It’s an apt set of circumstances that of all the EPs to infiltrate a year-end list, it’s Jhené Aiko’s sleeper hit release that’s up to the task. From the tender age of twelve, the singer has always been an underground talent, with much of her development quietly occurring on an independent level. That it took an unassuming feature on Drake’s Nothing Was The Same for her success to finally gain momentum is particularly unjust, but nevertheless indicative of what to expect from Sail Out: a deceptively subtle mid-tempo glide through confessional R&B.
Spanning 31 minutes, it’s a fully-realised EP that sees no problem in taking its time, but it works precisely because it resists traditional conceptions of female pop-R&B acts. Of the seven slow-burning slow jams, it’s ‘Bed Peace’ that provides the most accessible entry point, a light-hearted ode to peace which, together with Childish Gambino, references John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1961 bed-in protests.
However, the EP’s finest moment goes to ‘The Worst’, a beautiful yet heartbreaking piano-led ballad. With each intonation of the hook “I don’t need you,” the less believable (and by extension, more emotionally raw) Aiko becomes. Yet Aiko is more than just another vulnerable R&B archetype (see the song’s accompanying video). Even when an array of guest features threaten to suffocate Sail Out, its her voice – a weightless, siren-like presence – that soars above the mix.
In fact it’s no coincidence that Drake, an ardent Aaliyah fan, would find his foil in Aiko, for in many ways she’s uncannily reminiscent of the late songstress. Both women’s approaches to music are incredibly understated, but scored by the way in which their melodies are so indebted to cadence and flow. Sail Out’s freestyle epilogue ‘Comfort Inn Ending’ begins with the line “Thought I told you not to trust these hoes,” taking what would normally be childish, masculine braggadocio and recasting it with integrity and realism.
In short, Aiko is a rare breed. As a singer who writes and records like a rapper, such duality only makes her a more attractive prospect. If, as she’s pointed out in interviews, Sail Out is merely a bridge connecting her underground work to her much-anticipated major-label debut, then Souled Out promises to be the platform she’s been waiting more than a decade for.