Big Sean is in a peculiar position. The Detroit rapper is widely respected by his peers and the hip-hop community for his lyrical ability, first displayed on his Finally Famous mixtape trilogy, and song-stealing verses on hits including Drake’s "All Me" and GOOD Music’s "Clique." But while his first two albums Finally Famous and Hall of Fame had a few standout singles ("Beware," "Dance (A$$)," and "Ashley") they didn’t fare well commercially. Now we’re in round three; after the success of his first single "I Don’t Fuck With You", Big Sean will release his third album Dark Sky Paradise on Tuesday, and it’s his best work yet.
Dark Sky Paradise is a potent mix of angst-filled raps and Big Sean’s patented high-velocity flow. Executive produced by Kanye West (who also executive produced his first two albums) Dark Sky Paradise is Big Sean’s coming out party, if an artist who has been on nine platinum-selling singles can still have one. It’s a gloomy, ominous album in the same vein of Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or more recently Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, with a party song thrown in. (the upbeat "IDFWU" doesn't match the tone of Dark Sky Paradise; it may have just become too big to keep off the album.)
This is Big Sean’s coming out party, if an artist who has been on nine platinum-selling singles can still have one
The production on Dark Sky Paradise is outstanding, with Kanye West, DJ Mustard, Travi$ Scott, and Mike WilLL Made-It (who included thunder in "Paradise (Extended)" because Dark Sky Paradise isn’t complete without thunder) delivering amazing tracks for Big Sean to work over, and work he does. As with most rap intros lately, "Dark Sky (Skyscrapers)" is a platform for Big Sean to display his lyrical dexterity and explain how he — as most rappers claim — made it with no help ("And I don’t owe nobody in the world no favors / I started from the basement, made it to the skyscrapers").
"All Your Fault" featuring Kanye West is the best song on Dark Sky Paradise that hasn’t been released as a single already. (Five songs — "I Don’t Fuck With You," "Paradise," "Blessings," "Win Some, Lose Some," and "One Man Can Change The World" — have already been released, nearly half of the 12 tracks on the standard edition.) Sampling Ambrosia’s "How Much I Feel," the Kanye West and OGWebbie-produced track is a consummate mix of soul beats, an aspirational Big Sean ("You wondering how do you get in the game / I’m wondering how do I get to the rafters"), and Kanye’s ego on full display ("That’s that new ‘Ye / People saying I’m the closest thing to Mike since Janet").
Big Sean even gets inspirational on "One Man Can Change the World" featuring John Legend and Kanye West, which is partly a tribute to his grandmother, who, according to Big Sean, was one of the first black female captains in World War II.
In many ways, Dark Sky Paradise is everything you’ve ever wanted from a Big Sean album. You’ve got the big, meme-worthy single ("IDFWU"), the "wait, hold on, what did he say?" lyrics on "Paradise (Extended)," tons of great features (Ty Dolla $ign on "Play No Games" and Lil Wayne on "Deep"), and Kanye everywhere. The first half of the album is essentially flawless. Big Sean has finally stepped up lyrically on this album — skills which previously were limited to his mixtapes and features — to match the inevitably great production one gets when your label boss is Kanye West. It’s great. But at times, especially on the back half, Dark Sky Paradise starts to feel overdone, like Big Sean is reaching for a spot he isn’t built for.
This is the album that is supposed to propel Big Sean into the upper echelon of rap
Big Sean adopts the sing-rap flow (popularized by Ja Rule, not your favorite Canadian actor-turned-rapper) on "Win Some, Lose Some" featuring the uncredited yet excellent Jhené Aiko, but there’s one problem: Big Sean can’t sing. He tries again on "I Know" (once again featuring Aiko), and it just doesn't work. (Apparently Kanye didn’t teach him how to use AutoTune.) Both are good songs that could’ve been great, if not for Big Sean trying to get his Marvin Gaye on. On "Deep," Lil Wayne says "I feel like Sean don’t get enough shine / Is it because he ain’t got the tattoos, he ain’t throwing up signs?" That’s a valid statement (the first part) — when it comes to the next wave of hip-hop icons, Big Sean is rarely included in the conversation, and it sounds like it’s getting to him.
It’s the little things, the avoidable mistakes, that stand out on Dark Sky Paradise. It’s a great album, but it could have been a classic. It has all the ingredients; a capable artist, excellent production, a clear theme and direction, and the potential for multiple hits. This is the album that is supposed to propel Big Sean into the upper echelon of rap. He’s closer, but Dark Sky Paradise won’t get Big Sean a seat at the table. (Kanye, Drake, Jay Z, and Kendrick Lamar are sitting at the table. Sorry, but this is not up for debate. Your argument will not be accepted.) Big Sean is definitely on his way. He just still has some work to do.
Update: February 24th, 5:40PM: "All Your Fault" was produced by Kanye West and OGWebbie, not Travi$ Scott. The article has been updated accordingly.