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Junk Mail: Jhene Aiko 'Souled Out' Album Review

by Carolyn Menyes   Sep 10, 2014 17:17 PM EDT

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Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week Carolyn Menyes, Kyle Dowling, Caitlin Carter chat about Jhene Aiko's new album, Souled Out. Feel free to join in the conversation in the comments section, and check back next week for more.

Carolyn Menyes: I have to admit this is the first Junk Mail we've done in some while where I'm a little less familiar with the artist, so I guess it's good that Jhene Aiko's Souled Out is a debut album... we can just judge it for what it is.

That being said... I think it's a really solid, PBR&B debut -- that's one of my favorite terms by the way. This is great background music for studying or reading or, you know, working like we're doing now. First impressions, though, it's not totally gripping or engaging as a lone listening experience, and it made me a LITTLE sleepy.

So, off the bat... what are your guys' first thoughts on Ms. Aiko?

Caitlin Carter: The tone of the album stays consistent -- very mellow, evening-time chill stuff -- but I enjoyed the different styles she incorporated throughout. We got a little hip-hop, R&B, soul, and electronic to break up the album a bit. I think the tone of the songs match the message she seems to be trying to get across, which is to know oneself and endure. It's very introspective and personal, and sees Aiko opening for the her new fans.

Kyle Dowling: I hate to be this guy, because I know how difficult it is to record an album and such, but I really wasn't feeling it on this album. I think you both summed it up best as "background music." I was hoping for some sort of oomph to take me out of the mellow nature the album brought but it never seemed to happen. Even though I can appreciate the genre and the work behind it, I really did not enjoy the record too much. I felt as if it was difficult to keep constant attention. I found myself drifting in and out forgetting that I was actually listening to something. Again, I hate being this guy, but I wasn't a big fan.

CC: I totally get where you're coming from with the drifting in and out thing. It's not a very captivating record, but when I gave it a second listen and was purposefully paying attention, I was able to notice the good tidbits. I especially enjoyed the 50 Cent reference with "many men wish death on me" on the song "To Love & Die."

CM: It's OK not to like an album, Kyle! Jhene Aiko (probably) won't come and attack you. But I kind of agree. I mean, it's hard for me to outright say I don't like Souled Out or, more broadly, Jhene Aiko, but this album did leave me wanting something more like you said. A punch, an oomph, or maybe just one upbeat track.

There's definitely a place for atmospheric, pretty background music. I think there are some beautiful melodies here and I love the intimate feel. But, yeah, in the end this album left me sort of bored. It's kind of reminding me of my thoughts on Lana Del Rey's Ultraviolence. I can pick out one or two songs but after a full listening experience, I just left sleepy.

CC: I agree Carolyn, not all songs are meant to be catchy and Jhene Aiko is certainly not a pop artist, so this all makes sense. That said, I don't really see her with a radio hit unless it's as a featured artist somewhere down the line. She doesn't really command attention enough to fill that role.

KD: Alright alright ... I didn't like the album! Hear me, world???

For me, the difference between this and the Lana Del Rey album was that I actually felt some emotion from Ultraviolence, AND there were tracks in there that grabbed my attention. I just found Souled Out to be rather boring. None of the tracks seems like they could be hits, as you both have mentioned.

Having said that, I liked some of the lyrics in "Lyin King" ... particularly "I wish your mother loved you like I could've that way you would've known how to love a woman." Pretty good line! Aside from that? Eh.

CM:To I guess the catchy or gripping comment, we do have to analyze Souled Out in its own context. So, comparing this album more to say, a Frank Ocean record or even Janelle Monae (both of whom have also been slapped with the PBR&B title) is a little more appropriate. But, yeah, even those picked it up at SOME point. What's nice about this album is that it all flows together very well -- it's production quality is high and consistent. It's a great cohesive piece.

As for the radio/hit comment... I don't think Jhene Aiko is going for, you know, Billboard Hot 100 hits here. She'll go for a guest verse on a rap song or something if she wants that success. I can, however, see some of these songs sizzling on urban radio and doing very well in that niche.

Kyle, I agree that "Lyin King" is my favorite track. There's something very cool and Drake-like to the beat, which I can definitely dig. In the entire album it's the lone song that really made my ears perk up and pay attention to those three-and-a-half minutes over some others.

Any songs you particularly enjoyed, Caitlin?

CC: I'm a fan of "Lyin King" and the Common-featuring "Pretty Bird," and mentioned earlier I liked her collaboration with Cocaine 80s, "To Love & Die," which features that 50 Cent reference.

KD: I can appreciate “Pretty Bird” and Common’s part on it. But still, with that (and even “Lyin King”), I just wasn’t moved by Souled Out. So, what exactly did you guys LIKE about the album?

CC: It's always good to have an easy-listening album to throw on, and I think Souled Out fits that bill. I thought her lyrics on it were interesting as well, especially the one that is a dialogue with her daughter.

CM: The album is really complex lyrically, is it shallow for me to say its deep? And it's so personal -- I can't fault anybody for pouring themselves into a piece of music.

I will admit that this isn't really in my realm of music and I'm unlikely to return to this album personally much except for "Pretty Bird" and "Lyin King," which I think we all sort of acknowledge those are the best songs.

My own personal biases aside, I can objectively tell this is a stunning R&B album, if that makes sense? Aiko has a really relaxing tone to her soft voice and it's pretty comforting. What about it is so offensive to you, Kyle? Anything in particular or are you just not feeling it?

KD: To be honest, there's nothing in particular that sticks out that makes me not like it, which I think is why I went into it saying "I hate being this guy." I can appreciate that it's an honest attempt at making a good record (which I'm sure there are people out there who will love this record). All in all, however, I just was not feeling it.

Like I said, Souled Out will definitely find a home for some people. For me, it just didn't do it.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

CM: So, none of us seem to be big R&B heads, so I guess it makes sense that maybe Jhene Aiko wouldn't quite click for us. On a totally objective level, I know that this is a great album. It flows really well, the production is high and Aiko really has something to say. On a personal level, this record just made me sleepy... but at least its pumpkin spice latte season! :D

KD: Unlike Carolyn, I don't know that this is a great album. But I also don't know a lot of things. One thing I do know is that I didn't quite dig this record. I feel tired at the moment. Now, I could either contribute that to the bag of Rold Gold pretzels I devoured about an hour ago, or to the fact that I've listened to this record time and time again today. I choose to go with the latter. Either way, I wasn't a fan, but appreciate the effort from Ms. Aiko. 

CC: So I enjoyed the album. There is a time and place for all types of music. Does it pump me up? No. But not all music needs to. I think the album was well produced and well written. To me it didn't need to be captivating to be good. I liked the feel of it for the right moment. Will I go running to my friends to spread the news of this album? Probably not. But next time I'm chillin' in the park, I'll return to Souled Out, I'm sure. 

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