Big Sean's Dark Sky Paradise / Image courtesy of Def Jam Recordings
The night before his somewhat hotly anticipated third album Dark Sky Paradise dropped, Big Sean hit the stage at downtown Manhattan nightclub SOB’s decked out in a chunky white cardigan, gold chain, and, of course, a fresh pair of Yeezy Boosts. Behind him sat New York rap radio on-air personalities Ebro Darden, Peter Rosenberg, and Laura Stylez on two white couches adorned with Hot 97 branded throw pillows. The audience—an assortment of unusually low-energy contest winners—showed sufficient love as he took his place for the ensuing Q&A. The trio subsequently lobbed softball questions and effusive praise for his imminent album at Detroit’s second-biggest rapper, who in turn mostly returned stock answers greased with cliches.
Asked about his approach to the material on Dark Sky Paradise, for instance, Sean replied, "It's taking a song and making it better, and then going back and making it better." If this semi-private promotional event was in any way meant to provide insight into the artist’s creative process and harness excitement for Dark Sky Paradise, it flopped. One of the worst things for any fan is to hear their favorite artist speak only to discover that outside of the music he has distressingly little to say. But then again, this is Big Sean, a rapper known for pop hits and one whose value has always seemed apparent primarily (and perhaps almost exclusively) to his artistic benefactor, Kanye West. Realistically, what did we expect?
Big Sean at SOB's / Photos by the author
If a year ago you told someone that Big Sean would have one of the most hyped hip-hop albums of any year, they’d probably have looked at you in disbelief or even laughed. While Sean Anderson plays a pivotal role as the lighthearted feature guy in the G.O.O.D. Music Voltron, he’s never exactly been anyone’s favorite rapper. But that was before singles “Blessings” and “I Don’t Fuck With You” elevated him from one of the most reliable wingmen in the business to a potential championship contender in the first quarter hip-hop doldrums of 2015. What a long strange product rollout it’s been.
As part of a G.O.O.D. roster that over the years has put him in the company of Pusha T’s unvarnished realness, John Legend’s sophisticated balladry, and Common’s elevated street poetry, Big Sean, who plays the role of lightweight goofball, seems like an outlier, raising the question of what Kanye West continues to see in him. But the Detroit native’s undeniable penchant for pop hooks and punchlines is well in line with Ye’s sensibilities. His style pushes much of Kanye’s music into less self-serious territory, and he rounds out the roster in a similar way to the rest of his peers orbiting their larger-than-life Midwestern boss.
It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement, with Sean playing to his strengths in exchange for Kanye The Curator bestowing cred and cool. If not for that critical and continuing co-sign, critics and fans might not otherwise be quite so forgiving of Sean’s shortcomings. Despite coming from a city as undeniably tough as Detroit, Sean’s bona fides as a spitter have been in question time and time again. His solo hits “Beware,” “Dance (A$$),” “Marvin & Chardonnay,” and “My Last” have all earned either gold or platinum RIAA certification off of digital downloads and streams, yet the clowning of Sean as an unserious rapper persisted. As more of a singles artist and go-to features guy, Sean has demonstrably faltered in the full-length format, with two prior major label albums, Finally Famous and Hall of Fame, that, to be kind, have sold modestly. Even in fairly positive reviews, critics regularly call him out for the lightness of his lyrics, which are often whimsical but scarcely substantive. In the realm of punchline rappers, on his best day he’s Jim Gaffigan: middle-of-the-road. Even Wale—whose 2013 LP The Gifted sold more than twice as many copies in its first week as Sean’s 2013 album Hall Of Fame—at least aspires to be Jerry Seinfeld.
“Before we recorded this album, I was with ‘Ye and we played [My Beautiful] Dark Twisted Fantasy,” Sean recalled to the Hot 97 hosts. “I was like, ‘Man that’s the feeling I wanna go for.’” Dark Sky Paradise is hardly a counterpart to West’s critically acclaimed maximalist hip-hop operetta. Sean even admitted as much, quickly backpedalling to say that his boss’ album “didn’t spark no songs, no ideas or nothing.”
Whether or not Big Sean had an instant classic on his hands, it sure seemed like he might in the months leading up to Dark Sky Paradise. The buzz began with a vague Roc Nation deal announcement and the simultaneous surprise drop last September of four all-new songs including “Paradise” (produced by Mike WiLL Made-It) and the aforementioned “I Don’t Fuck With You” (co-produced by West and DJ Mustard). Both of those would end up on the record, but the latter became an unlikely breakout hit and another platinum-selling single. At the Q&A, Sean expressed surprise that the profane track became a rotation staple on stations like Hot 97. “I feel like the people made that song a radio song,” he said, before proceeding to recite the chorus in full to the amused crowd.
As we know, radio hits haven’t historically led to big album sales for Big Sean, but the profile of the record promised a break with that tradition. Executive produced by Sean and West, the Dark Sky Paradise track listing boasted appearances by Chris Brown, Lil Wayne, and John Legend, among others. Drake, an artist in the midst of his own reinvention, imbued Sean’s “Blessings” with the same braggart clout that carried tracks like “0-100” and “Trophies.” And Sean's first verse was at least as tight as Drake's. Whispers on social media that Sean was rapping amplified into a roar not long after “Blessings” hit last month, shifting the narrative enough to suggest a leap in Sean’s abilities. Hip-hop isn't exactly known for second opinions, but the clowning dwindled and practically ceased in the lead up to what many were preemptively calling the best work of Sean’s career.
Big Sean at SOB's
Now that Dark Sky Paradise is here, however, there’s no more room for speculation. On the surface, there's little that separates it from his prior records, with its familiar mixture of radio aspirants and party poppers. Sean's more overtly personal, as on past relationship recap (and current relationship collaboration) “Research” or the touching tribute to his grandmother "One Man Can Change The World." Saying that Sean's got raps now implies that he didn't before—which he did, even if his most thrilling features often verged on dad joke level obviousness. His breathless, recently added second verse on "Paradise" is, as many people have suggested, a standout. He still relies heavily on puns and punchlines, and there are plenty of groaners. But there’s also an undeniable charisma to his corniness. Ultimately, he's no more or less serious than before. Even his race laments seem limited to superficial sociocultural status symbols like the fountain outside the Ritz-Carlton. This isn't the radical shift between 808s and MBDTF or MBDTF and Yeezus. His paradise is more of a purgatory; not even the comparatively darker beats differentiate the album enough from Finally Famous and Hall Of Fame.
Even though Dark Sky Paradise isn't the record to entirely transform Big Sean into hip-hop's 2015 savior—especially after Drake's latest mixtape/album stole his dark sky’s thunder—it's about the best complete thing we've gotten from him. Success is comparative, after all; not every rapper needs to be Kanye West. Big Sean's career thus far stands up to criticism based on numbers alone: He’s not only still around, he’s bigger, better, and hotter than ever. His place seemingly secure in the G.O.O.D. multiverse, and at the end of the day he'll be remembered for a string of memorable singles even if Dark Sky Paradise isn't a huge success. Then again, it might be: As Sean so tritely but accurately suggested, it’s the product of an artist focusing on what makes him good and making it incrementally better.
Gary Suarez is a writer living under New York's darkening skies. Follow him on Twitter.