Big Sean had a ceiling, it was believed. When the Detroit rapper signed with Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music in 2007, it wasn’t because he was some mad visionary like Kanye is. From his ’07 mixtape Finally Famous to the 2011 album of the same name (if not all the way to 2013’s Hall of Fame), Sean had a lock on a charismatic — and sometimes poppy to the point of being soft — rapping style. He seemed aspirational in a money-chasing sense, but not necessarily an artistic one. Maybe it was “Control” that did it: Kendrick Lamar’s instantly legendary verse showed a young artist with an extreme confidence that he was onto something. Getting washed on his own track must have inspired Sean, on some level, to grow as an artist, and he has. He’s outlasted the life expectancy that was predicted for him, learning new tricks along the way.
As far as guest rappers go, Sean’s third and best album, Dark Sky Paradise, features Drake, Kanye (who also executive produced), E-40, and Lil Wayne. Maybe it’s not as crowded as, say, a latter-day Game album, but it’s a still a formidable list. Sean isn’t overshadowed by any of these artists, not in presence and especially not in technicality. When he and Kanye go back and forth down the stretch of “All Your Fault”, the difference in stature that was apparent on G.O.O.D. Music’s “Mercy” and “Clique” is gone. Both Sean and Kanye, not just the latter, sound like superstars who aren’t going away anytime soon.
Then again, Sean doesn’t need company at all; the entirely solo tracks here tend to fare pretty well. The extended version of his September song “Paradise”, where he sounds like a sprinter running each leg of a relay, is a wake-up call for anyone who slept on earlier highlights like “Blessings” or “I Don’t Fuck with You”. Sean just hits the turbo: “All the fruits of my labor organic, homie/ Making sure my family tree got hammocks on it”; “Never throwing money out, I boomerang it/ Finally famous over everything, that’s a numerator.” These lines read pretty well, but it’s Sean’s explosive delivery that makes the song so thrilling. He has to be explosive, considering that Mike WiLL Made-It’s horn-honking beat goes virtually silent for bars at a time.
The question stands: Is Sean saying anything? “I Don’t Fuck with You”, the gloriously profane hit featuring E-40, could easily put a first-time listener off for sounding so obnoxious. Rest assured, the rest of Dark Sky Paradise goes deeper. “The more I kick philosophy, the more I’m boring to ‘em,” Sean says on the outro, but by then, he’s already let you know he has personal drama going on and the desire to work through it on record. The voices of Sean’s father and late grandmother materialize on Dark Sky Paradise, and their mere presence lends the album a this-is-where-my-life-is gravity best exemplified on the Jhené Aiko collab “Win Some, Lose Some”. Sean may be a smoke-blowing, breast-autographing pleasure-seeker, but he’s still bothered by family issues (including the death of his grandmother) and a sense that he’s being used by industry fakes.
His improved rapping aside, the album’s excellent, cohesive production is a reminder that there’s something to be said for beat selection. The D.J. Rogers sample that opens and closes “I Don’t Fuck with You” was merely a preview of this. Though only 12 tracks in length, this album is expansive, consistently dark, but boasting a varied color palette as it renews old samples and acknowledges modern production trends without depending on them. Even more than “Dark Sky (Skyscrapers)”, the fittingly thunderous intro, “Blessings” seems to rip a hole in the horizon. “All Your Fault” has traces of at least three Kanye albums: The College Dropout’s lush soul (even if its sample, Ambrosia’s “How Much I Feel”, isn’t a soul song), 808s & Heartbreak’s vocal manipulation, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s sprawl. Later, even that “Paradise” beat, minimal though it is, has a distinct atmosphere.
The overarching scope of the production is a redeeming factor when the songwriting weakens on the album’s second half (that is, post-“Win Some, Lose Some”). True, “One Man Can Change the World”, the piano-driven inspirational anthem that features Kanye and John Legend, is here to instill some thematic weight. But songs like “Stay Down” (which could use a better singer than Sean) and “I Know” (featuring Aiko in a more constricting role than she has on “Win Some, Lose Some”) underwhelm in comparison to, say, the more immediate “I Don’t Fuck with You” and “Paradise”. Mostly, though, Dark Sky Paradise is an ambitious, tasteful album from a rapper who’s often viewed as neither.
Essential Tracks: “I Don’t Fuck with You”, “Paradise (Extended)”, and “Win Some, Lose Some”