R&B/Soul singer Jhene Aiko’s sophomore album, Trip, is less of an album and more of an experience. Nearly an hour and a half in length, Aiko’s silky smooth vocals guide us through a project framed as one long drug trip. Aiko’s becomes lost in a psychedelic and sometimes scary world, addressing her relationships including her disastrous and short-lived marriage to producer Dot Da Genius and her new “soulmate” Big Sean along the way.
Aiko additionally taps into her alter-ego, Penny – a nickname her grandfather gave her that she states is her “purest, most authentic form” and dedicates the album to her brother, who died of cancer in 2012 and shows up a few times here. Aiko paints a world to get lost in while addressing some pretty heavy topics. Trip is the well thought out concept album I’ve been waiting for this year.
I’ts tough to compare individual songs on this project, as they all flow together seamlessly in one concrete experience. While some have criticized the album’s length due to its similar sounding tracks, Aiko’s voice has a hypnotic quality and I barely realized how long I had been sitting there listening to the album. Aiko’s vocals stay true to her trademark breathy style, but over such a sparse and psychedelic instrumental they adopt this beautiful, almost ghostly quality, floating above the track with a calming presence. With every vocal run and harmony she draws me deeper into the world of the album.
“LSD” introduces the album as Aiko begins her trip and says “And what I saw, oh my god…”, referring to the images she comes across over the course of the album. What she talks about certainly warrants her surprise. Aiko experiences the highest highs and lowest lows of human emotion, often blissfully in love, but she begins her journey by venturing into Japan’s suicide forest on “Jukai”. “Hell is not a certain evil, Hell is other people … or the lack thereof”, she sings, introducing the themes of love and loneliness. She is rescued from the forest by an unknown man who accompanies her in spoken dialogues after a few tracks here, revealing his dark side as more and more drugs are offered.
Some of my favourite projects are clearly deliberately ordered and tell one cohesive story, and Trip certainly fits the bill, as the sections of the album are demarcated with different drugs that cause Aiko to experience different things. “LSD” introduces a slew of songs that see her in a young romance, until she starts having some lingering doubts on final track “When We Love”. She suddenly instructs the male voice “Don’t hurt me, OK?” before “Sativa” introduces a longer segment full of Aiko’s ideal images of love being tormented by some darker thoughts, culminating in the chaotic “Bad Trip (Interlude)”.
Her brother makes an appearance as she addresses her struggles with addiction in the wake of his death on “Nobody”, and runs through feelings of loneliness, confusion and negative self-image. “Never Call Me” sees Aiko get uncharacteristically angry (even if her sweet tone of voice would never betray such a thing) as she criticizes the inability of her man to communicate his feelings instead of acting passive-aggressive. She references Dot Da Genius’ alimony lawsuit directly, the communication issues likely referencing his infamous series of cryptic tweets regarding his relationship with Aiko.
The story of Trip parallels Aiko’s real-life issues, as the first part of the album represents the younger, naive version of herself that rushed into a relationship with the wrong person. The resulting fallout of the divorce and doubt entering a new relationship makes up the majority of the album, while the final section, “Psilocybin (Love In Full Effect)” is more representative of her new, healthy relationship with Big Sean.
Jhene recruits some colourful collaborators here to spice up the sound just enough. She brings Sean himself in to revive their funk-infused side project Twenty88 on the upbeat “Only Lovers Left Alive”, while John Mayer’s sensual guitar riffs back her musings of newfound love on the quieter “New Balance”. Her father delivers two extended outros, while she duets with her 9 year old daughter Namiko Love on endearing track “Sing To Me”.
There’s certainly a lot to unpack here thematically, but did I mention the music is great as well? “Overstimulated” stays true to its title, as Aiko delivers an intoxicating melody over some rolling hi-hats and a very dreamy soundscape, juxtaposing a speedier rhythmic delivery with her beautiful higher notes over some soft synth chords in the chorus. “Psilocybin (Love In Full Effect)” is another standout, a nearly 8-minute monster that brings in a horn section and infectious synth pattern resembling a siren amidst some of Aiko’s best harmonies.
I love how many layers there are to this project – this review would be a lot longer if I delved into what Aiko has stated some of these symbols mean. The album is very long, but I could listen to that voice forever, especially tied to these deeper conceptual themes. On title track “Trip”, Aiko concludes the album “Love pays, but love taxes – it’s a real trip”, summing up the journey we’ve just been on. Trip is a trip indeed.
Favourite Tracks: Overstimulated, Psilocybin (Love In Full Effect), While We’re Young, OLLA (Only Lovers Left Alive), Never Call Me
Least Favourite Track: Oblivion (Creation)