Can Big Sean make a classic? A cohesive, mature work of acclaim that locks in legacy as “G.O.O.D. Kid” did for Kendrick Lamar? No longer a newcomer, Big Sean has been brooding over these questions as of late. The party favorite is tired of standing under the stormy shadows of his more serious peers — at least, judging from his newfound emotional gravity on his latest release, “Dark Sky Paradise.” Biblically loaded from the get-go, this is the LP that Sean hopes will canonize him as hip-hop’s patron saint of Detroit.
And his ambition is certainly palpable. On his holy quest, Big Sean has recruited an incredible posse of high-profile producers, from longtime mentor Kanye West to DJ Mustard and Mike WiLL Made-it (just hearing the DJ tag “Mustard on the Beat, ho” or “ear drummers!” is enough to make any hip-hop fan scream). The result is a string of guaranteed hits that build on Big Sean’s characteristic strengths — his snarky wit and unbridled enthusiasm — while developing a more complex narrative than Sean’s used to.
The new Big Sean is still the life of the party, but he’s now more sincere, more spiritual and more confessional. He’s popping champagne Friday night, but he wants you to know that he takes the time to call his grandma the next morning, as he does on the tearful, piano-led ballad, “One Man Can Change the World.”
He might even take you to church on Sunday, judging from the range of sonic and lyrical references to his Christian faith. Gothic church bells, ecclesiastic choirs in minor keys and soul samples resonate throughout the album. On the track “Deep” featuring Lil Wayne, he even laments, “Man, I look up to God, I wonder if I fell from the sky.” Is … is that a Paradise Lost reference, Sean?
“I Don’t Fuck With You,” is a solid case for “Dark Sky Paradise”’s maturity and cohesiveness. Bear with me now. Yes, it’s repetitive and abrasive. It’s the current in vogue anthem of grimy dance floors on frat row. But it’s also incredibly confessional. Big Sean unloads a deep reserve of stormy, post-breakup angst — a problem that’s a lot more relatable than his usual quips of having haters and too much money. Although “IDFWU”’s introductory soul beat by Kanye West seems extraneous on the single, it’s perfectly positioned in the album’s grander context as a smooth-as-butter transition from “All Your Fault,” yet another Yeezy-produced highlight.
But Big Sean has issues with moving on from his snarky, less serious former self. On the ironically titled “Deep,” Big Sean aggressively asserts that this song is “deep” so many times (20 times, to be exact) that the hook becomes a hilarious hyperbole, especially for one of the album’s blandest tracks. How deep can a song with Lil Wayne be, really?
In fact, Big Sean’s somberness and sentimentality — the distinguishing moods of the album’s second half — regrettably drain him of the wild energy that’s earned him loyal fans in the first place. His club-ready singles such as “IDFWU” clearly outshine his slowed-down meditations such as “Win Some, Lose Some,” featuring Jhene Aiko. The latter’s chorus, “You win some and lose some,” just isn’t a poignant or original insight at all.
On the album’s bubbly finale, “Outro,” Sean admits, “The more I kick philosophy, the more I’m boring to them.” At least he recognizes his own shortcomings — a glimmering promise of better things to come.
So we find our hero Big Sean midway on his quest for sainthood. He’s proven himself as a legitimate contender for the hip-hop hall of fame, but he still hasn’t discovered his own territory of rich, lyrical gravity that has deified contemporaries such as Kendrick and Drake. To paraphrase Lupe Fiasco, he’s standing outside of heaven, but he’s still waiting for God to come and get him. But don’t worry Sean, you have fans rooting for you. We DO fuck with you, Sean. WDFWU.
Jason Chen is the assistant arts editor. Contact him at [email protected].