JHENE-AIKO-SAIL-OUTCorey Libow prefers to protest for peace from the couch

R&B sometimes seems strait-jacketed. Rather than displays of vocal strength and musicality, it’s modern variant is often frozen in atmosphere and moody fog. Singers need any edge to appear different or unique and Jhene Aiko instantly sprang to attention due to her work with TDE. Her subdued coo provided sensual balance to Schoolboy Q’s manic carnality and sweetened Ab-Soul’s schemes. But TDE now has a new likeminded singer in the crew with SZA, leaving Ms. Aiko plenty of room to pursue her solo career (and tour with Drake). She’s scored a hit single for Big Sean with Lil Wayne in “Beware” and was one of the few interesting spots on Drake’s monotonous blockbuster.

Sail Out is a product of its time, beats covered in haze while Jhene does her best Aaliyah impression. It works because Jhene manages to sing above the fog instead of getting trapped by the beat. The chemistry between herself and producer Fisticuffs is magical. The beats break open to give her room to breathe at the precise moments when she shifts into the catchiest melodies and then layer on top of themselves to give her verses more emphasis. But what takes this project next level is its connection between the murky atmosphere and the drug addled states that it recalls. The whole EP is clouded in weed smoke with Jhene Aiko hitting the vapors on every song. But the tension is as thick as the marijuana smell, as Jhene tries to hide from her relationship problems by hitting it again and again.

Opening track “The Vapors” finds her saying “The vapors can save us and take us and make us believe that we are free.” It may be a brief affair, but Sail Out zones in on this escapist world, starting in make believe and eventually stripping it all way until Jhene is all alone. In an era where most popular rappers have to emote about their feelings to sell records, it’s thrilling to see Jhene Aiko taking a sideways approach, guarding her emotions rather than selling them as #hashtagmottos. Throughout this project, you never know if her eyes are puffy from crying or bloodshot through self-medication.

When Jhene floats a little too high on the first part of the EP, guest rappers are there to ground her in reality. Vince Staples ignores her cries for attention with a deadpanned “can I hit it again” on “The Vapors.” Childish Gambino points out her nose is running after she finally stopped crying on “Bed Peace.” Kendrick Lamar mirrors her reckless energy, forgoing protection to try to find that initial euphoria. And then as she realizes she’s gotten way too high on “Wth” Ab-Soul’s third eye bursts through the clouds and shows her how to let her soul sail. All of the rappers are in fine form here, but it doesn’t mean that Jhene can’t handle things by herself. The rest of the EP has Jhene addressing her love problems with no other aids. She has an almost Frank Ocean-esque ability to emote while speaking plainly, transforming declarative statements into revelations. She addresses her feelings, owns up to her mistakes, and tries to sail away and move on. On the No I.D. produced closer “Comfort Inn Freestyle” she goes stream of consciousness and tries to triangulate her feelings.

When she sings “And I should’ve never taken you on a boat for your birthday, and I should’ve never fucked you on a boat for your birthday” you can hear her figuring that out in real time. When the tape ends, you just want to turn it back on and go on the journey again with her. Sail Out’s biggest strength might be his brevity. A full album filled with THC-infused musings could get droll and lose interest. It’ll be interesting to see how she develops and fills out an LP. But she’s displayed good instincts on the EP, from the master lesson in pop songwriting on “Bed Peace” to her rapped verse at the end of “The Worst.” So far, Jhene Aiko has proved she can steer her own ship.

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