Album Review: Jhene Aiko’s Surprise Release, ‘Trip’

Jhene Aiko album Trip
Courtesy of Def Jam Recordings

Jhene Aiko
(Def Jam)

R&B songstress Jhene Aiko has been largely off the radar for the past three years, but she made up for lost time this week, dropping a 20-minute long short film and, last night, surprise-releasing a 90-minute long album called “Trip.” (The two projects are related and are accompanied by a poetry book to be released later.) Obviously, a project of that scale is a passionate one for the artist, and surprise-dropping an hour-and-a-half-long album is an ambitious move to say the least. The project was a cathartic one, inspired by the death of Aiko’s brother from cancer in 2012. “I hope to inspire others to share their grief and pain,” she writes in a press release accompanying the album, “because I believe suffering can be alleviated when we understand we are not going through any of it alone.”

While that subject matter is heavy, “Trip” isn’t a bummer; much of it is joyful. The album — which features guest appearances from Big Sean, John Mayer, Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee, Brandy and, er, Chris Brown — comes accompanied by terms like “a 22-song masterwork of love, loss and discovery” and “psychedelic soul opus,” all of which are more or less accurate: Taken on its own terms, it’s a dreamy, innovative, unified and unusual album that can function as either a lean-forward experience with a loose storyline, or an atmospheric-R&B outing that creates an environment all its own.

Musically, the album is very much in line with the alt-R&B of the singer’s previous releases — 2013’s Grammy-nominated EP “Sail Out” and her ensuing album “Souled Out” — as well as recent albums like Solange’s “Seat at the Table” and SZA’s “Cntrl.” But it takes the style of those records and expands on it, and then some: While “Trip” is fairly unprecedented on several levels, its greatest innovation may be the distillation of a kind of ambient R&B, with most of the beats slow, hazy or absent altogether. While the pulsing “Only Lovers Left Alive” (credited to Twenty88, Aiko’s project with Big Sean) features a driving rhythm and a radio-ready melody, most of the songs here are hazy and dreamlike, with light beats, wafting keyboards and Aiko’s voice so present and clear it’s practically like she’s in the room with you. Not unrelatedly, the album’s lyrics and the storyline (not to mention the film) heavily feature drugs as Aiko’s character struggles to accept the loss of her brother: In addition to the album title, songs include “LSD,” “Sativa,” “Bad Trip,” “Psilocybin,” “Overstimulated” and “Oblivion.”

But except for the occasional spoken interlude, it’s not an album that requires the listener to pay attention to the lyrics or the story — it functions equally well as “just” music, an atmospheric and romantic listening experience that won’t rock a party but is ideal for a chill evening at home, Having said that, if controlled substances are involved, make sure the environment is a safe one.