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Executive of the Week: Def Jam Senior VP Urban Promotion & Artist Relations Natina Nimene

Days after Jhene Aiko released her expansive third album, Chilombo, last March, large portions of the United States shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. The R&B veteran had to celebrate a No. 2 debut on the Billboard 200 chart while in quarantine, and weeks later, was forced to postpone her Magic Hour Tour across North America in support of the project.

Yet Chilombo overcame the unusual circumstances of 2020 and has proven to be a breakthrough project for the 32-year-old Aiko, who focused the album on summoning personal strength post-breakup and used crystal alchemy sound bowls to help craft its sound. Critical acclaim for Chilombo upon its release was followed by three Grammy nominations for the project, including an Album of the Year nod that marks Aiko’s first appearance in the Big Four categories.

Meanwhile, “B.S.,” the album’s sumptuous centerpiece featuring H.E.R., has become a smash for Aiko at R&B/hip-hop radio, notching its fifth week atop Billboard’s Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart this week and becoming her first No. 1 as a lead artist on Rhythmic Airplay. Although Aiko has enjoyed other hits at the format, including the prior Chilombo single “P*ssy Fairy (OTW),” “B.S.” represents one of the most significant radio wins of Aiko’s career — and could help her longtime label, Def Jam, deliver the singer-songwriter to Top 40 listeners.

The sustained success of “B.S.” has helped Natina Nimene, Def Jam’s senior vp of urban promotion and artist relations, earn the title of Billboard’s Executive of the Week, as Aiko’s momentum continues to establish her as an indispensable voice in R&B. Here, Nimene discusses how “B.S.” broke through, the significance of Chilombo’s Album of the Year Grammy nod and bringing Aiko to a wider audience in 2021.

Jhene Aiko’s “B.S.” has spent five weeks atop the Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart. What key decisions did you make to help her achieve this feat?

Once our first single “On The Way (P***y Fairy)” entered the top 10 at urban radio, we collectively got together and decided that “B.S.” was the best choice for a follow-up single. It was a choice driven by gut instincts, good feedback from programmers and impressive streaming data. We were calculated, intentional and deliberate. There were times where we hit a wall, but we stayed committed and stuck it out long enough for the research to come back positive. We were confident it would.

At what point did you realize that “B.S.” was going to be a breakthrough for Jhene at that radio format?

There was a moment where this record just felt different than others we had taken to the format. Jhene has certainly had success; she had a No. 1 record with [2014 single] “The Worst,” she’s had top five and top 10 records with “Sativa” and “P*ssy Fairy,” but everything aligned with this single. The incredible research started to pour in, more asks and requests from radio partners began to come in and the press and praise for the album was amazing. That along with other variables officially established her as a core artist at the format, which was always our goal.

Does Def Jam plan on bringing Jhene to Top 40 radio? 

My friend and colleague, [Def Jam executive vp/head of promotion] Nicki Farag, and her team absolutely plan on crossing her over as it’s time for the mainstream world to embrace Jhene. We have been developing her for seven years, and to be nominated for Album of the Year is a feat to be celebrated and amplified!

Jhene’s album Chilombo is a sprawling R&B project that also contains explorations into hip-hop, pop and modern soul. What was Def Jam’s strategy to help cater to R&B listeners while also expanding outward to new audiences?

The album certainly explores different genres, but this is nothing new for Jhene. She’s an artist’s artist and if you go back to her previous projects, you can hear all sorts of influences. Strategy-wise, we wanted to dial in to her very loyal fan base by releasing multiple pieces of content for each song, and space out the cadence patiently. Jhene’s projects are very personal to her and her approach is very methodical. Word of mouth, constant airplay and tons of dynamic content has helped expand her to a larger audience. The beautiful thing about R&B songs is that while they may take longer to break, they have staying power. Def Jam’s strategy and commitment to work this song over a four-month campaign not only ensured “B.S.” reached its highest height, but also broadened Jhene’s audience as well.

Chilombo was released in the first week of March 2020, days before the U.S. shutdown due to COVID-19. How was the promotion of “B.S.” impacted by the pandemic?

In our case, specifically, I’m not sure the shutdown really impacted our promotion. Again, Jhene is methodical and particular about what she’ll do. She wants to lead the conversation more with art and creativity than bells and whistles. Our job was to make believers and keep them believing long enough for the record to talk back.

Chilombo scored a Grammy nod for Album of the Year. What does a nomination like that represent for an artist like Jhene?

One thing I love and have always loved about Jhene is that she stays true to herself and her gift. She doesn’t try to do what’s “popular,” she makes music that feeds her soul and her fans. To be your true authentic self and still get this kind of acknowledgement and recognition is a great example for other artists and a lesson that shows them that they don’t have to change who they are to be a success.

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