Big Sean is style. He entered the industry with a confidence that was hard to ignore. I don’t remember anyone wearing snapbacks until after he was seen in the overly expensive TI$A hats. I blame him for the Supa Dupa Flow plague that killed us softly in 2010-2011. He had the approach of someone that was disgusted by the conventional, the mind of a trendsetter, not a follower. I remember watching his rise since Finally Famous Vol. 2. Along with Wiz, Curren$y, and XV it felt organic, a new generation of artists connecting directly with fans. People gravitated toward his swagger, had empathy for Kanye’s youngest protégée and found inspiration in his music, making him the popular kid in an industry structured like high school, minus the acne and mystery meat.
When I think about his public persona, he’s almost always seen in a positive light. He loves his city, he loves his mom, he loves his fans, great guy. Big Sean is also an above-average rapper packaged in an impressive style, nothing more. It’s hard to call that a failure, he can make hits, he can be entertaining, he even shows flashes of greatness, but his skills fall just short in the presence of the elite. He can try and mask it by constantly changing his style, he can been found currently rapping viciously fast, but it’s only impressive until you hear an emcee with the caliber of lyricism as a Tech N9ne; it’s like an automatic rifle next to a pellet gun. He can try to add some depth to his his songwriting by equipping features on every song, even upgrade his production, but it doesn’t change the fact he’s a popular muggle enrolled in Hogwarts. When I listen to Dark Sky Paradise again now, almost three months after it first dropped, I can hear the effort, the passion, the progression, but I’m rarely compelled to revisit, and I'm not sure if there's anything more he can do to make that leap into hip-hop's highest rap bracket. Big Sean's only shortcoming happens to be being Big Sean.
Let me be clear, Dark Sky Paradise is by far his best album. The songs are much better than almost anything on Finally Famous: The Album and an improved, cohesive structure that Hall Of Fame lacked. There’s superb moments that will be remembered. Rapping back and forth with Kanye on “All Your Fault” will be one of the highlights in his career. “Blessings” with Drake is spiritual enough to be included in hymn books. “Deep” with Wayne is now one of the better songs in his catalog. You can feel his soul lifting from his body as he raps the extended version of “Paradise.” I dislike its petty message, but "IDFWU" will be timeless, Sean turned breakup anguish into his biggest hit yet. Our children’s children will be singing the crude lyrics when scorned by love. For Dark Sky Paradise, Sean pulled together all his resources, called in all his favors and crafted an album with a mixtape heart, a surefire fan favorite. It still wasn't enough to create anything resembling a classic album.
Maybe it's because most of his brightest moments happen when aligned with others. One of my favorite verses from him is “Fat Raps,” which was on Curren$y’s Smokee Robinson mixtape, “Burn” on Meek’s Dreams & Nightmares is incredible, I’ve watched Drake perform Sean’s “All Me” verse with more passion than his own, and G.O.O.D Music’s “Looking For Trouble” and “Don’t Look Down” were definitive moments, moments that are rarely seen when he’s rapping alone. The cool, the vigor, he can’t seem to channel his most compelling qualities for an extended time. He gets trapped in his one dimensional world, taking selfies of moments, trying to mix them with clever punchlines, but still lacking the transparency that Drake has mastered, the intensity Kendrick is developing. I’m always left feeling like there’s something missing, something lacking.
The production for Dark Sky Paradise is a bleak black, there’s a consistent mood that left me expecting some depth, yet his voice rarely reflects the somber sonics. I wanted him to dive deep into the trials, the tribulations. He wasn’t raised in paradise, it was a chance to tell us how he got there. Even when he does begin to open up, like talking about his grandmother’s passing on “Blessed,” there’s no pain in his voice, he raps about a serious moment in his life the exact same way he drops a "planet/plan it out" punchline two lines later. The song “Win Some, Lose Some” was a chance for him to show some emotion, make us feel the regret. I don’t want him to have a Kendrick-esque breakdown, but I need to feel the weight of his world. It never really happens. He has passion but he needs to rap from the heart. One of my favorite songs happens to be the bonus, “Platinum and Wood.” You can tell by his voice, he seems in a trance. Reminiscing on his high-school days, he comes to life, you see a side of him that was lacking on the entire album, a true portrait not tainted by photo shopped materialism. His childhood friends talking about growing up in Detroit is a nice added touch.
Growing up my generation was instilled with the idea that hard work and dedication are the keys to success. Disney movies and our parents filled our heads with perseverance-conquers-all mentalities. We clung to Michael Jordan’s high school story, being cut from the team, only to return in triumph after rigorous practice. That Jordan story happened to be false but it didn’t matter, fiction can still inspire, and it has inspired countless. But what about the kid that doesn’t make the NBA? Has dreams of making the squad, practices day in and day out, masters the fundamentals, out works everyone, goes further than anyone ever thought he would, further than most, but still happens to fall short of greatness. If all becoming a legend took was talent and hard work, the world would be overflowing with legends.
You can tell that on Dark Sky Paradise Sean is rapping to the very best of his capabilities. Yet, he was forgotten the moment he stopped and Kendrick started. He gave his strongest performance and was overshadowed by an emcee in a different class; shades of "Control" all over again. Sean is one of the biggest rappers of my age, his popularity and celebrity is among the best of the best. I listen to him happily. Yet, he isn’t artistically on the level of Kendrick, Big K.R.I.T. and J. Cole, all of whom recently dropped noteworthy albums too. Dark Sky Paradise is good, well-constructed, crafted to be appreciated by his core, high-selling, but it won’t transcend him into top ten discussions. That path to the true top of the game is full of monsters that will make Big Sean look small.
Editor's Note: This is the follow-up review to Yoh's 1 Listen Album Review of Dark Sky Paradise.
[By Yoh, aka IDFWYoh, aka @Yoh31]