Best friends and frequent duet partners Big Sean and Jhené Aiko describe their new act Twenty88 and its self-titled album (released April 1 on Def Jam) as a “passion project” — in more ways than one. Recorded in secret, their eight-song debut as a duo features the Grammy-nominated R&B singer and chart-topping Detroit rapper (who previously linked up on such singles as “Beware” and “I Know”) playing boyfriend and girlfriend, chronicling the rapture and rancor of modern-day romance. In real life, Aiko is reportedly married to producer Dot Da Genius, but has yet to publicly confirm their status. Sitting with Billboard on a March afternoon at Beverly Hills’ Polo Lounge, she and Sean, both 28, were similarly coy about the meaning of Twenty88 — but they were open about their platonic love and how it inspired their new music.
Why did you decide to form Twenty88?
Jhené Aiko Whenever I come out for one of Sean’s shows or vice versa, people come up and say, “You guys should do a whole project together!” So it was like, “OK!”
Big Sean A lot of people don’t get along when it comes to collabs. A lot of things have been forced by the powers. But this is the furthest thing from that. Jhené is more than just a friend. I don’t know how else to describe it — me and her are just cool like that. I love her and I know she loves me. I was down to make that commitment — something that will last and be different from the rest.
Aiko He made sure I committed to it. Because I have a lot going on with my daughter and just… being crazy! (Laughs.) It’s so rare to find someone you work so well with and that you’re actually close to.
Sean, you take your singing to a new level on the album.
Sean That was one of the things I loved most: I got to try new things. I intend to sing more in my career.
Aiko Sean did a reference for a song for me — he sang so beautifully.
You play lovers on the album. As friends, was that hard?
Aiko I don’t really make love songs or sexual songs — I don’t usually deal with those emotions. A lot of my songs are dark and sad. So this was fun, to put myself into another character.
Sean The things we learned in our past relationships, the ups and downs, we were able to channel all that.
People may try to guess who the songs are about. “Hey, he’s talking about Ariana Grande!” Or, “She’s talking about her so-and-so!” Or they may think you’re dating. How do you feel about that?
Aiko I don’t care.
Sean I want people to talk about it and feel that we’re talking about certain people or each other — whatever they think is fine. As long as they like the music.
Was it difficult keeping this project under wraps?
Sean We just told everyone around us to shut up. I really wanted to surprise the people who got love for our music. I didn’t want to ruin that.
Aiko I’m good at keeping secrets.
You kept your marriage to Dot Da Genius secret.
Aiko I’m married? (Laughs.) Sean, I saw you “liked” a tweet the other day that said, “Sean and Jhené should do an album together.” I was like, “Why did he do that? Now everybody’s going to know!”
What does Twenty88 mean? Is it about your ages?
Sean Should we tell people? Or be like, “You guys figure it out”? It makes sense if you know us — but we weren’t talking about our birthdays.
Aiko Sean doesn’t know this, but I kind of feel like I’m going to die in 2088. In English class, we had to write our eulogy. I wrote mine like I was super famous and I won the Nobel Peace Prize. And I died in 2088.
Sean That is way too deep.
Will you guys tour together?
Aiko If we’re still friends. (Laughs.) You know how people get in groups…