I, like most hip hop fans, have become quite pessimistic about the current state of the genre. By default, the future looks pretty bleak as well. There are countless reasons for the overall disappointment in the cultural phenomenon, but my only big problem has been the lack of passion. I remember growing up(sorry to sound like an old man) and feeling the emotion in each lyric. Mainstream music has become so microwaved and systematic now that most powerful hip hop is classified as underground. Thankfully, there seems to be a rising wave of great art pushing back to the forefront of the rap scene. Artists like Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and J. Cole have elevated the entire game recently by harmoniously being innovative while taking the craft back to its roots.
Big Sean isn’t a newcomer, but the release of his third studio album may actually be the first genuine introduction we’ve received from the Detroit rapper. His first album, Finally Famous, basically served as a mix of summer anthems in 2011. While I admittedly enjoyed it, I didn’t take the project as being anything more than a decent work from a mediocre talent. My confidence in Sean’s staying power increased greatly in 2012 when I checked out his Detroit mix tape. His lyrical styling worked well with the Kanye West flavor that was sprinkled throughout the project. Just when I felt he was coming into his own and preparing to enter the never-ending “Top Five” argument, he released Hall of Fame in 2013. I listened to the sophomore effort several times in hopes of hearing something better. I felt Sean was completely confused about what type of artist he wanted to be at that point.
It’s probably fairly evident now that I was not excited about listening to Dark Sky Paradise. I expected even more random tracks just thrown together with lackluster rhymes. Sean released a track called Control last year featuring Kendrick Lamar. Of course, Lamar fired the shots heard around the world when he called out Big Sean and many other new generation rappers. Big Sean took this opportunity to answer Lamar’s call to action. The album begins with what may be one of the best rap intros in recent years, Skyscrapers. The Kanye West protegé starts off by simply revealing the thoughts he has while visiting home. It only takes about eight bars to realize that this isn’t going to be a gimmick filled project. The tone is set by the flawless intro, but it’s then enhanced by the hard-hitting single that follows.
Big Sean brings in Drake for Blessings. Drake has been on fire since taking the rap world by storm more than 5 years ago and while he meshes well in the song, Sean could have easily taken the track alone. The third track, All Your Fault, is special. It’s produced by Kanye West and features him. Kanye uses his signature sampling and blends it masterfully with a hypnotic bass line. West leads it off with a signature verse of controversial statements, but the headline here is how Big Sean holds his own. He finds numerous ways to ride the beat, setting up a brilliant climatic tag team verse with his mentor. On Play No Games, Sean gets some help from Chris Brown and Ty Dolla Sign to make a smooth R&B banger. One of my favorite groups of all time is Guy, so the fact that the track samples their classic, Piece of My Love, just magnified my listening enjoyment.
On Win Some, Lose Some, Big Sean opens up about some struggles he’s had after obtaining fame. From going to court to help out a friend to going through a bad break-up while his mentor married a Kardashian, he explains that fame only makes troubles that much more difficult. My feeling about the theme of the album was confirmed when the track ended with the words, “People feel what you’re saying. They don’t even intellectualize it. Life is a feeling process.”. I’m pretty vocal about my disdain for DJ Mustard’s work. His productions have been dominating the radio waves for well over a year now and I can’t grasp how the most elementary, repetitive tracks keep winning. Well Mustard produces I Know and manages to get my vote of confidence. The track is low-key sultry while having a definite club hype vibe to it. Mustard’s bass line, Sean’s laid back flow, and Jhene Aiko’s mellow register work together perfectly.
On the Key Wane produced Deep, Big Sean invites Lil Wayne in to talk about how the so-called rap game isn’t a game at all once involved. Lil Wayne has had a very public dispute going on with his lifelong mentor and label recently. Hearing him vent about the feelings involved is quite eye-opening and gripping. I think the track is a perfect reminder that our entertainment is life for these artists. The aspect I love most about Dark Sky Paradise is that most tracks are collaborations between multiple producers. I believe there’s no better way to elevate a work from an album to an experience.
As I said in the beginning, there has been a slight surge of improvement and artistry in hip hop recently. It only takes one great album to get some credit for this new era and I feel comfortable saying Big Sean has done exactly that with Dark Sky Paradise. This is a work of passion and growth. It’s so rare to sit and actually listen to a full rap album now. This is the first one I’ve enjoyed so thoroughly since Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and that’s a huge compliment. If Big Sean isn’t in the conversation of current top lyricists after this effort, I believe he should at least be close. A beautiful story of nostalgia, struggle, and celebration accompanied by back-breaking beats and haunting synthesizers create a top notch experience. I believe most fans of lyricism and creative production will agree.