For Big Sean fans, it’s almost unanimous that Detroit was better than Hall of Fame. From stories of the city by Common, Jeezy and Snoop Lion to solidifying his brand of idiosyncratic raps with “Mula” and “FFOE,” G.O.O.D. Music’s ad-lib king was on the cusp of having his moment in Hip Hop. In years after Hall Of Fame’s mixed response — he’s discussed openly about the sophomore slump curse — Sean has changed his game plan. He’s set the bar high for any aspiring emcee to get on his level, shaking off that Kendrick Lamar call out to welcome more blessings with high-profile appearances from Justin Bieber, Jessie J and Lil Wayne. His celebrity status rose last year when he started dating Pop-R&B siren Ariana Grande. Before her, he was engaged to Glee star Naya Rivera (a beautiful bullet he claims he dodged). But more importantly, Sean is a lot more of focused on putting out the best music of his career. He wants his fans to get excited — like crashing-Datpiff-excited again. It’s on his third studio album, Dark Sky Paradise, that listeners are seeing a fully formed emcee ready to seize the spotlight.
While Detroit paid tribute to Sean’s hometown and had a respectable list of guest appearances, Dark Sky Paradise ventures into his troubling thoughts of maintaining fame and coping with loss. The DONDA artwork, a rain-stained Big Sean with his head in thunderclouds, is a representation of the shaky couple of years he’s been through. In this case drama does make for the best content, as the album is dominated by thunderstorms before it switches to sunnier skies. Key Wane’s presence, along with Mike WiLL Made-It, Vinylz, Boi-1da, T-Minus, DJ Dahi and more contribute to the rapper’s concept of finding paradise in a stormy darkness. The production is cleaner and crisper — all overseen by Sean and West and without the help of industry veteran No I.D. who is noticeably absent. And Sean’s raison d’etre seems to have shifted slightly after his tribulations. Content to avoid drama in the past, Sean has realized the only way out is in.
On “Dark Sky (Skyscrapers),” the 26-year-old is no longer looking up, but rather basking in the skyline view. “I knew I lived this life back when I was young and used to climb trees / I should’ve known back then I wasn’t gonna stop, cause even then I was infatuated with just sitting at the top,” he raps. Elsewhere, “I Know” has Sean exhausted with being famous and needing a vacation, so he leans on the support of Jhené Aiko for a little R&R. In another Jhené assist, “Win Some, Lose Some” is reflective Sean weighing out the challenges of success and becoming a breakout star in the mainstream. Despite a contrast to straightforward tracks like “Mona Lisa” and “MILF” on Hall of Fame, Sean’s optimism in battling his personal demons makes him a lot more appealing.
Throughout Dark Sky Paradise, mentors play a pivotal role for Big Sean and how their guidance helps shape his worldview. His father is the first voice we hear on “Dark Sky (Skyscrapers),” a recorded conversation during a car ride together, where he acknowledges his son is home again. Later on “Win Some, Lose Some,” that same convo reveals how his father strongly believes it isn’t a mistake that Sean is reaching his peak levels. Another track in particular is “One Man Can Change the World,” a heartfelt rap ballad made in memory of his late grandmother. Backed by the piano keys of Amaire Johnson and emotional croons of his G.O.O.D. Music brothers, Sean’s testimony on his endless potential is motivating. It all comes full circle with “Blessings,” the inspirational song that seemingly confirmed Kanye’s prophecy about Sean’s star power.
Not all of Dark Sky Paradise expresses Sean’s doubts and internal struggles. There’s an even balance of titular songs that showcases why he’s such an entertaining rapper. The first half is practically mandatory — thanks to the allure of the Ambrosa’s “How Much I Feel” sample on “All Your Fault” and the soulful “Play No Games” (with Chris Brown and Ty Dolla $ign), which is clearly Ariana’s favorite. “I.D.F.W.U.”, the quasi-hateful anthem toward exes featuring E-40, marks a new trajectory for him. This is Big Sean in his prime, utilizing his elastic voice to deliver flexing bars on dismissing a former relationship. Even the deluxe version tracks have replay value (“Deserve It” proves PARTYNEXTDOOR will have an unstoppable 2015; “Research” is Pop-Rap perfected; “Platinum & Wood” displays Sean’s excellence storytelling), and he’s still giving out more music for his fans before the album drops.
There’s a key moment in “Deep” that describes Big Sean’s current mood. It’s from Lil Wayne, who contemplates why Sean doesn’t get enough shine because of his clean cut image. “And it ain’t about if they remember you, they remember rap,” Wayne advises. “So just spit it back and hope somebody diggin’ that.” Whereas advice like this and the Kanye endorsement were enough reasons to pay attention to him, here Sean stepped it up lyrically to recreate the same energy that surrounded his release of Detroit. With Dark Sky Paradise, Big Sean is prepared to leave his mark.