This article originally appeared in Mindful Melody Issue 5, which you can read here.
Firstly, I have to give props to my Co-Founder for his Issue 4 article where he outlined his new ‘Malibu Theory’. This essentially says that sometimes we can hear a piece of music and it not leave much of an impression, but then we hear it again a few months later and we absolutely fall in love with it.
I listened to most of Jhene Aiko’s Chilombo last year, and don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it. But it didn’t really deal me that sonic sucker punch that I usually need to get hooked on an album. However, roughly a year on, I’ve got Chilombo on repeat.
I think this is because Aiko’s third studio album is aggressively chilled, in the sense that each track is pointedly peaceful and trance-like. So to properly receive this project, you have to be ready to immerse yourself in the calming, still waters of Chilombo, knowing that there won’t really be a moment on the 29-song album where Jhené takes you above the surface.
It’s interesting, because the core message of Mindful Melody is that music can be healing, and I wholeheartedly believe that. But Chilombo underlines to me that this is a two-way process. Listening to this project undoubtedly has a hugely relaxing effect, and you can’t help but let your mind slow down to match the pace of the meandering beats and ethereal vocals. However, because it’s so intensely tranquil, you have to be in a receptive mindset in order to allow yourself to get lost in the album.
For example, when I first heard this album, it was during that period of lockdown where every artist under the sun seemed to be releasing music. So I was in the frame of mind where I’d be trying out new songs, but if it didn’t hit me in that first thirty seconds or so, then it was dispatched to join my mounting ‘skip’ heap (see what I did there?).
Now, a year on, where New Music Friday seems to have become a little less hotly anticipated (and the excitement of any new release is tempered by the disappointment that Drake still hasn’t dropped Certified Lover Boy), my musical mindset seems to have changed. And this meant I was more willing to take the deep dive into Jhené’s soulful project.
And I’m so glad that I returned to Chilombo. Although it’s billed as a break-up album, the prevailing mood throughout is one of serenity, with Jhené bringing the listener along for each step of her spiritual journey. The composition is often pared down to Aiko’s haunting, other-worldly vocals laid bare over a sparse piano sample, and this minimalism emphasises that the goal of this project is simple - to bring an overwhelming sense of calm.
What makes this album even more intriguing from a mental health perspective is the fact that, on every track on Chilombo, Jhené incorporates sound healing techniques through the use of singing bowls, which are said to target specific chakras and help us gain a greater spiritual balance. Whether or not you believe in this kind of thing, and I don’t want to sound overdramatic, but listening to Chilombo does genuinely feel like a healing experience.
Each track conveys a beautiful sense of quietude and equanimity. Okay, I accept that this might not sound special, because a lot of neo-soul and contemporary R&B albums have a laid-back and peaceful ambience. But what sets Chilombo apart is that it has an edge. R&B starlet Pink $weats just dropped a hugely mellow, saccharine album, and the whole project is glued together by this rose-tinted, bubblegum feel. But taken as a whole, it’s a little one-dimensional, and I would struggle to pick out any individual tracks that really caught my attention.
Yes, Chilombo is all about finding peace, but it takes you through the turmoil and the self-examination that precedes this, rather than just packaging up that one emotion and spreading it thinly across the tracks. Take ‘Triggered’ for example, which is musically serene, but finds Jhené firing venomous warning shots to an ex-lover (“You are my enemy/You are no friend of mine, motherf***er”). ‘Triggered’ is seamlessly followed by ‘None of your concern’, which continues dissecting the wrong-turns of a past relationship (“Is it gonna work? Am I being heard anymore?”). It’s unique in that it plays out like a therapy session, with the surprising plot twist that the ex - Big Sean - turns up with a verse at the end of the song to offer his two cents (“You know there’s not a day in these modern times you haven’t crossed my mind/We both crossed the line”).
It epitomises an album that celebrates vulnerability and openness. Every track feels refreshingly - and often evocatively - unfiltered, and that applies to the optimistic tracks on Chilombo just as much as it does to the more melancholic ones. Personally, I find that peace can sometimes be mistaken for apathy, and we think that in trying to achieve a sense of calm, we’re supposed to become passive and languid.
But on this album, Aiko reminds listeners that being peaceful does not mean you should stop having fun and feeling excitement. There’s a real sense of energy and joyful passion that shines through on tracks such as ‘Speak’ and ‘LOVE’, and this is taken even further in the form of the unvarnished, carnal desire of ‘On the way’ and ‘Come on’.
This uncensored directness with which Aiko sings sometimes threatens to break the hazy, meditative mood of Chilombo, but before long she brings the focus back to the gentle lull of her singing bowls.
The other quality that sets this project apart from similar offerings from the new crop of R&B artists, in my view, is the thematic arc it maintains. When creating so-called ‘vibey’ music, artists often get stuck in this same lane throughout the whole project.
Aiko, on the other hand, takes on a clearly defined journey, from the accusatory and angry opening tracks (‘Triggered’, ‘None of your concern’); to the optimism of ‘Speak’; followed by some flexing and self-celebration (‘B.S.’, ‘Happiness Over Everything’); before ending up on a satisfying note of reconciliation (‘Magic Hour’).
The key moment comes during ‘Mourning Doves’, which for me is the centrepiece of the album. Aiko hears doves singing, and she interprets them to be ‘mourning’ and ‘crying over’ the lost love between her and Sean. But then the song evolves into a moving realisation that “The doves weren’t crying/They only were trying/To tell us to try it again”. Not that it necessarily matters for the album experience, but in real life, Sean and Jhené have actually gotten back together, adding some heartwarming authenticity to Chilombo’s happy ending.
Chilombo is packed full of beautiful moments, and I can’t think of another project in the charts right now that feels quite as soothing and fulfilling on so many different levels. It’s an album that is actively geared towards healing and helping the listener to be still. I want to emphasise one point above all - to appreciate Chilombo, you don’t have to be an R&B fan, and you don’t have to be spiritual. Because at its heart is a simple goal of finding peace - and given the tumultuous times we’re living in, I don’t think any of us would say no to a little calm and stillness.
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