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Can anyone sing gospel music? This part-Samoan, former YouTube heartthrob aims to find out

Mikael Wood, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES -- In his song "Old AF," get describes feeling, at age 23, as though he's already "old as f -- ."

"Some days I'm running out of breath / Some days I'm running out of time," he sings in a moist, R&B-schooled croon. It's an understandable admission from a young striver who's done a bit of everything in show business, from viral YouTube videos to major-label pop singles to a gig hosting the Radio Disney Music Awards, since he came to Los Angeles a decade ago determined to become a star.

What's surprising about "Old AF" is that the song isn't a throbbing trap cut or a whiny piano ballad but an exuberant gospel number complete with a choir repeatedly setting off that F-bomb behind Aiono.

"I was definitely nervous about asking them to sing it," he recently recalled of the choir with a laugh. "But that's me telling my truth, and what I've learned is that God would rather me be real than right."

With its memories of paying his family's rent and missing school dances in order to work, "Old AF" is the emotional centerpiece of Aiono's proudly audacious new album, "The Gospel at 23," on which this precociously experienced performer traces his bumpy journey through Hollywood (including episodes of substance abuse, depression and empty sex) against the backdrop of his challenged faith as a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"I take Olympic now just to avoid driving past your house," he sings, referring to the Mormon temple on Santa Monica Boulevard, in "Without You," about feeling "too far out to turn back around." In the rousing "These Emotions" he describes days spent hitting his vape pen and nights spent hitting up "every girl in my phone."

 

Then there's "The Medicine," a stately praise song delivered by a damaged guy reclaiming his belief in God: "You can save me from myself before my wounds hurt someone else."

The singer made "The Gospel at 23" with a studio team led by producer Billy Mann, an industry veteran known for his work with Pink and John Legend. The moving result is far more vivid than the handful of nondescript tunes Aiono released in 2017 and 2018, after his teenage success doing covers on YouTube got him signed briefly to Interscope Records. (Aiono put out "The Gospel at 23" last month on his own Become label.)

But at a moment when many view Kanye West's religious awakening with skepticism, the album raises questions about a would-be pop star's appropriation of a cherished African American tradition -- and about how commercially viable such a move may turn out to be.

"If somebody's like, 'Yo, you can't do this,' I'm like, 'I know!'" Aiono, who turned 24 in February, said in a Zoom call from his home. "That's why it's exciting to me -- it doesn't fit anywhere."

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