On Friday (February 3), Big Sean will release his fourth studio album I Decided, his first full-length release since his 2015 Platinum-selling LP Dark Sky Paradise. Among the album's 14 tracks are pre-release singles "Bounce Back" (already certified Gold), "Moves" and "Halfway Off The Balcony," while guest features include Eminem, Jeremih, Twenty88 partner Jhené Aiko, Migos, Starrah and The-Dream.
Given the commercial success of Dark Sky Paradise, where does Sean stand coming into the release of I Decided? Has Sean already earned a spot in your top 5? And given how much Sean talks about being the best in the game, is it possible that I Decided could elevate Sean's current stature to a higher level?
To answer these questions, we touched based with Yoh, Senior Editor at DJBooth; Brendan Varan, Managing Editor at DJBooth; and Dart Adams, a veteran rap scribe with bylines at Mass Appeal and OkayPlayer.
1. Fill in the Blank: After listening to Big Sean's last album, Dark Sky Paradise, I decided that Big Sean was __________.
Brendan Varan, DJBooth: Exactly who I thought he was, if not more polished than he’d ever been before. Sean has a talent for making radio-ready hits that I’m always down to hear and always provides a few songs to put on that one playlist you put on when you have to please the crowd with popular songs you also enjoy (“Blessings,” “IDFWU”). He was more honest and open than ever, but even then, I never truly connected with him on an emotional level and was bored at multiple points during the album.
Yoh, DJBooth: Finding himself in a way the previous albums didn’t represent.
Dart Adams: Underwhelming.
2. On the album's lead single, "Bounce Back," Sean says, "Been top 5, these niggas sleep though." Is Sean worthy of Top 5 status?
Brendan: Sean’s a really talented lyricist, corny at times but underrated as a pure rapper, especially in terms of flows. He’s successful, he’s had hits, he’s got longevity—on paper he should be worthy. But he’s not. I’m not quite sure what it is, but here’s one question: Has Sean ever been on a song with another tier one artist and been the most interesting person on the track? No, he hasn’t.
Yoh: I don’t think so. Sean has inspired the industry to follow his flows, has delivered hits, and continued to prove he’s one of the most promising artists of this new generation, but that promise hasn’t exceeded some of the contemporaries he stands behind. He hasn’t given us a GKMC or a Take Care or a Summertime ‘06―an acclaimed album that showcases the best of his abilities. Dark Sky Paradise was his best effort yet, but he is still two to three steps behind the very artists he believes are his equals. We don’t judge artists just by the verses, but by their bodies of work.
Dart: Top five most hyped up and overrated? Absolutely. Big Sean reminds me of when WWE was trying so hard to make Roman Reigns go over, even at the expense of better talent because he had the backing, co-signs, look and the pedigree but not necessarily the body of work to warrant it alone. I listen to emcees that get suppressed because they don't have ties to corporate interests or a prestigious label/talent agency/PR company—Conway The Machine, Westside Gunn, Vic Spencer, Chris Crack, Nolan The Ninja, etc.—who all make better art, but that's not what really matters the most in the mainstream rap world. It's 85% other shit and 15% music.
3. Sean has repeatedly talked about wanting to be the best—not among the best, but the best—rapper in the game. If his new album is a critical and sales darling, how high could it elevate Sean's current stature?
Brendan: Unfortunately, Sean has reached his ceiling compared to his competition. While it would certainly help his legacy, I don’t see him ever being “the best” relative to his peers. Compared to the three juggernauts at the top, I don’t see him ever matching the commercial dominance of the Drake, the creative excellence (or rapping prowess) of Kendrick, or the beloved relatability of J. Cole.
Yoh: Commercially, Sean is one of the biggest artists in this era. He has the visibility but needs to drop the acclaimed album for people to truly see him in the light as one of our best. If he once again steps up his artistry and proves the ability to make an exceptional full-length project, I can see Sean somewhere in the top 8. Criteria matters, but more important than his position is if this album will be good enough to start the discussion.
Dart: Big Sean's career trajectory has a ceiling because mainstream rap has several tiers. The top tier is occupied by Drake, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole—I didn't pick them, this is how the industry shakes out with sales/streams and blah blah blah—and the second tier is like 85% of the other motherfuckers. Sean is in that second tier after having moved up from the third on his last album and I don't see him doing any better than improving his standing within that second tier. I honestly don't feel like Big Sean is capable of making a cohesive, top to bottom rap album that might be considered a classic like Kendrick Lamar does consistently or even J. Cole did with 2014 Forest Hills Drive. While Drake always falls short of making a classic, he has enough songs people fuck with that keep him at the top. It's also due to the fact he Shang Tsung's the shit out of everyone else to stay musically fresh. What I'm saying is Big Sean is stuck in a frustrating mainstream rap holding pattern. He's running in place just like Wale.
By Z, who loves to argue with you on Twitter.
Photo Credits: Def Jam / Instagram