Album Review: Jhené Aiko 'Sail Out' EP

"At its best, the California singer offers sweet but forgettable elevator music, a major label-backed product that never fails in taking advantage of her alluring physical image."

Upon first listening to Aiko’s recently released Def Jam EP, Sail Out, a sense of emptiness might ensue. There’s an indefinite dreaminess to her work and enough growing hype to suggest that a significance hides within, that an onion effect is at play and surely responsible for the initial idleness. But peeling those layers back and combing through the seven tracks a dozen more times yields more of the same.

Sameness is the central issue with all of Jhené’s music. A brief revisiting of her 2010 feature on Kendrick Lamar’s stellar track "Growing Apart (To Get Closer)" from his mixtape Overly Dedicated proves that the lack of variety spans years. Creating a particular, distinctive sound is vital to the success, survival and perceived quality of an artist, but that sound requires some level of captivation. The monotonous crooner still continues to represent herself as an artist in possession of a single function, like a second-string player with enough non-sports-related appeal to garner some commercial looks. 

Everything in life serves some purpose, though, and while the tonal scope surely has its limits the music compiling Sail Out works well in certain atmospheres. Highly accessible, pop-friendly guitar strumming makes the Childish Gambino-assisted single, "Bed Peace," a drowsy assault on radio’s airwaves. Aiko’s vocals drip with reverb, the parameters of her voice seemingly extended by a submerging echo. Line endings often seep into the backing instrumentation like leaking water through a ceiling. This effect interchangeably exists on nearly every record, and the beat consequently provides the primary differences between one track and another.

The backdrops are largely responsible for any perception of medley; sinister drums and surrounding sounds which compose "3:16AM" differ greatly from the hazed synths of "Stay Ready (What A Life)." One might also think that several high-profile hip-hop features would prevent an R&B project like this from reaching the unfortunate plateau of boredom. However, all four supporting artists do little to interrupt the succession of dullness. Gambino’s aforementioned presence on "Bed Peace" is impressive, yet even his delivery would leave little more than a straight, horizontal line on a vocal seismograph. King Kendrick’s guest spot on "Stay Ready" is similarly underwhelming; Lamar’s voice does not deviate from a safe middle ground, and the lack of risks broaden to the project as a whole. 

Sail Out works best under specific circumstances which revolve around a minimal focus towards the music itself. The lightly accented, cloudy textures form the audio equivalent of a smoky, fog-filled room that induces a sleep-like state. At its best, the California singer offers sweet but forgettable elevator music, a major label-backed product that never fails in taking advantage of her alluring physical image (see: album artwork). 

Frankly, it is tempting to wish for undiscovered potential in this tenured-but-youthful singer’s small, 5’2” frame. Some years ago, with far less widely known material available, Jhene had the internet buzzing. Admittedly, I myself once looked forward to songs with her name attached and hoped for her success, but years have slipped away and Jhené continues to occupy the space of a one-dimensional artist. As 2013 inches towards its final days, I cannot help but wonder if her days under a just-forming spotlight are correspondingly numbered.  



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