– Prem Sylvester
Big Sean is an uncommonly positioned rapper – by all metrics, he’s a commercial success, familiar to even casual listeners, but he hasn’t been accepted into the elite of rap; his rapping skills still have plenty of detractors, and he doesn’t have that singular body of work to prove them wrong. This is, in his own eyes, Sean’s biggest hurdle – feeling like the underdog despite his success, like he has something to prove – a hunger that has driven him from his earliest days as a musician.
He’s had his ups and downs, but the one-two punch of Detroit and Dark Sky Paradise, his two strongest projects yet, have given listeners reason to pay attention to what he’s doing now, and to not underestimate his ability as a rapper and, more importantly, an artist. Coming off No More Interviews and Bounce Back, two of his best songs yet, I Decided is Sean’s musical litmus test.
// Countin’ money never felt as good as countin’ blessings //
This lyric from the very first track, Light, acts as the basis for Sean’s new perspective – while he once rapped “ain’t nothin’ more important than the mula,” Big Sean is no longer content with the money he’s raking in, but looking at the bigger picture. I Decided works as a loosely conceptual album, with Sean looking at his life through the eyes of his older self, reflecting on his mistakes and where his choices have led him. In tempering his material pursuits, he’s also toned down the braggadocio of his signature punchline-based style in favour of more introspective music. He explores nearly every aspect of his life, from his come-up, to his professional success, and his personal failures and growth with the maturity of a man truly coming into his own, but mindful of his status as an entertainer. He explores his story more deeply than he ever has, and it’s never boring.
The section dealing with his position as a rap star is aggressive, but it does something few other rappers of his stature do in their work – acknowledge his shortcomings, and push forward. In the tracks about his love life, he is acutely aware of his baggage, and he makes a decision to be detached from the vulnerability. The wind-down, recognizing the success he’s had and what we can make of it, inspired most prominently by his mother, is a pointedly personal affair, and some of his most poignant. Each of these segments of this album have some superb individual songs, but falter in delivering his message consistently. His pen is still not quite razor-sharp, and the emotional weight of the subject matter thus suffers in spots.
The production is atmospheric and thematic throughout, with some stellar beats couching Sean’s continuously varying flows. The production and flows are often Sean’s calling cards, and neither can be faulted throughout. Luckily, Sean sounds more confident than ever in his ability to capture the listener’s attention with a solid flow – and just when he gets comfortable, he switches it right up, ensuring a track never quite sits still. He consistently proves that while he may not have the strongest lyrical game around, he’s worthy of being noted as a skilled rapper based largely off his ear for beats and the flows that will work on them.
What sets Big Sean apart now, is his growth as a storyteller and musician, who’s very much capable as crafting cohesive albums – the gorgeous Flint Chozen Choir-assisted Bigger Than Me is a perfect closer to the album, and reaffirmation of the path Sean vows to take henceforth. This is not the Sean Don that made Dance(A$$) – although he hasn’t quite dropped the ass references – his playfulness reduced significantly in favour of the ambition to be accorded the same respect of the greatest of his rap peers. Whether that ambition is ever fulfilled remains to be seen – he’ll probably never reach the penmanship of a Kendrick – but I Decided is proof Sean will never settle for anything less.