Dark Sky Paradise
Occasionally, when he means to tug at your chordae tendineae, Big Sean raps like a Very Special Episode of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Like Will at his sitcom’s melodramatic lowest, when the director slides the dimmer, Sean will shed his abundance of puns and bravado, and he will rap a few autobiographical truths, put modestly enough that I never think of him as a brand selling me a $10 album. I believe his details and find him compelling, despite the long, unfortunate history of hashtag punchlines and whatnot. In Big Sean’s corniness, there is vulnerability, truth, and consequences.
I can’t shake the urge to compare/contrast Big Sean and Drake, two brothers from underrated regions, both of them milking rap’s standard-issue underdog narrative years beyond its sell-by date. For all his introspective surges, Drake is obsessively manicured, with all the puffery and self-hype platitudes of a narcissist whose safest harbor is his bedroom mirror. I get none of that from Sean, who, instead of clique anthem compilation, went and made a breakup album that, somehow, effectively doubles as a tribute to his late grandmother. So here we have a rap album that my own mother could love, hip-hop's vulgarities withstanding.
The love-shunted first half of Dark Sky Paradise frontloads Sean’s metric ton of pettiness via the Henny-fueled spite of “I.D.F.W.U.,” last year’s earliest hint of Big Sean’s darker, jilted direction. “All Your Fault” is soft-rock ambrosia, which Sean's mentor and guest Kanye West spices with talk of “coochie,” “Goofy,” and “Karrueche.” On “Blessings,” featuring evil brother Drake, Sean churns that Gatling flow of his to a level of confidence that somewhat justifies his being offbeat: “This ain't what I want, man, this what it had to be.”
Sean, like many young men cruising for sex and validation, is eager to leave listeners (in much of his narrative framing, they’re specifically women) with only the most extravagant impression of him. “Play No Games,” in which Chris Brown, on the hook, pleads for a woman to take him seriously, is (nonetheless) so suave and upbeat that I might’ve guessed that it was a lead single. “Research,” which is unforgivably demoted to deluxe bonus cut status despite its featuring Big Sean’s current bae, Ariana Grande, is the sort of goddess magic that Mariah Carey wishes she could still cast in 2015. “Play No Games” and “Research” are the album’s pop high-points, and they’re powerful counterweights to the more thoroughly hip-hop hits, “I.D.F.W.U.” and “Paradise.”
All his scorned lover’s fronting aside, Dark Sky’s dimmer half is tender to a fault. “Deep,” featuring Lil Wayne, is a wimpy dirge. “Stay Down” is stilted, sedated staccato, a Big Sean b-side if I’ve ever heard one. In this last stretch, Sean is most admirable when he’s recounting Detroit lore, sketching family portraits, and hat-tipping the memory of his late grandmother.
Dark Sky’s bravest song, “One Man Can Change the World,” is tremendously earnest and arguably corny, yet it’s my favorite song on here; the pitch at which Sean, Kanye, and John Legend sing their respective takes on the hook, a sort of hymn—”I hope that you get everything you want and that you chose”—is awesomely tentative, like a mother’s parting kiss as you skip off into the metropolis. Likewise, “Win Some, Lose Some” is impressively conflicted, chock full of wrecked promises: “Damn, nigga, you did it; but dammit, you did it wrong.” (“Getting dressed up for court/That’s a lawsuit” used to be the sort of line that would twist my lips into a cringe, but on a somber song like “Win Some, Lose Some” or a harsh cut like “I.D.F.W.U.,” such flashes of goofiness can work as a salve.)
Sean is least compelling and indistinct when he resorts to one of his two rote flows—Super Stilted Staccato Sean or else Tazmanian Sean—both of which tend to drown his songwriting in a vocal styling that ain’t quite stylish enough. “Paradise,” for instance, is a whirlwind of confetti-thin boast, all for the sake of forcing him to rhyme “Raymond” with “ramen.” Occasionally clumsy but wonderfully plainspoken, and impassioned when he wants to be, Sean has advanced (if not graduated) from the tepid mythmaking of Hall of Fame. Here he’s dynamic, and a pretty good rapper. No fronting.
Justin Charity is a staff writer at Complex. Follow him at @brothernumpsa.