“Different people come up to me and they let me know what my music means to them,” says the Grammy nominee. “And so with Chilombo, I just really took that into consideration.”

By Marcus Jones
January 04, 2021 at 09:00 PM EST
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Credit: Carrington Mitchell

Grammy nominations morning was a bittersweet one for Jhené Aiko. An hour after learning she was up for some of the biggest awards of her career — including Album of the Year for her third record, the curative Chilombo — Aiko found out that her uncle had passed away. 

“We were in our own little world,” she says of her and partner Big Sean; at the time the two were on vacation but absorbed the awards news separately. “I was talking with my family about my uncle as well as answering people’s Grammy stuff. To be honest, it was a weird, out-of-body kind of moment, which is usually how I live my life.” 

Typically, Aiko responds to big events — both good and bad — with a sense of confusion. To clear her head, she’ll often put her thoughts down on paper. “I started off always feeling like I needed to write what I was feeling, and then turn it into a poem, and then turn them into songs eventually,” she explains. “That’s how I approach every album.” 

The difference in making Chilombo, though, was in finally recognizing her own power as an artist, thanks to the feedback she received from fans. “Different people come up to me and they let me know what my music means to them, and what it helps them with,” she says. “And so with Chilombo, I just really took that into consideration.” 

One of the methods Aiko decided to incorporate into each song was the use of sound bowls. “Because I have been studying sound healing, I did want this album to have an actual, proven healing technique in every track. Not only could people listen to it and relate, it could also balance out different parts of their body, [make them] feel better, and have it actually be an experience to listen to the songs.” 

When it came time to release a deluxe edition of Chilombo, Aiko’s typical recording process made it easier for her to add new tracks and remixes. “When I record songs, I usually do like 10 versions,” she shares. “I keep remixing them because I want to hear it with a different instrument, pace, or whatever, and so a lot of the songs that you hear on Chilombo have about, literally, between six and ten different versions.”

Aiko’s favorite example of this is “Born Tired,” a song she says her fans really connected to in 2020 because “even though it's talking about being tired, it’s also very optimistic. And it's really about pushing through and finding that fire and that energy to continue on your journey.” The track originally had a longer runtime, and Aiko decided to cut out certain parts. But while putting together the deluxe edition, she remembered “Wait, I have these full sections. Why don't we just put a new beat to it and make it a new song?” And so “Down Again” was born from the remnants of “Born Tired." The new track also gave her the opportunity to collaborate with Wiz Khalifa, an artist she’d long been in discussions with about working together.

The success of Chilombo — along with its Grammy nominations, the record bowed at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 — and the reality of America still being in quarantine have only further pushed Aiko to continue writing about anything and everything. For one, she has her sights on a new album from Twenty88, her ongoing collaboration with Big Sean — even if it’s more of an idea right now than an actual project. “In [a] time that most people perceive as dark or chaotic, that’s where I find my inspiration. That’s when I’m my most creative,” she says. “So I’m not saying that I’m hoping for another crazy year, but whatever happens, there’s always something to be inspired by.”

The 63rd Grammy Awards will air Jan 31, 2021 on CBS

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