When Mila J rolled up in her “Smoke, Drink, Break-Up” video—riding shotgun in a so-Cali old school, three dancer homegirls in tow like a choreographed scene from Set It Off—you couldn’t help but wonder: Who’s that girl? Yet for many, the catchy hit, which featured Ty Dolla $ign, Kirko Bangz and Problem on the remix, represented a full-circle comeback for the L.A. singer, who happens to be the real-life big sister to millennial truth-teller Jhené Aiko.
Second chances are uncommon in the fickle music industry. Yet here we find the 32-year-old beauty—who grew up in girl groups Dame Four and Gyrl (both Chris Stokes-helmed troupes) before going solo in the mid-2000s. The ’06 release date of her debut album, a rapped-sung collision dubbed Split Personality, came and went, the project ultimately being shelved. Mila then took a musical hiatus to find herself artistically.
“During that break, I actually had time to say, ‘Well, who are you?’ ” Mila remembers of her time having a “normal life,” when she worked at a luxury day spa. “You need to find that out before you can tell anybody else.”
She later rebranded as Japollonia and dropped a mixtape of the same name in 2012. Yet last year, Mila J returned officially for the first time. With “Smoke, Drink, Break-Up” smoldering, and a cheeky cameo on Trey Songz’s Trigga album (“Disrespectful”), she dropped her own five-track M.I.LA. EP in October—building anticipation for her proper, long-awaited first album. EBONY.com dialed up Mila J to discuss her inevitable collaboration with baby sis Jhené, her love of country music, and how she got into character for Trey’s ode to infidelity.
EBONY: 2014 was a huge year for you. What was it like recording the M.I.L.A. EP?
Mila J: It was cool. I recorded everything in L.A. The hardest part was narrowing down. I wanted to make sure each song was a different side of me. Doing visuals for all of them made that much more exciting.
EBONY: “Champion” is one song that sticks out. It’s reminiscent of your Split Personality days—you do a rapping, Migos-like flow.
MJ: Well, I’m still not rapping though.
EBONY: It’s sort of sing-rapping though, right?
MJ: That doesn’t count as rapping [laughs]. I’m always changing my mind. I might change my mind and do a whole rap mixtape, you never know.
EBONY: Do you still rap just playing around?
MJ: Yeah, in the car we’ll freestyle and do all kinds of stuff. My dancers, we have lots of downtime in the car. So I’ll put on a beat and we’ll freestyle just for fun. But the crazy part is that it’s really good when I’m playing. So we’ll see, maybe I’ll do it for real.
EBONY: How do you describe your music?
MJ: My music is R&B. It has a hip-hop influence, because lyrically I’m a little more edgy, and I did start off rapping. I’m just a recording artist. I change moods so much. If I do want to do a pop ballad, why not? I like everything. That’s why I told you I might have a rap album. I love country [music], to be honest. I would love to do something country. I don’t want to pigeonhole myself.
EBONY: Who is your favorite country artist?
MJ: Rascal Flatts is super dope to me.
EBONY: What is it about country music that you gravitate towards?
MJ: It’s simple, but they tell thorough stories. It’s very simple and emotional. Almost like rap or R&B, just a different version. I love the storytelling of country writers, they’re some of the best. You see everything play out. It’s conversational but straight to the point. People get in my car and be crackin’ up because I’ll play 2Pac and then a country song comes on.
EBONY: When you were a kid, you appeared in Prince’s “Diamonds and Pearls” video. You must’ve been geeked when he sampled you on “U Know,” from last year’s Art Official Age.
MJ: Are you kidding me? It’s still a shocking moment for me. I knew he sampled me because I had to sign off, but I wasn’t told what it would be used for, and this is almost two years ago when I put the mixtape out. It was a song called “Blinded.” I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t know if it’d get used. My friend sent me a link to Soundcloud, like, I think you’re on Prince’s new song. I was trippin’ out.
EBONY: What’s your favorite Prince song?
MJ: Not just because I’m in the video, but “Diamonds and Pearls.” But also I really love “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” He has too many; his catalog is crazy.
EBONY: What would you say that you’ve taken from his music or artistry?
MJ: That’s who my father played in the house, so naturally I knew who he was and what he was about. That was one of my first concerts that I went to. So overall, just how innovative he is. Every project is different, super creative. Even the way he’ll sing or the way he’ll use his voice, it’s just different. It’s fearless. He was never scared to stay in one lane. And he dances, too. To me he’s an all-around entertainer.
EBONY: When you were taking your hiatus, did you always know you were coming back to music in some capacity?
MJ: Yeah. For me, I never got to the point where I was like, “I quit, I can’t take it.” Mine was just like, I need a break. The first time I was solo was by default. The group [Dame Four] broke up and [the label] still wanted to keep me signed. Everything was going without me saying, “Wait, wait, wait,” and figuring out who I was as an artist. I started off as a rapper, so I had to get more comfortable and confident in singing. And standing on my own, because I was always in groups. That takes time. Sometimes you need a break and then you get rejuvenated, hit the refresh button and you’re good.
EBONY: Fans are expecting a collaboration between you and your sister, Jhené Aiko. What do you think that’s going to sound like?
MJ: I’m looking forward to us doing something. When it makes sense, though. Right now, everyone wants us to do it just because we’re sisters. But naturally, it’s just like any family: [We] kind of talk alike and you can find similarities in our voices even though our styles are different. So I know it will sound dope because we’ll compliment each other as far as our voices. We used to do that always in the car anyway, harmonizing and singing almost any song imaginable. Especially Jagged Edge; that’s just what we liked to do for fun. It just has to be right because everyone wants that. It’s like that pressure of when R. Kelly and Jay Z go on the Best of Both Worlds tour. Just because it’s called that, they want you to walk on water because they’re expecting so [much]. It’ll be something dope though.
EBONY: Do you think you’ll go more into her world or vice versa, or somewhere in the middle?
MJ: It’ll definitely be in the middle.
EBONY: You’ve already worked with Trey Songz on “Disrespectful,” a record about cheating, from his latest album. Have you ever been in a situation like that?
MJ: [Sigh] OK, I’ll say this. We’ve all been in disrespectful situations. But it wasn’t as far as washing the side man’s clothes. But I have been really disrespectful once that I will claim; that was pretty bad. It was like some R. Kelly stuff. I’m not proud of that. You live and you learn. I thought it was dope though—for entertainment purposes—that subject matter. It was different. You almost root for it because of the way the song sounds. I compare it to Scandal. You don’t realize you’re rooting for a side chick [laughs]. Sometimes you meet the wrong person at the right time and you end up with that person and then you meet the right person and then you’re stuck. So you’re like, “What do I do?” [laughs]
EBONY: How will your full-length project be different from the EP?
MJ: I don’t think it’s going to be a completely different world. It’ll be a step up, because I’m always recording and striving to evolve and do something better. I just hope it shows you growth. Even down to the videos. It’s like, I’m dancing but next video I always want to be doing something challenging myself, more than anything. Competing with the old me.
John Kennedy is a writer, editor and tortured Knicks fan who represents Queens, but stays out in Brooklyn. He’s written for Vibe, Billboard and XXL. Tweet him at @youngJFK. (Nas slander will get you blocked.)