I published my first album review! It’s also the first thing I’ve ever published for a Yale publication. Actually, any publication. Thank you, Joe for being desperate enough to commission me. Read it here at the Herald. Also below:
Before Detroit rapper Big Sean and LA singer/songwriter Jhené Aiko became hip-hop duo Twenty88 and released their self-titled debut EP, they had already collaborated successfully several times. Aiko was thrice featured on Big Sean tracks, including “Beware,” an upbeat, though cautionary song about love featured on 2013’s Hall of Fame and “I Know,” a brooding, sparsely-produced number on 2015’s Dark Sky Paradise.
Twenty88 (the duo and the album) is thus built on a proven concept. Big Sean, a Kanye West protégé and GOOD Music signee, is a gifted rapper with a melodic voice and moments of technical brilliance. He’s fun to listen to and it’s precisely because he’s accessible and you don’t have to strain too hard to understand his songs. Jhené Aiko’s smooth and sultry vocals add emotional depth and sensitivity to Big Sean’s lighthearted, comedic qualities. But while this album does capitalize on existing synergy, it never realizes the duo’s full potential.
Twenty88 starts off strong with the opening track “Deja Vu,” which immediately recalls “I Know” when Big Sean and Jhené Aiko sing/rap the opening chorus in unison over melodic, punchy production. The track works. It’s catchy, with Big Sean and Jhené doing exactly what we expect them to do.
However, the second track, “Selfish,” shows some cracks as soon as Big Sean starts singing the opening verse. Big Sean is not a bad singer per se, but his voice sounds thin and slightly ragged, especially when contrasted to Aiko’s velvety pipes. Aiko, seems relegated to the role of featured artist, unfortunately, and I found myself wishing she had a more prominent part in these songs.
Midway through the album’s eight tracks, it’s hard not to notice a pattern. Each track starts with and is built on top of appealing, if uninspired, production. Sean and Aiko take turns rapping and singing about relationships with verses and hooks addressed to male and female caricatures of shallow lovers. Finally, for good measure, their voices are layered together for a catchy chorus in unison. The only track that breaks this formula is “Talk Show,” which features a skit based on late-night TV. But this track is not particularly interesting between Aiko’s dull speaking lines and Big Sean’s static and often cringe-inducing lines: “What’s the difference between real love and fake love / The same difference between real titties and fake ones / You can feel the difference.”
Overall, if the album’s goal is to capture the same crowd-pleasing sound that worked on this pair’s previous efforts, tracks like “2 Minute Warning” and “Memories Faded” are strong successors to “Beware” and “I Know.” “Déjà Vu” is a strong track that’s memorable and enjoyable, but listening to its seven different iterations in succession feels like, well, déjà vu.
While it’s disappointing that the album doesn’t push the artistic boundaries of either its collaborators, Twenty88 is generally satisfying. Twenty88 is a sum of it’s individual parts—Big Sean and Jhené Aiko—nothing more, nothing less. If you’re someone who enjoys these two artists, the familiarity and consistency of both is enough to keep Twenty88 afloat, even when neither artist is particularly inspired.