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Jhené Aiko Fumbles with "Chilombo"

The singer's third album is filled with lyrical meandering, and not much else.

Back in 2017, Jhené Aiko sat down with Billboard to discuss the tepid reception to her sophomore album, Trip.

"I was working so long on it and there's so many layers to it–it did feel a little like, 'Oh, hey, no one noticed all [that] hard work..." she said. "At the end of the day, I have to check in with myself and ask why do I really make music?... It's not about accolades and attention." The day before, Aiko had released her first-ever poetry book, 2Fish, and was gearing up for a supporting book tour. "I think that there is depth in simplicity. I feel like there's genius in simplicity," she said of her writing process. "At the same time, it's very personal and very much so comes from my heart."

On Chilombo, Aiko's third outing, she embodies these statements quite literally. Her two lead singles, "Triggered" and "None of Your Concern," border more on spoken word poetry than sultry R&B and were poorly received as a result. "When is someone gonna have an honest conversation about the mid that Aiko is dropping?" said Joe Budden. As a pair, the tracks were indistinguishable from each other; both relied on soft 808's and breezy piano chords, both thematically dissected her tumultuous on-and-off-again relationship with Big Sean, and both hooks were heavily camouflaged, bogged down by Aiko's lyrical meandering. The songs sacrificed their musicality for Aiko's message.

The remaining 18-tracks are much of the same. Slow, brooding instrumentals, with Aiko taking front and center with loosely-stitched anecdotes of love, heartbreak, and self-realization. "Life's no fairytale, I know all too well," she sings on Chilombo's most buoyant track "Tryna Smoke." "Gotta plant the seed sometime, then you let it grow." The lyrical content continues as such, much of it reading as corny self-help quotes. "Whenever I'm feeling low, anytime there is a void," she croons on "LOVE," "I choose to fill it with joy." Even some well-placed features can barely resuscitate the album's weakest moments. Miguel and Future, despite their best efforts, can't save "H.O.E."–which stands for "Happiness Over Everything"–from bordering on mawkish, and John Legend's fluttered crooning on "Lightning & Thunder" doesn't save the track from its stiffness.

While Aiko has prided herself on her brevity, she minces her words–and often her production– to her detriment here. Trip explored the experiences of grief riddled drug use and described the way different drugs brought on different stages of the grieving process, while Chilombo barely touches on its themes of self-love. Aiko's best moments have come from when she's loosened up, but for now, they'll have to settle for: "It's a party on a boat, somebody make some gumbooo!"

Still, Chilombo feels like a personal step forward for Aiko. She has spoken extensively on how she's grown to really love herself, and the album cover is a testament to that change. She is literally glowing, facing forward, moving forward, and learning to accept her creative process for what it is. It's a beautiful experience to watch, and in hindsight, it seems that Chilombo was created during an epiphany for Aiko as a human being, and that's a very valuable thing.