More than just a pretty face: You wouldn’t know it from looking at her, but Jhene Aiko has been relatively invisible throughout her musical career. At age 14, she got her start contributing backing vocals to the R&B group B2K. In the past few years, she’s become a high-caliber muse, singing hooks for Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Big Sean, J. Cole and Wale. Now she’s ready to break out on her own. On EP Sail Out, released last November, Gambino and Lamar sing for her, and she toured with Drake on his 2013 Would You Like a Tour? Aiko pairs with Drake on his From Time and her current single, The Worst, is No. 16 on USA TODAY’s urban airplay chart.
Finally at the wheel: After years of working on other people’s music, she’s eager to call the shots. “When I was younger, I was just the singer and I’d get songs sent to me and I had no connection with them. Then I’d do the music videos and I couldn’t pick my own clothes. I wouldn’t feel proud because it wasn’t my vision,” says Aiko, 25. “Now that I’m doing everything I want, it’s so much more satisfying.”
Patience is a virtue: Standing in the wings for the last decade doesn’t bother Aiko, who is of Japanese, African-American and Native American descent. Early on, Epic label executives tried to mold her into a pop star, but she insisted on writing her own music, and by 16, she walked away. She’s the youngest of five and has three half-siblings, so she’s used to waiting for her turn. “I’ve always been the little sister. That’s pretty much what it’s like with the people I work with,” says the singer, whose full name is Jhené Aiko Efuru Chilombo. “They respect me as an artist. They see me as one of the guys.”
Tiny, but tough: When it comes to her craft, she’s a giant control freak. “I like to be involved in everything. Sometimes it’s frustrating to get my vision across,” she says. “Instead of explaining it, writing it down, sometimes it’s easier for me to vocal-produce myself. It’s harder but more rewarding, because at the end of the day, I can sit back and know that all that work is real.” She also does her own rapping under the name J. Hennessy.
Hard work comes easy: She’s used to it. “When I was 18, I had two jobs. During the day, I worked at my uncle’s law office as a receptionist, then I’d take the bus to the mall to work a second job,” says the Los Angeles native. “Then, a few years after I had my daughter (Namiko, now 5), I worked at a vegan restaurant. I thought there’d be these nice people all about peace and love, but they weren’t. Most of the clientele were picky and demanding.”
Being a single working mother? Not so easy: With her full-length album, Souled Out, expected this summer, Aiko’s schedule will just become more demanding. “I’ve got a spot on Conan and I’m playing Coachella in April, and, hopefully, I’ll play a few dates on Drake’s European tour,” she says. “My schedule can get crazy, but I have a very supportive family. My oldest sister really keeps everything in order. When I’m out of town, she or my mom or my daughter’s father (O’Ryan Omir Browner, singer Omarion’s younger brother) will care for her.” But when Aiko is home, she keeps her work/life balance in check. “I take my daughter to school every day, and if I’m working at night, I try to get back to put her to bed,” she says.” I think if I work really hard now, I can slow down in a few years and even bring her to my shows.”
Dreaming of sleep: For her song Bed Peace, with Childish Gambino, Aiko found inspiration in John Lennon and Yoko Ono. “I loved them as a couple. They photographed themselves in bed together, they did everything together,” she says. “Everyone knows who The Beatles are, but I don’t think younger people know John and Yoko’s message of world peace. That’s what this song is about.” Bed Peace is also about being in bed. “I would love to spend all day in bed,” she says. “I’m like a cat. I can sleep whenever, wherever.”