"I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was "- Muhammad Ali
Ali would dance in rings with fighters who were monsters in their own right. His gloves stung the cheeks of mighty men deserving of the highest possible praise and the most admirable accolades. The self-proclamation of his greatness didn’t make him great, but rather the actions he showed in the ring that backed up his biggest boast.
Greatest rapper is a subjective honor, an invisible crown that many can claim, but few will be acknowledged as such. Lil Wayne could’ve shouted to the heavens about being the best—the mere words were meaningless—but the verses that followed his statement awarded him respect from fans and peers. When Big Sean boldly purposes this idea of being the best, he is viewed under the same critical magnifying glass.
I commend Sean’s confidence, his declaration has been heard loud and clear, and that’s why I Decided is the most important album of his career thus far. More than just making a great album, I Decided is the manifestation of his resolve, the project that will ultimately decide if Sean is heralded as one of today’s best rappers.
Dark Sky Paradise, the title of his third studio album, is an interesting oxymoron. The idea of paradise is bright, vibrant, and breathtakingly beautiful. Sean’s career, thus far, is what artists dream of—commercially one of the most successful emcee's of this generation, championed by Kanye West, and a fan base that adore his music from Topeka to Tokyo. By no means is he a failure, but what Dark Sky Paradise explores is the balance of good and bad that’s experienced in success. No amount of money will stop your grandmother from passing, no amount of album sales balances the weight of love lost, and the stress intermingled with the reward of success will make the fruit of your labor taste more sour than sweet. More and more, the dark cloud that has kept Sean’s paradise from being a utopia is the feeling of being underrated. I’m almost certain he would trade album sales for the respect he believes he deserves.
Sean is not without growth, many of the shortcomings that plagued his debut and sophomore aren’t as apparent on Dark Sky Paradise. The question is, will I Decided put him in the same circle as Kendrick, Cole, and Drake? Can he stand alongside Royce, Eminem, Black Milk, and Danny Brown as an elite Detroit rapper? The fact he has an Eminem feature will force listeners to see if he’s able to go bar for bar with an artist acclaimed as one of the best.
I Decided is Big Sean’s alarm clock, his chance to awake all those who have slept on him, and reinforce all the voices who have sung his praise. No one expected Muhammad Ali to best Sonny Liston, he was the braggadocious underdog, but he proved himself in the ring. Sean is the underdog, but if I Decided happens to be a surprise knockout, then we will have to reevaluate where the young artist is ranked amongst his contemporaries.
Per usual 1-Listen rules, there’s no stopping, no rewinding, or fast forwarding while listening. I must give my gut reaction for each and every song. Due to some bad Chinese food, I spent more time facing my toilet than my computer. The best remedy for any sickness is a great rap music, though, so I’m hoping Sean will be the antidote.
The sound of a train. Rather dark and ominous build up. Footsteps. Sean doesn’t seem like a dark person, but the sound of his music has been very melancholy these last two albums. A narrator is talking to God. Sounds older, you can hear the age in his tone. 45 years of working the same job, time to retire OG. He’s questioning his existence. As if he blew it with his family, girlfriend, and the fact kids in the city can’t look up to him. Heavy old man, heavy. I feel you, though.
2. "Light" (ft. Jeremih)
A seamless transition. Ha, familiar chords. He sampled Eddie Kendrick’s “Intimate Friends.” Most will likely recognize this as Alicia Keys’ “Unbreakable.” Loving the slow build up. He sampled a crowd as well, their applause can be heard in the background. Sean is rapping, no drums, just rapping over the loop. “I spent my whole life trying to improvise.” A good flow. Not many punchlines, he’s rather personal. “This the flow that got Steph Curry inspired.” Followed up with a Lebron line. Ha, he tried it with that profound line. I will admit, Sean has been a unique Flowhican. This isn’t a bad song. Jeremih’s feature only makes me wish “Living Single” was on the album. A slow start. A solid message. Can see this one becoming a popular Facebook status. The nostalgia brought by the sample works in the song's favor. Not bad, not bad.
3. "Bounce Back"
Funny that Sean didn’t set out to make a radio song, but this could easily become one of his most popular singles. Similar to how J. Cole made “Power Trip” after the album was complete, and it happened to be one of the best songs on Born Sinner. The concept of bouncing back is incredibly relatable. To be alive is to know what it means to take an L and recover from your lowest. It’s a sentiment necessary in these times; America has been taking L’s since the election. Metro Boomin gave him a banger—this beat slaps harder than a black mother with a disobedient child. The flow switches are seamless, it’s one of Sean’s gifts. There’s a noticeable channeling of trap Drake, I believe it’s the “6 Man” flow. The small details. He may not be the greatest lyricist, but Sean’s performances tend to be entertaining. He’s more unpredictable than a drunk driver, you never know when he’ll commit a switch-up. Due to the song's message, I feel like this one will live long. Solid song, Sean.
