To hear Big Sean tell it, he’s living in the Twilight Zone.
The concept behind his new album, the dramatically punctuated I Decided., plays out loosely in a handful of skits, but it’s underlined plainly in the phone call between Sean and his mother that closes the album. At 28-years-old with three successful albums, deals with both Kanye West and Jay Z, and a penchant for romancing some of the baddest women in Hollywood, things are going so well for Big Sean that he is convinced he must be living out a second chance at life, his re-do.
As the album begins, a world-weary old man is too busy lamenting a wasted life to notice a car barreling towards him. Cue dreamy piano keys and Jeremih’s ethereal voice. The man is reborn as Sean with his whole life ahead of him and renewed hope and energy to put on for himself and his city. Now he has the foresight to steer himself away from past mistakes and towards fixing old ones, and is set on making the most of it. It’s a concept that seems more fitting for a debut album than a fourth, and the fact that Sean is still dwelling on his success despite 10 years in the game and 6 since his first album says a lot about his state of mind.
Along with “No More Interviews,” the warning-shot loosie he dropped to start the hype machine, the bulk of I Decided features a subtext of arrogance and indignation beneath Sean’s trademark affability. “‘Damn Sean, what happened to the humble attitude?’” he mocks early on in the project on “No Favors,” before revealing the source of his frustration later in the verse: “How many hot verses til you bitches start acknowledging the pictures we been painting?” (No matter how mad Big Sean gets, it’ll always be hard to register his tone as anything but casual; Eminem’s presence gives the song’s tone a much-needed snarling reinforcement.)
Big Sean works hard, and reminding us how hard he works has been a go-to trope of his since he problematically described his work ethic as grinding “10 to 10 like a Mexican.” But it’s hard not to empathize with his feelings here; the narrative of a song like “Bounce Back” rings true. He rebounded from a universally acknowledged sophomore slump—references to being counted out are littered across Decided—and returned not only with a better project but his best, critically and commercially. And still, the various superlatives reserved for rap’s reigning class are only ever applied to his peers. The disdain on “No More Interviews”—“I can’t lie like I like this shit like I usually do...who you put in your top five and claim they the savior of rap”—was tangible, and seemed to set the stage for a moody, almost petulant Sean on his fourth go-round.
But I Decided’s conclusion reveals he’s already come out on the other side of that turmoil, and this album is him literally arcing out his path to enlightenment. Self-doubt and anxiety get a full showcase on “Halfway Off the Balcony” and “Voices in My Head/Stick to the Plan” but only so that Sean can crash and rebuild by dialing in on what’s most important. “Sunday Morning Jetpack” and “Inspire Me” are both odes to family; “Sacrifices” reckons with the compromise and loss required to stave off a fate like the Ghost of Detroit past, while also bigging up a girl—the One Who (Had) Got Away he wins back earlier in the story on album standout “Jump Out the Window”—willing to hold him down through it. By the time “Bigger Than Me,” Sean’s best outro to date, rides out on the dulcet turnt hymns of putting on from the Flint Chozen Choir, Sean’s character has achieved full-on spiritual repose, a peace we saw Sean achieve during the beginning of the album’s promo run. On The Tonight Show he added these bars to a live performance of “Bounce Back”: “I decided that counting money never feel as good as counting blessings...I decided for the first time in my life no second guessing. I decided in this moment and time right now who the best is. I'm the best."
It’s a conviction reflected in the tracklist itself. Coming off of Hall of Fame, Dark Sky Paradise had to have blockbuster moments like Kanye and Drake on the same song, Chris and Ty Dolla $ign on another, and an Ariana Grande hook to secure all markets and attention. Having accomplished the goal of reassertion though, Sean’s left to his own devices here, and feeling secure in his own abilities. The Rolodex of famous friends from GOOD/Roc family to popping peers remains largely untouched, short of an understandable reach out to the Migos. Successfully commanding our attention with his usual array of flows largely for dolo over production from personal go-tos like Key Wane and Amaire Johnson (who handles the bulk of the beats) as well as in-demand hitters like Metro Boomin, DJ Mustard, and DJ Dahi is a flex the album needed to truly underline Sean’s ambitions. Your mileage may vary between this and DSP—the latter has flashier moments for sure, but the songwriting in general feels stronger and more substantial here, particularly when comparing back halves.
On Dark Sky Paradise’s “Deep,” Lil Wayne goes out of his way to reassure Sean his feelings of being underrated aren’t mere narcissism—“Is it because he ain’t got the tattoos? He ain’t throwin up signs?” On his fourth album, Big Sean is made better by his definitive decision to stop dwelling on why he, to paraphrase Wayne, doesn’t always get enough shine, and just focus on doing.