June and Johnny, Sonny and Cher, Jane and Serge, pop culture is no stranger to romantic pop duos. But the context, and the intimacy has shifted (I see you, Instagram), and for Big Sean and Jhené Aiko, their connection is both immediately palpable and on blast for public consumption—every sweet glance, expressed admiration, and symmetric giggle of their productive creative partnership.
As a duo, Big Sean and Jhené Aiko form TWENTY88—combining an angelic singer songwriter from Los Angeles with a catchy Detroit lyricist—to take us on a journey through a relationship.
“Music now doesn’t really cater to the feelings of a real relationship,” says Aiko via Skype from New Zealand where she’s on tour. “It’s all about trapping and bragging. I feel like this project is something that’s needed right now.” Sean nods—he currently sits on a couch in his living room in Hollywood Hills. “The whole idea of the man and woman duet” Aiko continues, “Especially a whole project, is just good for people to see. That duality is a perfect combination.”
It’s powerful and inspiring to see two souls sharing a sweet fantasy, but it comes with great risk—public scrutiny. One only has to mention TomKat or Bennifer to invoke memories of turbulent mass media breakups, bite-size nuggets of drama threading pop culture with painful play-by-plays, and exploitative tabloid recaps.
Hands up for Aiko and Sean, though. Their chemistry today is a sight to marvel. The frequent collaborators—most notably on “I Know” off of Sean’s latest album Dark Sky Paradise—have created an album that conjures ’90s R&B and ’70s experimental rock/soul with their eponymous TWENTY88 record. The album also mixes neo-soul, ambient beats, and trap drums courtesy of producers like Da Internz.
As a whole, TWENTY88—out in April on Def Jam—is a departure from each artist’s individual sounds. “It’s a wide range,” says the 28-year-old Aiko. “It gets turned up,” adds Sean, “then it gets melodic, then it gets vibed out. It touches all these things, but it sounds very cohesive.”
Talk of teaming up to create a full body of work began in the summer of 2015. For Sean, it was now-or-never, “We’re in a place where we’re both established, and we’ve laid a lot of groundwork, and it’s really taking it back to just having fun with it. I have fun with her. She’s one of my favorite people to just be around and kick it with.”
From the moment they met in producer No I.D.’s studio in Los Angeles in 2012, “It was just very comfortable,” Aiko notes, “I think secretly there’s a little competition—I want my verse to sound better than his, and he wants his to sound better than mine.” But for TWENTY88 the competition makes them thrive. The greatest collaborations yield creations larger than the sum of their parts—imagine “Under Pressure” without Bowie or Mercury, or “Endless Love” without Lionel Ritchie or Diana Ross, or “Dancing In The Streets” without Jagger or (again, God bless the White Duke) David Bowie.
And to elevate the rollout of their album, Aiko and Sean conceived a music video short film in which they play adult film stars. “It’s a ’70s aesthetic, but we’re in the future.” Aiko explains. They draw from various influences—Blaxploitation films like Coffy (1973)—where a smart, strong Pam Grier empowers herself and goes vigilante against organized crime—and Roger Moore’s Bond films—style, luxury, and debonair masculinity are definitive parts of Sean’s undeniable appeal—and even 2015’s sci-fi Ex Machina.
“We’ve created another world,” she adds, “Both me and Sean are super into fantasy-driven movies and so combining stuff like robots and sex, that pretty much sums us up.” Sean seconds this: “Robots are sexy as shit,” he says. “We’ve created these characters that are extensions of ourselves,” Aiko continues, “it’s highly sexual.” Given the advent of text-to-toy capabilities, the future of romance and sexuality is only getting more robotic (and more inventive).