4. "No Favors" (ft. Eminem)
This is going to be the one internet rap fans will spend all day talking about. Production is slow, dark, this is slowly becoming the Big Sean template. Mid-tempo flow, these piano keys are entrancing. The bars are solid, I’m still waiting for him to throw a punchline that will shatter my glass jaw. A nice Midas touch line. A dope African American in Atlanta line. A Flint reference. There are some good lines on this one. So far he’s going off—no pause, no hook, just stream-of-consciousness . Okay, the hook just came in. Very Drake-esque. Anddddddd... Marshall just arrived. An ass raper lyric happened so early and I’m rather disappointed in myself for not seeing it coming. Em’s voice sounds funny. Lack of energy, like he just woke up in the studio. This is pretty much the standard Eminem verse; the delivery is so effortless like he’s not even trying. Did he just say he’d pee on Fergie? He just pressed the aggression button. The wordplay is there. Sean pretty much told Em to spazz out. Eminem just called Trump a bitch. That’s pretty tame for him. I’m pretty sure if Earl Sweatshirt never grew out of his horrorcore phase he would be rapping very similar to this. The wordplay is insane, but Em’s verse lacks content. You could take this verse and give it to anyone. The old man narrator just came back suddenly to mention a girl...
5. "Jump Out The Window"
Now this beat is interesting! Bounce. A little weird, much more personality than the previous records. Far from dark, even with the ominous piano keys. I love the drum pattern, the rhythm alone would make this a good single. Eh, Sean on the Auto-Tune tip. Production is good, but that singing/rapping is like when you take a shot and it goes down the wrong pipe—not smooth. Big Sean rapping about girls coming over and playing Mario Kart. Let me find out Sean is an undercover gamer. I wonder if this is a metaphor for how Big Sean stole Jhene like Bowser steals Princess Peach. Sounds like Jeremiah doing background vocals. Uncredited features are a lot more fun. Speedy, asthma attack flow. My problem with Sean is the predictability. So far the songs aren’t bad, but they aren’t exceptional. I love these drums. Dynamite, J.J. Walker would approve. So much potential—this one might grow on me—but right now my heart is pretty cold.
I believe this was the second single. Big Sean phone ringing ad-lib is by far one of the best in the game. Up there with the Migos. I’ll stand by that. Another strong production. 808 Mafia gave him a monster. The kind of beat that inspires you to Milly Rock on any block. So far the album is giving me a strong If You’re Reading This vibes with Sean stepping fully into the trap realm. After Royce completely slaughtered this a few weeks ago, Sean’s bars just fall short. But I’ll come back to hear him say tranquility. I like the song, will likely ring off in the club. Might have this one rotation for a while. It’s a good single, just not an exceptional song.
7. "Same Time" (ft. Twenty88)
The runtime on this one is short, so I’m assuming this is an interlude. Sean and Jhene are a strange duo. They have the kind of chemistry that doesn’t always work, but when they nail it, the song tends to be a bullseye. I’m currently on the fence about this one. Sean said he treated his hotel room like the Garden of Eden and I’m not even sure what that means. Did they sit around naked and eat apples from a talking snake? Also Pt. 2 isn’t on the album, so I suppose it will be on the Twenty88 sophomore LP?
8. "Owe Me"
Eh. I’m pretty underwhelmed currently. The cohesiveness is there. Production is there. The concept could be a bit tighter. But my expectation for Sean to really step it up has me rather let down. Wow, Sean is pulling off the melodic flow. This is rather Travis Scott/Drake-esque but I’m enjoying the execution. This is the less childish, I don’t fuck with you breakup song. Yeah, pretty crazy Big Sean just pulled off a Travis Scott song. Even the production feels like a Rodeo outtake. [Editor's Note: Scott co-produced the track.] A trendsetter taking a trend and making the most out of the current sound. Bassline is nastier than yellow Starburst. The narrator came back. There’s a back and forth between Sean and the old man. Sean just arrived at an event. TMZ on his ass asking about Harambe. He drives off. The car is roaring down the street...
9. "Halfway Off The Balcony"
Slow build up. Heavy piano chords. Sean wanted the darkest trap beats to bleed on. Now, THIS melodic flow I love. A personal Big Sean mixing in punchlines with the bars tends to be rather rewarding. It feels like he’s breaking down. The introspection. “Overthinking because my job is way more than a salary” is likely the most relatable thing Sean has ever rapped. Pitched vocals is a nice change. A highlight. I feel like this is Sean at his most natural. Also, this track feels like it could’ve made the cut for Dark Sky Paradise. Sean's mom is calling and he said he’ll call her back, but I', pretty sure he’ll regret that later. I know from experience.
10. "Voices In My Head / Stick To The Plan"
“Voices in my head said I could do better” might’ve just topped the overthinking line from the previous song. Interesting production. Sparse, minimum. Another introspective verse. I like this flow. Second-half is a Metro Boomin beat. When Metro’s tag comes in I instinctively prepare to turn up. Interesting switch up. Sean went full trap on this project. A motivating hook to stay focused, a rather motivating song, but it doesn’t hit a home run. “Big face like Zordon,” I’m here for Power Ranger lyrics. Loving the drum section. I might just be a big fan of Metro’s drums. They have a dynamic knock. A Kennan and Kel line for all the ‘90s kids. Actually fast flow in these last few seconds might be the highlight of the entire song. He went off at the end.
