Thursday, April 7, 2016

album review: 'twenty88' by big sean & jhene aiko

When I first heard about this project, I thought it was a joke.

And by now you all should know how I feel about these two acts, but in case you don't, Jhene Aiko is probably the one with whom you're a little less familiar. If you do remember her, it's probably for being the best part of that godawful Omarion and Chris Brown track 'Post To Be', although that really isn't saying much given that track landed on my top ten worst hit songs of 2015. And what made it so much worse is that just a year earlier, Jhene Aiko was an R&B star was entirely behind, riding a few pretty songs and EPs to her debut Souled Out, which is one of my favourite R&B albums of the 2010s! Smart, beautifully performed and produced, it had so much goddamn promise - and it did precisely nothing on the charts in terms of singles, even though the record did sell well.

So I understand if Jhene Aiko wanted to network and get a boost for her career... but did it have to be Big Sean of all people? Those of you who saw my Dark Sky Paradise review know that I'm no fan of this guy, who somehow manages to squander the backing and production of Kanye West with some of the corniest and sloppily written bars you'll find in mainstream hip-hop. I'm not going to deny he's made a few songs I like, but the songs I don't like, to quote my buddy Anthony Fantano... (stream of inarticulate 'nos').

So on that note, I shouldn't even be surprised that Jhene Aiko and Big Sean were apparently long time friends, even if it does kind of depress me. It's like remembering that Ariana Grande used to date Big Sean, and that he also dated Naya Rivera from Glee, it just makes me so sad for every woman involved, they can do so much better. But enough tabloid nonsense, apparently they put together a project. And I debated even covering it, given that it was technically considered an EP. But then again, it's a half hour long, Jhene Aiko clearly saw something in this project that's worth while, and Big Sean has been slowly becoming a better rapper, so I decided to check out TWENTY88 - how did it go?

Here's the funny thing about this project: there's going to be a lot of people checking out this record because they know Big Sean, and yet it's not a project that plays to many of his obvious characteristics, namely his humour or his occasional pileup of bars. I get the impression this is much more driven by Jhene Aiko, in the production and especially the writing... and yet it doesn't feel like a record that was made for Big Sean in mind at all. As such, it doesn't quite play to either artist's strengths quite as well as it could, the sort of project that has moments and even subtext and nuance if you read between the lines, but doesn't really measure up to what it could have been.

So let's start with Big Sean, and I'll be completely honest here: even though I'm not a fan of the guy, this is probably the consistently structured his bars have ever been. With rare exception - the songs 'Two Minute Warning' and 'Memories Faded' as Big Sean again crams too many words into haphazard cadences - his flows hold together and actually rhyme. And that technical proficiency lets him focus more on his delivery and emotive control, because this is a record that demands subtlety. And I'll give him points for trying, especially towards the ending of this record on 'London Bridge' where the sentiments lean into his corniness and actually makes it come across as heartfelt. And yet on the flipside, he's just as convincing when blasting girls that stand him up or put him on blast like on 'Selfish' or 'Talk Show' - yeah, it's bitter and unattractive, but in the context of the album it fits. And yet the midpoint of this record... okay, you need to be able to believe that Big Sean could in a million years hook up with Jhene Aiko, and yet when it comes to sexuality and poise, she's on a different level than him, more melodic and smooth but just as capable of real emotive complexity that can be just as cruel. She's capable of not just more range, but real subtlety, and you get the impression, both from the flows that Big Sean hops on and Jhene Aiko's own press statements, that she would have much preferred to get Drake opposite her on this EP, which might have felt like a much more even match. It certainly would have helped the sung portions, because while Big Sean doesn't embarrass himself, he's not adding much to these parts either.

Granted, I'm not sure the production does them many favours, because it tries to meet in the middle between Big Sean and Jhene Aiko and doesn't completely flatter either. I did appreciate the Mat Zo sample flipped with real bass and guitar on 'Selfish', the dark bassy swell with gleaming fragments on the sex jam 'Push It', the flipped soul sample from The Natural Four on 'Talk Show' that ebbs darker as the track proceeds into uglier territory, or the watery backing melody that builds off the faded swell of stirngs and rumbling darker beat on 'London Bridges' with a really great outro. But look, when Jhene Aiko released Souled Out, the main producer behind it was No ID, who brought a layer of depth and texture that the producers here can't really match, especially in the cymbals which vary from the very brittle but clean tone on 'Memories Faded' to a much dirtier sound on 'Deja Vu'. And that's before we get to the backing vocals, most of which are wedged through a cavalcade of cheaply compressed vocal effects that don't nearly blend as well as they should, the worst case being the mess of 'Two Minute Warning', with Detail, K-Ci and JoJo contributing more backing vocals to an already overloaded track, especially with that thin gurgle of synth. But the larger issue is that for as many times as I've gone through this record, none of the instrumentation really jumped off the page to stand out much melodically - it's good, it contributes towards a cohesive sound, but nothing that grabbed me in the same way standalone Big Sean or Jhene Aiko instrumentals have in the past.

Now this leaves us the content and themes, the question of the album's narrative if there even is one. And that assumes you manage to get past the clunky lines from both artists - Big Sean fares the worst as he describes how he micromanages sex or with the mall cops reference on 'Talk Show', and with Jhene mixing her sports metaphors to confusing football and baseball and cutting off her flow midbar on 'Memories Faded' to tell Big Sean to come screw her in the car. But reading past those lines, you could see a narrative to this release, with 'Deja Vu' opening with Big Sean and Jhene Aiko reminiscing over a phone call that actually plays out with believable chemistry. Hell, if we're looking for the one element that makes this project worth a listen, it definitely comes through in the chemistry between these two, and many of the stark parallels between them, particularly in their flaws. Because despite how self-assured, open, and decidedly plain-spoken they are, they're also both selfish, jealous, arrogant, over-dramatic, and have no problem airing each other's dirty laundry in public, as we see in stark detail on 'Talk Show' where they both out each other cheating. On some level a relationship between them would be absolute hell - something which I get the feeling Jhene Aiko knows all along and even Big Sean grasps on one of the better metaphors of the album on 'Push It' - the foundation of the relationship is Jhene Aiko in heels, representative of the sex keeping them together but just as precarious. As such, you could read the hookup and then collapse of the relationship as part of an arc, probably one that's happened a few times before - something, by the way, that holds a lot in common with a similar circular process that took place on Souled Out. And while 'London Bridges' might show a way out, a sincere confession of love from both partners, both of their penchants for melodrama comes through in describing their relationship failing like a catastrophe - when really, nothing in the presentation or writing would indicate it's anything that hasn't happened plenty of times before.

And indeed, that might be why I'm a little lukewarm on this project, even though it is better than I expected. In repeating a similar structural conceit to Souled Out, it ends up feeling slight because the writing gives no indication anything has really changed or any revelation has been reached. And that'd be fine if the dramatic situation had more weight or power, but by keeping things low key it frames the situation with subtlety and drama that works for the performances, but the writing doesn't quite get there. Maybe this project might have benefited from a little more length to flesh out the story or show the aftershocks of the situation to people around them, but the brevity and very tight focus to the couple never lets it expand that far, leaving TWENTY88 feeling like a test run more than a fully formed project. That said, there are moments I like - Jhene Aiko is on point as always and this is probably the most compelling Big Sean has ever been with the most consistent writing, so I'm thinking a light 6/10 and a recommendation, especially if you're a fan of either artist. Just be sure to adjust your expectations - but then again, if this gets Jhene Aiko more traction or has helped Big Sean develop a little subtlety and lyrical tact, I'm definitely intrigued for the followup.

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