as Drake turns to hug Jhené, she spins away to hug SNL cast member Noël Wells, forcing Drake to hug them both from behind. The GIF is spreading like wildfire, adding fuel to rumors that she and Drake are romantically involved.

“We’re all standing there, and he’s the only person I know on the stage,” says Jhené. “The whole time I’m at SNL I’m nervous. Everybody starts hugging each other and I’m just standing there. Right when I turned around, he goes to hug me and it looks like I totally dissed him. I don’t want him to think that he brought me on SNL and I’m like, ‘Anyway….’ ”

“It could have been worse if he just woulda turned away,” her sister says. “I think it woulda been worse if he just didn’t do anything.” Jhené hands off her phone to be charged and refocuses her attention on Wessman’s cluster of needles.

When I talk to guys, they Are wary because they know about Donald, they know I haveworked with Drake. They A™re always side-eyed, suspicious. But I A™m loyal in relationships. If I A™m your girlfriend that'™s it. I A™m practicing to be your wife.

She first met Drake shortly before he released the pivotal 2009 mixtape So Far Gone. “I had just found out I was pregnant,” she recalls. “No one else knew and I was still just recording. I was feeling my way around, seeing who I wanted to work with and what I wanted to write about. I went into a session to meet him through a mutual friend. That’s how that relationship formed. I knew him from Degrassi because some of my younger family members watched it. 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 music people were like, ‘He’s next!’ ”

“I look up to Drake,” Jhené says. “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 take note because I feel like he’s doing a really good job of being, like, well-rounded. And not only that, he’s really talented. I’m always asking him for advice with stuff and trying to figure out how he deals with being such a big celebrity.”

The SNL GIF bothered her so much that she reached out to Drake to speak about it. “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….” Drake told her, “You go on the Internet too much.” After a pause, she adds: “And you know what? I probably do.”

On the Internet, everybody seems to know for a fact that Jhené is sleeping with the men she makes music with. Anonymous authorities will verify that Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover is her lover since they recorded that song “Bed Peace” together and posed like John and Yoko for the cover art.

“We have the same publisher,” Jhené explains. “One of his best friends, Fam, went to school with my brother who passed away. We have the same sense of humor, very sarcastic and dry. It was automatically like, ‘I like you! We can be friends.’ ” She says the rumors about them being together don’t bother her. “He’s an actor. We’re both creative people. We are friends and we hang out. We’re just friends but I’m also single, so you never know what friendships can develop into. We like each other as people, so you know, who knows?”

For his part, Glover says, “I met with her for dinner after her performance on Jimmy Kimmel. We talked about nothing, nothing about the song. Then she sent me the song and I wrote it that night.” He emailed it the next day. “She’s a super-special being,” he later said of her on the Juan Epstein podcast. “This is why I love her. Like, I think she’s special. She doesn’t need anyone. Even if we were together, she wouldn’t really belong to me. She doesn’t belong to anyone.”

Buddhism is about a search for enlightenment, much of which has to do with letting go of the ego, which Jhené admits can be a challenge in her line of work. “It’s definitely a process,” she says. “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.” (That is, unless she’s been drinking Henny and her J-Hennessy battle-rapper alter ego takes over.) “I just try not to watch myself on TV. I don’t even like to look at pictures. I don’t like to get caught up with who I am, and I’m surrounded by family. We’re very, very close and everyone keeps each other down to earth.”

Jhené has a unique way of dealing with the pressures of celebrity. “I just tell the truth,” she says over cauliflower pizza and truffle mac and cheese in a West Village café after the tattoo session. “If someone asks me something, I respond—without compromising another person or telling their secrets.” She’s nothing if not open, a quality that only makes her more attractive. In one Tumblr post, Jhené described her ideal date as: “weed, wine, food, sex, food, observatory, sex, weed, food, sex, spoon : ).”

So is there a special guy with whom Jhené’s sharing trips to the planetarium these days? “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 wary because they know about Donald, they know I’ve worked with Drake. They’re always side-eyed, suspicious. But I’m 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 seriously. I feel like I was born to be a mom and a wife and totally domesticated. I’m not going to spend my time trying to prove that I am really who I say I am.” Sometimes guys worry about what happens when Jhené goes on tour. “I can control myself. But if I’m single I don’t have anything I’m obligated to do for you. At the same time, I would like a man to take control and say, ‘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 and I hope that we grow to blossom and be everything a beautiful couple can be.”

This lucky guy, who Jhené says is “kind of” in the industry “but not like I am,” is definitely not Drake or Gambino. And he had better be able to take a little competition. “Me, I’m a free spirit,” Jhené says. “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 I said there’s a person? That changed. It’s a new one.’ Just because you never know, I’m young.” Until then she’ll just keep on making music. After all, there are no ends, no beginnings. It’s all water.

Here's Our Exclusive Video of Jhené Getting A Tattoo