11. "Sunday Morning Jetpack" (ft. The-Dream)
Based on the title, I expected a gospel record. A slow burner. Sounds like a sample is looped in the background. The snare has a nice little pop. Very simplistic. Sean is reminiscing. Thinking back to the first time he heard Killa Cam. I like this. The vibe is easygoing. Honest Sean might be my favorite Sean. The passing of his grandma has obviously had a huge impact on him. THE DREAM JUST CAME THROUGH LIKE A HOLY SAINT. STRAIGHT FROM HEAVEN. WOOO, SING IT DREAM. Drums came in knocking like the neighbor who wants you to turn the music down. Nah, Dream just randomly slid in like he was stealing home base. I would rewind this just for that unexpected moment of greatness if 1-Listen review rules permitted that action. Sean's phone is ringing again. I don’t know what he’s doing. The song ends with him picking up.
12. "Inspire Me"
Another trap number. The Drake influence is so heavy. The way he’s singing is very Toronto. A song dedicated to his mom. Interested in the sample that was looped for this. I agree with Sean—if I buy you a car with music money my song has to play each time you get in it. The singing on this is uncanny. Drake has taken from Sean countless times—so it’s like influence begetting influence—but it just seems so out of Sean’s element. A nice song. I wonder how much this song was inspired by all the times he ignored her phone calls? Nothing makes me want to praise my mother like not answering her calls.This is his “Hey Ma.” Not as good, but I can’t hate on a man showering his mother with some well-deserved love.
13. "Sacrifices" (ft. Migos)
Three Metro beats on this album. Drums not as hard. It doesn’t even sound like a Metro beat. Interesting. Swift flow. Breath control is pretty crazy on this one. Okay Sean, this is hitting. Loving the inflection in his voice. I like this. I take it back, this beat is banging, Sean’s energy is bringing the song to life. Flow switch on verse two. Sean's talking about all the sacrifices he has made. More like a bridge than a second verse. Offset just came in without woos. Disappointed. His flow is strong. Quavo Knowles just came through with the Auto-Tune singing for the soul. Again, if you see the personality he brings to the song, it's clear why he’s the Migo most likely to breakout. He dead ass made a bridge in the middle of his verse. Pretty much every few Migo bars can be turned into hooks. Wait, why is there no Takeoff??? C’mon, Sean. You can’t say featuring Migos without all three. Big Sean is the only rapper who will have 30 seconds on a beat and start to rap faster haha. I can appreciate that he’s an artist who wants to fill up the entire canvas. Quavo singing closing this one out. Solid.
14. "Bigger Than Me" (ft. The Flint Chozen Choir & Starrah)
Last song. Sean's talking about wanting to make his city proud. Another banging beat. The sample in the back, drums hitting with the force of an elbow drop from the Empire State Building. Nice flow. Talking about growing up in Detroit. This is good. A nice way to close the album. Wish more of the album felt like this. The choir just came in and I'm no longer in my chair but floating to the ceiling. The best kept secret Starrah sounds good on this. Also, glad Sean is supporting the Flint Choir. There are many ways to give back. I really like this. We need more trap gospel music. Your favorite trap star probably was raised in the church so it makes sense. Sean’s mom made the album. I’ll always love hearing parents make the album. I feel like Sean’s last album ended with a phone call? His father? Maybe I’m wrong. So, I guess the album is about how Sean believes he lived life once as an old man and failed, and this current life is a chance to right all his wrongs. Interesting concept.
Big Sean gave us his rendition of a trap album. He has been very much influenced by this current arc in rap; production is very modern, but the rapping is what I came for, and I’m currently underwhelmed.
This isn’t the album of an artist who had something to prove, but an artist comfortable with a proven style who didn't attempt to push beyond his personal limits. I Decided is the expected Sean album, but I wanted to be impressed by a body of work that exceeded expectations. On first listen, I don’t see this album changing any minds or pushing the narrative that Sean is a top-tier rap artist.
At it’s best, I Decided will cement Sean as a good songwriter―the songs aren’t bad, at times dull, but in the right settings they will prove effective. I can hear songs that will do well in clubs, on radio, and will be a source of inspiration when listeners need positive reinforcement.
A big flaw is the album’s concept, which, sadly, becomes an afterthought. The story isn’t built. Instead of creating a world, Sean simply presents an idea and doesn’t explore it beyond a few skits.
For an artist who demands his respect, he didn’t take the needed steps to create an album that truly showcases why he deserves the acknowledgment. The artist who tends to create flows borrowed a style. More trends are followed than settled, and while there’s noteworthy lyrics, the overall lyricism doesn’t transcend.
Evolution is what Big Sean is missing. He is still growing, but only within his personal comfort zone. What Sean has to do is creatively go beyond, or else he’ll forever be stuck in his current position—a position that isn't bad, but one where he'll never feel satisfied.
This album isn’t the sunlight that will pierce through his overcast paradise.
By Yoh, aka Bounce Back Yoh, aka @Yoh31.
Photo Credit: Def Jam