Equipped with an album that drips in explicit drug references, Jhené Aiko took a trip to Auckland to perform an all-ages show at Logan Campbell Centre last night. Exactly as the name suggests, the album Trip is a musical translation of psychedelic drugs and hallucinogenic highs. Having lost her brother Miyagi to cancer in 2012, Jhené combated her grief by turning to drugs, love, and writing - and her journey gave birth to her latest record.
The night began with Aotearoa’s beloved hip-hop diva Ladi6 exciting the crowd with a string of her own groovy hits such as Outta Time, Like Water and Walk Right Up. Ladi6 spiced up the conventional hip-hop and R&B sound with layers of synth and futuristic-sounding electronic tones, but her charismatic onstage presence was the most captivating aspect of it all.
Ladi6 knew how to charm a crowd too, engaging in playful banter with the audience in between songs.
Towards the end of the set, two dancers appeared for one of the songs wearing matching sunglasses as herself, creating quite the spectacle. Engaging and endearing as ever, Ladi6 surely did agitate the energy in the house.
As if the musical references were not sufficiently explicit, Jhené decorated her stage with meter-tall pot plants and colourful flower displays, visually reinforcing to us just what kind of a trip she was taking us on. Her appearance was prefaced by her voice-over warning the crowd about the “trippy visuals and strobing lights” ahead, instructing us to be aware of the nearest exits in case of an emergency. Of course it was tongue-in-cheek, but at one point the warning appeared so sincere that one could have mistakenly interpreted it as a legitimate safety briefing. But the end of that voice-over also marked the end of all traces of sobriety for the rest of the night as she launched us into the trip with LSD, a woozy musical introduction coupled with a video of her walking through a forest in the background.
Wearing a silver coat that hung off her shoulders most of the time to reveal a slinky crop top with a peek-a-boo hole in the middle, Jhené was every definition of sultry (especially at one point when she tantalisingly poured water over her bare torso). When she graced the stage, the crowd clearly liked what they saw as they showed their appreciation with a raucous welcome.
LSD seamlessly eased into the similarly atmospheric Jukai, a track inspired by Japan’s suicide forest that explored the concept of mortality. Complemented by shimmering melodic decorations by the harpist, Jhené’s feathery voice floated above the ambient music, but her tone was in no way a compensation for vocal stability or power as she could also effortlessly belt out notes that would ring throughout the auditorium.
Transitioning to something more pop radio-friendly, While We’re Young was welcomed with deafening cheering from the crowd. Featuring swelling synth sounds that were almost identical to Kendrick Lamar and Zacari’s LOVE., this track was a romantic getaway from her emotional, drug-infused catalogue.
New Balance, Oblivion, and Frequency saw her tapping into a more spiritual and cathartic realm – a space which she has always excelled in. Taking a minimal, stripped-down approach, Jhené’s voice was solely accompanied by the piano as she sung about finding love again after loss in New Balance. Bringing back the ache in Oblivion, she yearned to go back to the time before her world became “a f*cking mess”, only to make the revelation in the bridge that “there’s no lovin’ without losin'” with a slightly dazed and intoxicated slur in her delivery.
With Frequency she delivered the most impassioned performance of the night. Clutching her hands to her chest as she repeatedly pleaded to some higher being to “bless the generation, give them mercy”, her unwavering vocals sent out a powerful message that deeply resonated with the crowd.
Jhené Aiko’s unadulterated, cathartic honesty about her battle with grief and hardship shone as a rarity in the midst of an increasingly “drugged-up” musical culture where drug experiences are often glorified and trivialised to moments of mind-numbing euphoria.
Part way through her set, Jhené took a moment to thank the crowd and informed us that New Zealand has officially bumped Hawaii down to second place as her favourite place - much to the crowd’s delight.
In a heartfelt speech, she talked about the autobiographical nature of her songs while also encouraged us to share our personal stories with one another. Doing exactly that, Jhené delved right back into the abyss with Comfort Inn Ending (Freestyle), a track that she explained was about a story that began in LA but ended in the “sleazy” Comfort Inn. Illuminated by fiery red strobe lights and clouds of fire on the screen, the stage became a furnace as she spat out her anger and regret in brutally honest lyrics while the crowd echoed her rage word-for-word. This was followed by her Grammy-nominated emotional track, The Worst.
Relieving the emotional intensity, Jhené lifted the mood by dabbling in her earlier commercial pop hits such as Bed Peace (inspired by John Lennon and Yoko Ono), Post To Be, and It’s A Vibe. W.A.Y.S. brought a sense of closure and ended the journey on an uplifting note. With a visual display of a horizon behind her, she repeated the line “you gotta keep going” – a mantra for herself but also one for us. The night ended with a few lucky fans being invited onto stage to dance to her pop track OLLA (Only Lovers Left Alive), a collaboration with her current beau Big Sean.
Tossing flowers and branches into the mass like giving a token of her love to the crowd (and later giving away the plants displays on stage after the show), a handful of fans left with a souvenir to remind them of their one-hour trip with Jhené. Even though the rest of us were not blessed with a physical gift, no one went home “empty handed”.
Jhené Aiko’s unadulterated, cathartic honesty about her battle with grief and hardship shone as a rarity in the midst of an increasingly “drugged-up” musical culture where drug experiences are often glorified and trivialised to moments of mind-numbing euphoria. However, from Jhené's "trippy" show, the audience also took home a message about love, family, and hope. Sure, Jhené fashioned her message with a sexy outfit and a psychedelic spectacle, but she was definitely more than meets the eye.