Big Sean and Jhene Aiko live in the shadows. I don’t mean that in a positive, atmospheric sort of way. Aiko is undoubtedly best known for her features — either for quality, like Drake’s “From Time,” or for topical gimmicks, like Omarion’s “Post To Be” (“he gotta eat the booty like groceries”). Sean, on the other hand, seems to thrive on the fringes of his own projects, his biggest moments arriving as tag-alongs to more prominent artists, like “Blessings,” which buzzed thanks to Drake and Kanye, and “Control,” which is memorable only for Kendrick. Sean and Aiko have a habit of appearing like decorative bows on the successes of others, colorful, if non-essential. 

With both artists inhabiting similar spaces, it makes sense that Aiko and Sean have shown chemistry before. “Beware” from Sean’s Hall of Fame, was a momentary highlight from the two, a side by side love-lament as they do best. But the two have less in common as artists than meets the eye, and TWENTY88, their joint project, finds the two realizing this deficit.

This helps explain the sole focus of this project: the romantic life of twenty-somethings. There seems to be little else the two can find common ground on, and thus they settle on cultivating a pretend, media-tailored relationship, reminiscent of the fake marriage between Drake and Nicki Minaj. It’s reality television meets the music industry. Tabloid-pushing aside, there are moments when the chemistry works nonetheless. Opening track “Déjà Vu” sees Aiko and Sean playing into each other’s strengths, Aiko’s no-games mentality (“Tonight you gon’ learn / it’s your turn”) balancing Sean’s playful-to-a-fault worldview (“No but for real, how’s ya sister / Hit her up, tell her I miss her”). While “Beware” kept their voices on separate planes, they melt into one another here, sharing the spotlight.

But that interplay begins to feel tired as the project progresses, teetering on dull. There’s only so much they both have to say, no matter how much surface-level innovation they attempt to bring. Take “Talk Show,” for example, where Aiko and Sean act as a couple appearing on a television talk show, arguing back and forth. The concept is interesting on paper, and is unique enough to break up the monotony the album falls into. After a single listen, though, there’s little to come back to, its new toy shine worn out.

Any hope that these artists would push each other to new heights now seems ill-conceived. Aiko is at her best on airy, impressionist tracks, her voice occasionally bringing a lingering, ethereal quality, as on “Wth” and “The Worst.” That atmosphere is never even attempted here, as she grounds herself to equate her voice with Sean’s. For Sean’s part, this joint project feels like a reach toward R&B. He leaves behind his base of almost joke rap, which produced some of his best works (“Paradise”), bringing along the lyrical clunkers, but too often without the confident flow to accompany. On “Selfish,” he half-sings “You know I’m from a tribe called questions / I need them answers now like it’s test time.” It’s lazily constructed and awkward, indicative of the level of rapping Sean reaches on TWENTY88.

The sum is a frustratingly reductive album, a result found far too often when major artists collaborate on joint albums. Ideally this should work: “Let’s take two famous artists, throw them together and figure something great will happen!” But the compromises in style that must be made can be too great to transcend. TWENTY88 falls into this trap. 

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