Maybe the first thing people notice about Jhené Aiko is her tattoos. She has a lot of them, but one, in particular, caught the internet’s wandering eye in early October when Miryam Lumpini, a Los Angeles-based tattoo artist who works under the moniker “The Witch Doctor,” shared on Instagram the art she had inked just above Aiko’s left elbow.
It was an unmistakable portrait of Big Sean, the Detroit rapper that Aiko has been dating since last year. The tattoo features a stoic Sean, clad in a bow tie and tuxedo, and it caught my eye, too, when the 29-year-old singer arrived at The Forge studio in Cypress Park, Los Angeles, for her NYLON photo shoot. Enshrining a romantic partner’s face on your skin is risky business, so when I sat down with Aiko to discuss her latest album, Trip, I had to know what compelled her. “Well, I don’t know if you noticed, but I have a lot of tattoos,” she says, brushing her glossy black hair back behind both ears. “I just love his face. I think his face is perfect.”
If this one tattoo is a love letter to the man Aiko calls “part of my family,” then almost all the others pay tribute in one way or another to a member of her actual family, her late brother Miyagi, who died of cancer on July 19, 2012, at the age of 26. Miyagi, who was two years older than Aiko, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2010. Miyagi’s death along with the birth of her daughter, Namiko Love, are the defining moments of Aiko’s life. Aiko and her brother were glued to each other growing up, sharing a bond that left a profound mark on her life.
It’s a mark that can be found all over her body in the form of tattoos, ranging from his entire name—Miyagi Hasani Ayo Chilombo—scrolled in red cursive just below Aiko’s left collarbone, to the words “Why Aren’t You Smiling?” on her right wrist, a reference to Miyagi’s final tweet, to the seven principles of the samurai—courage, honor, benevolence among them—written vertically in Japanese along her left leg, a code of conduct that Miyagi “really believed in,” says Aiko.
If her tattoos are personal reminders of lives lived—her brother’s, her own—then Trip is meant as a paean to those lives intended for the rest of the world. The record, which Aiko surprise-released on September 21, is a psychedelic, 22-track semi-autobiographical concept album that came accompanied by a short film of the same name, directed by Girls Trip writer Tracy Oliver, and an upcoming collection of poetry, compiled with works dating back to Aiko’s teenage years. “She’s a brilliant writer and storyteller,” Oliver says.
“I was really impressed with her ability to float between so many different mediums with ease: songwriting, poetry, and screenwriting.” Inspired by her brother’s death and influenced by the drugs she was taking to help cope with it, Trip is told from the perspective of Penny, an alter ego born from the nickname Aiko’s great-grandfather gave her after she was born (Aiko has a penny tattooed on her outside left wrist).
“Penny is my true self, the child that’s still within me,” she says. “We all have that seed of that child that’s still in us, so I feel like that’s who I’m getting back to. She was creative, and optimistic, and expressive.” The entire multimedia project, which Aiko calls M.A.P. (an acronym for movie, album, and poetry book), is Aiko’s purest form of expression to date, a fully realized vision of a soul in search of itself, that stands as a creative capstone to a career that began before she was a teenager.