Big Sean and Jhené Aiko both underperform on "TWENTY88."
Last year's Dark Sky Paradise was a big step up for Big Sean. He culled his finest crop of beats yet, finessed natural-sounding collabs out of some of the biggest artists around, and most importantly, finally let go of his goofiest lyrical impulses in favor of more mature songwriting that still didn't sacrifice any of his characteristic charm. It was a promising first step on the path to becoming a true "album artist"-- not just a motormouthed guest verse wild card-- and one that made an even better follow-up seem inevitable.
Jhené Aiko's path in the last few years, on the other hand, has been more of a languid coast than a clear ascent, with her style and songwriting settling into a groove and rarely straying outside of it. Luckily, she does stoned floating over lightly psychedelic neo-soul better than the vast majority of her peers right now. The anticipation for her next move wasn't due to upward trajectory, but rather consistency and an almost complete lack of missteps.
Unfortunately for both parties involved, Sean and Aiko's collab EP TWENTY88 is just that, a misstep. A thirty-minute-long collab project is already a rickety, dubious slat of wood on most artists' rope bridges to success, and what these two just put their feet through is not fit to be a load-bearing rung.
TWENTY88's press release describes the project as "the story of the highs and lows of a relationship, with insights into conflict, memories, love, sex, and more," which is on-point for the most part. Sean and Aiko assume the role of a complex, somewhat realistic couple who always seem to be on the verge of either fighting or fucking, and this is portrayed through tracks with relatively clear concepts, such as opener "Déjà Vu" (about being exes with benefits) or "On The Way" (about a lover who's perpetually sending dubious "otw" texts). This format is pretty intriguing, and has the potential to be an "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"-style scrambled history of a breakup, like Bjork did on her excellent album Vulnicura last year. Instead, TWENTY88 is one of those formulaic ensemble rom-coms like "New Year's Eve" or "Valentine's Day" with Sean and Aiko playing every role. There's no continuity in their story, and not much in the way of the "insights" promised in the press release either.
If it was merely an issue of TWENTY88 not being as conceptually pleasing as it promised to be, it wouldn't be that big of a deal, but the main culprit in that problem is some truly shoddy writing, and is a big deal. Big Sean has made a career off of lyrics existing in the nebulous region between facepalm and "mind=blown" ("My block behind me like I'm coming out the driveway," "We on a roll like we did good in college," etc.), but for the majority of this EP, they're decidedly in the former category. Whether clumsily slipping in "cool kid" references ("I'm from a tribe called questions, I need them answers now like it's test time"), doubling back to make sure people caught his jokes ("You got these people inside of our business like U and I is... You probably didn't even catch that, did you?"), being straight unimaginative ("Looking for some feelings in the lost and found"), or just being an utter cornball ("I might pass out like a pamphlet/You got a candle lit/Cinnamon apple the candle scent"), he makes me cringe quite a few times on this one. But that's nothing compared to some of the clunkers Jhené throws around. Outside of a few bafflingly bad concoctions of her own-- "I'll take you inside outside/Bring your outside inside" is, if you can believe it, supposed to be sexual-- and way too many double entendres, she's just playing dial-a-cliché with romance novels. "Running through my mind," "How deep is our love," "I'm gonna give my all to you," and "Everything that starts has an end," all show up at various places to iron out the project's few traces of specificity and actual detail. To boil it all down to one tell-all observation about the EP's writing, TWENTY88 has more instances of rhyming a word with itself in consecutive lines than any other project I can remember.
If everything else about these eight tracks was just as bad, it'd be easy to write off, but the true tragedy is that TWENTY88 seems like it could have been salvaged if Sean and Aiko just spent some more time writing. Aside from a closing track that takes the "dumbest interpolation of 'London Bridge'" trophy away from Fergie, there are some truly intriguing concepts and song structures here, especially "Talk Show," where our two stars address each other like they're sitting on the couch of a relationship counseling show. Then there's the music itself. Flippa and frequent Sean collaborator Key Wane handle most of the production, and similarly to dvsn's Sept. 5th, they do an excellent job of updating classic R&B sounds into something sleek and modern. Sampling from sources as varied as Xscape, British DJ Mat Zo, old jazz standard "Sentimental Journey," and an effortlessly breezy '70s soul deep cut, they do a much better job than the vocalists at deploying a bunch of disparate elements for the end goal of creating something thematically linked but episodic. Wane has been steadily building on a Graduation-era Kanye sound for years now, and his work here is yet another marked improvement on his past discography; I had never heard of Flippa before this, but he's just as impressive. They both seem to have put a ton of time into flipping samples, constructing beats, and structuring songs, and it's disappointing when it doesn't feel like the people on the other side of the boards put in nearly as much work.
The sad coincidence of TWENTY88 is that it's just as much of a mess as the relationship it describes. Big Sean and Jhené Aiko have had chemistry on tracks like "I Know" and "Beware," but something didn't click between them when they put their heads together for a full joint project. If there's a bright side in all of this, it's that TWENTY88 is pretty far off from what either of them attempt with their solo work-- Sean's usually not this romance-focused, and Aiko's clearly out of her neo-soul comfort zone-- so hopefully this shouldn't disrupt either career that much. Hopefully in a few years, this EP is just a crazy ex in both artists' rearviews.