PITCHFORK REVIEW: JHENÉ AIKO 'TRIP'
Written during a period of grief, Jhené Aiko’s 22-track LP turns her methods of survival—enlightenment, drugs, music itself—into an epic concept album. Some of Aiko’s most honest writing occurs here.
Grief is unlike any other life experience. It is the process of feeling the spectrum of human emotion all at once: unbearable sorrow combined with profound joy to have known this person, immense love coupled with blinding anger that they’re gone. The weight of grief threatened to buckle Jhené Aikoafter she lost her brother Miyagi in 2012, but she turned to music for respite. She turned to spiritual enlightenment, and she turned to drugs. Trip is the culmination of it all, hazily floating over a hefty 22 tracks.
As a concept album, Trip aims to translate the hallucinogenic highs of weed, LSD, and shrooms into sound. Befitting its length, these are highs that last for hours on end. The airiness of Aiko’s voice blends well into the spare, psychedelia-inspired productions courtesy of Dot Da Genius, Fisticuffs, and Amaire Johnson among others. Where her peers often drift towards dense electronica or hip-hop to inform their sounds and give them commercial appeal, Aiko keeps this music light and ambient, a space where she’s at her best. It’s all part of a larger multimedia project comprising an emotional short film, the album, and a forthcoming book of poetry. Aiko has completely opened herself up for this work, bravely mourning in public and exposing all the ways she tried and failed to do so in private. With that, Trip exists for its own sake and on its own terms; it’s a respectable undertaking, even if 90 minutes seems daunting. Trip is more committed to its narrative of self-discovery than churning out a hit, but there are a few potentials.
While the skating rink groove of “OLLA (Only Lovers Left Alive)” is the album’s most ostensibly pop-facing moment, the Swae Lee-assisted “Sativa” is the immediate standout. Lyrically, it’s a sexy party hookup anthem (“Why you make it so complicated?/Off the drink, we concentratin’/I know you won’t leave me hangin’,” goes the hook), but it ends up feeling like that moment when you’re too faded to actually complete the mission. It is bittersweet euphoria. These two tracks are some of the more dynamic within an album that can feel a bit one-note at times. It generally does well as chilled-out background music, but it’s also worthwhile as a focused listen, as some of Aiko’s most honest writing shows up here.
On “Jukai,” Aiko grapples with the concept of suicide, inspired by Japan’s Aokigahara forest. With “Nobody” and “Overstimulated,” she battles her demons of addiction. “Pop one, pop two, pop three, four pills/These things tell me how I should feel,” she sings on “Nobody,” convinced she can (or has to) handle her problems alone. “Overstimulated” captures the dizzying effects of stimulants like cocaine and Adderall, but there’s a seductive element in her lyrics that makes the high sound as fleeting as a noncommittal lover. Ultimately, all of this is built around the grief. Aiko’s constant search “for a brother’s love in every single man” ties into her hope that if she can just “get high enough,” she can reach him.
Towards the back end, the gloom begins to subside. Optimism sets in as the clarity from the trip materializes. “Sing to Me,” featuring Aiko’s daughter Namiko Love, is one of the album’s shining moments. The adoration the two share for each other is palpable as they sing back and forth—“mommy sing to me” and “Nami sing to me ”—over piano chords that, coincidentally, bring to mind Big Sean’s “Memories.” It’s sentimental and effective; there’s nothing like the love of a child to clarify blurry visions of the future. “Frequency” is a hopeful prayer for liberation: “Free my city, freed my seed/Bless my situation, give me freedom/Bless the generation, give them mercy.” And on the rose-colored “Ascension,” Brandy’s feathery voice is a perfect complement to Aiko's. The production seems to twinkle as Aiko, “on her way to heaven,” finally makes her peace.
Trip works because it isn't just about self-medicating or journeying through a grief-ridden mind. Rather, it’s about all the places we go to escape from reality and ourselves. It's about the way vices can be found in everything from isolation to sex to outright gambling with life as we search for freedom. Aiko finds salvation in her own transparency and in the people, still alive, who give her a reason to carry on. It all comes back to sustaining the highest high that is love. Love and our insistence on it is the reason for every trip: the backdrop to all experiences, the strongest drug of all.