Jhené Aiko Talks ‘Twenty88’ Sequel With Big Sean & Prioritizing Mental Health: ‘Don’t Be Afraid to Feel’

Jhené Aiko has new music on the way — including a Twenty88 sequel with longtime boyfriend and music collaborator Big Sean, with whom she is expecting her second child. Though the pair understandably kept their pregnancy news private for months, fans have been anticipating a follow-up to 2016’s Twenty88 for years.

“I’ve been working on a few projects,” she teases. “[The sequel] is something that we both really enjoy because we get to do things outside of what we normally do with our own music and albums.”

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After 2020’s Chilombo debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, it became Aiko’s highest-peaking set on the tally, and went on to be nominated for album of the year at the Grammys in 2021. Aiko and Big Sean’s Twenty88 is among her five top 10 projects on the Billboard 200, debuting at No. 5 in April 2016.

Six-time Grammy nominee Aiko has been named the Mental Health Is Health Ambassador by the City of Los Angeles and Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services. “I’m looking forward to spreading their message, and being a part of the conversation around eradicating the stigma surrounding mental health,” says Aiko.

Beyond her mental health advocacy and new music, Aiko recently spoke with Billboard about balancing her professional and personal lives, being more present for her teenage daughter, Namiko Love, and why Chilombo has played the most pivotal role in her own self-healing this far. Above all, Aiko notes, “Don’t be afraid to feel.”

What more can you share about the upcoming sequel with Big Sean?

With the first Twenty88, we were playing characters — and that was really fun because we both like to act, and love watching movies. Expect more theatrics on the next one. I’m working on a few other projects too that I’m really excited to share. I don’t want people to be disappointed if it doesn’t happen when I want, but it will be when the time is right, because I like to be intuitive with my releases.

How do you and Big Sean navigate your personal relationship and public music careers?  

Getting older, I’ve realized everybody doesn’t need to know everything all the time. As much as I’ve talked about [my experiences] in music, it’s about five percent of what I’ve gone through. Both of us have learned to be more private in our relationship, and treat it like the special thing it is. It’s the same with my relationship with my daughter. I’m not going to post everything, because we’re being more present with each other. It doesn’t have to be shared to be real.

Why is your new mental health role so important to you?

A lot of people are waking up to the fact that mental health is just as important as physical health. It’s something we should talk about, and something we shouldn’t be afraid to express to one another, about what we’re going through mentally. [We should] open the conversation and work to where it’s not an embarrassment or shameful to talk about mental health, substance abuse or suicide prevention. I’m very impressed by the work they do at Didi Hirsch. It inspires me to advocate for the conversation around mental health, and to continue to share my story and what I go through. 

Why is it vital to normalize these conversations about anxiety, depression and self-medication?  

I’ve been big on self-expression, poetry, music and storytelling since I was young and knew how to write. I would always share how I was feeling — even on MySpace and AOL Instant Messenger — and it was very therapeutic. It helped me feel like I’m not alone. The more we are honest about what we’re going through and open to hearing other people’s stories with the intention of understanding — and not judging — each other is how we’ll keep the conversation going. Everyone is dealing with something fundamentally, whether you’ve been diagnosed with something or not.

When I was younger, I didn’t know I had anxiety, and kind of diagnosed myself with body dysmorphia [an obsessive focus on a perceived physical flaw in appearance]. But when you open up and talk to other people, they’ll start to give you more information and help you find professionals that can help you understand what you’re dealing with. We’re all here on the planet to help each other get through life. Isolation can be divisive because you have to be able to connect to people. We can connect and use it to our benefit.

Which of your albums was the most pivotal in terms of your own healing?  

All of them! [Laughs.] Because I’m such a sensitive person. But probably Chilombo. That’s when I dug deeper into sound healing, and incorporated crystal alchemy sound bowls on every track, with the intention of healing. I was going through a lot and felt like I wanted to be more intentional with the music I was making while expressing myself honestly, like on “Triggered.” But I was more responsible.

In the past, I’ve made songs where I didn’t care about the person knowing the song is about them. I didn’t care how they were going to feel, or how it was going to affect them. But as I got older, I realized that’s important. You don’t realize it until you put music out and people jump to the conclusions [and think it’s] like, “Let’s hate our exes.” That’s not what I was saying. It was a moment, I expressed it and worked through it. Music is powerful medicine. So many of us are looking for guidance, especially when you’re younger and listening word-for-word and basing your way of thinking on how your favorite artist is writing.

We shouldn’t put that much power into another person’s experience. It’s okay to express yourself, but be responsible and think about what you’re putting out there into the world. We need solutions. That’s why I put out “Triggered”; to help interrupt that feeling [of being triggered] so it doesn’t become detrimental to your mental health.

What healthy habits do you practice now instead of self-medication? 

Getting fresh air, especially when you’re really in your feelings. Going for a walk, even if it’s raining, and taking time away from your phone. Reaching out to close friends and family for casual conversation. It doesn’t have to be heavy, but just laughing with the people you love. I love cartoons; to not think about anything and watch Bob’s Burgers or The Simpsons. Breathwork is something that I really love and is very easy to do. Spending time with animals is always helpful for me. Meditation, of course, and now there are apps with two-and-three-minute mediations.

Sound healing is what I’ve been getting into. A technique I learned is humming the scale to yourself, like, “do-re-me-fa-sol-la-ti-do.” If you do that a few times, you’re actually putting yourself back into harmony on a cellular level. Going through those notes helps realign all of your energy — and it’s a practical thing you can do at any time. Dancing, especially silly dancing, because moving your body gets out stagnant energy. There’s no way to stay angry, sad or anxious if you do that. I learned the hard way that it’s a good thing to not ignore your feelings by self-medicating, staying in bed and sulking.

Crying is really good too. It’s healing and releases oxytocin. Writing, drawing, playing instruments … Don’t hold it in, express yourself and talk to someone you trust. Don’t be afraid to feel.

How has being a mom shaped your creative expression? 

I’m more responsible with what I’m saying and more present in her life. I feel more pressure to teach her by example. I love how my mom did it. She was very supportive and open; not very strict but very loving and always there. I want to be there more for whatever it is my daughters wants to do and whoever she wants to be.

I definitely felt a way when “Post to Be” came out and [radio] didn’t bleep out “eat the booty like groceries.” When I was making that song, it was fun. I’m goofy, so to me it was a silly thing to say, not knowing it was going to be this big song. She was in fourth or fifth grade at the time and the kids were snickering. I was so embarrassed, because I wasn’t thinking on the scale of “this is on the radio and kids are hearing this.” She knows that I’m super silly, but I have to be more responsible and I want to make sure I don’t embarrass her.

What’s your advice to others on handling their own well-being as parents? 

Definitely find a responsible balance. Take moments to yourself and find gratitude in those moments, even when you have to do laundry. That’s why I like driving. It’s also important to spend time with your kids and find the joy in that because they grow up so fast. You’ll miss when they were with you all the time.

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