Speaking of loving abodes, the decor in Sean’s living room is actually quite sparse, and comfortably analog. On the mostly empty shelves are Dragon Ball Z stuffed animals, Star Wars memorabilia, and BET Awards. His MTV VMA, which he won in 2015 for having the Best Video with a Social Message for “One Man Can Change the World,” had to be sent back for repairs. In the corner sits a huge defunct telescope. On the couch are two Bape pillows and on the coffee table is a book on Sammy Davis Jr. Sean calls him the man. “He just bossed up in so many ways, especially back then just being black,” he says. “I’m sure he was getting shitted on way more than we know. So I respect him.”
Downstairs are bedrooms and his studio where he plays me TWENTY88 in its entirety. Sean and Aiko recorded a large chunk of the album here, and their recording sessions were intimate. “It was usually just me, Jhené, and the engineer,” says Sean, “I had a lot of the raw ideas, and she would build them up. But it was pretty natural and organic.” Sean came up with the concept for the track “On the Way,” he says, “but then she freaked it. It’s about being on the way to somebody. I feel we’ve all had that moment when we’re on the way to that special person. You’ve got that feeling. You’ve been waiting all day for it.”
“Two-Minute Warning,” which features K-Ci and JoJo, is the most sexually explicit song on TWENTY88. It’s on this track that Aiko says she, “Stepped out of my comfort zone. That was a part to of me that I haven’t really shown to the public.” On “Talk Show” Aiko calls Sean out for fucking around on her before admitting she stepped out on him too. “Since we invited everyone in the bedroom, let’s take the covers off,” Sean spits.
Is this admission another case of art imitating life? “Some of these verses on here are for sure about specific people and times,” says Sean. “I don’t know if Jhené was singing about me on any of the songs,” he adds with a grin. “I don’t know if I was singing about her on any of these songs either.” There’s a long silence. Sean and Aiko’s eyes lock. Soon they both erupt in giggles, each looking away coyly, caught in the act of mutual attraction.
“We went on a date,” Aiko reveals. “We went to a Lakers game. It was a long time ago,” (it was in May of 2012 to be exact). “First of all, I had a boyfriend and me and Sean had already met. We were friends. So he asked me to go out with him and even though I had a boyfriend
I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to go to the Lakers game! Sean had never asked me if I had a boyfriend or not.”
“I didn’t care,” Sean inserts.
“It was pretty obvious after a while it was a date,” Aiko continues. “We had never really been alone together. It was really fun. I took a picture of Kobe.”
“Oh, that’s why it was fun?” Sean says with a laugh.
“And then I saw Jack Black and Sean took a picture of me and Jack Black,” adds Aiko, laughing, “I was really excited about that.”
“She was really excited to go with me too,” says Sean.
“The next day they had us up on a blog: Sean’s new Spanish girlfriend or something like that. So I tweeted: ‘I’m not dating Big Sean LOL.’ And then Sean got mad at me like, ‘You gonna play me like that?’ I’m like, ‘But we’re friends!’”
“I’m real serious, but I’m real silly too,” Sean insists. “So she said that, and I was like, ‘Oh straight up.’ She knew it was just from a fun place.”
“So…” says Aiko, “that was our first date.”
Chemistry aside, they both insist that they’re single and just enjoying each other’s company. “It was fun for me to do something that was not so serious as far as me telling all of my deepest, darkest thoughts and being extra introspective. I don’t really record love songs. I usually express it when it’s gone bad. It was good to have songs from when it was a happy moment. It’s us having fun. And it’s also a look into our future too, you know, maybe…”
Written by Jessica Herndon
Photographer: Christian Anwander for Art Department.
Stylist: Ade Samuel, Rebecca Jefferson, and Noelle Smith.
Makeup: Felicia LaTour.
Groomer: Lucia Rodriguez.
Producer: Ames Petrossi for Art Department.
Photography Assistant: Matthew Hawkes and Matchull Summers.
Tailor: Zoya Milentyeva.
Styling Assistant: Rome McMaughton.
Prop Stylist: Matthew Luem.
Prop Styling Assistant: Brian Porter.
Twenty88 was featured in 2016 in Flaunt: A Few Favorites from a Fabulous Year