If you believe everything you read, you probably agree that Detroit-born rapper Big Sean's last album, Hall of Fame (Good/ Def Jam, 2013), didn't live up to the hype, that he let his own relationship problems get in the way of his music, and that he fell into the dreaded "sophomore slump." But more often than not, the idea of the sophomore slump is itself manufactured, a cliché. It's an overly dramatic way of saying that an album lacked the shine and punch of an artist's debut record, which they had their whole life to prepare for. When you have an emcee who came out shining as brightly as Big Sean, it's possible that the flash just doesn't seem as bright the second time around.
Enter Dark Sky Paradise (Good/ Def Jam): This is it, the Cass Tech graduate's Mama Said Knock You Out moment. It's his uppercut to critics who insinuated that Big Sean was nothing more than a short-term Kanye lab experiment. Dark Sky Paradise is more aggressive and more boastful. It's melancholy and emotional, but not overly Drake-ish. Sean runs his way in and around beats the way Barry Sanders used to dodge defenders with that "on the beat, but I sound like I'm off beat" style of his.
In the opening track, "Dark Sky," Sean talks about the struggle of trying to constantly move upward in life and music while acknowledging the misconceptions of his journey. He raps, "And then they say it happened for me overnight, shit, yeah I guess/ I guess it took 10 years for me to be an overnight success." The track serves as a three minute table-setter to the rest of the album.
On the likable "Blessings," he outshines Drake (which is never that hard to do) and shows appreciation to God, for friends, prosperity, and the ability to provide for his family. It's not as church-friendly as "Jesus Walks," but it does come across as slightly more sincere. With guest Drake's staggered monotone singing of the hook, "Wayyy up, I feel blessed," this is the album's catchiest track.
"All Your Fault" prominently features everybody's favorite egomaniac, Kanye West (just peep his first verse: "That's that don't play, whoo, that's that new Ye'/ People sayin' I'm the closest thing to Mike since Janet"). Though the beat is not one of West's finest; the song wins because of the obvious chemistry that Sean and West share. They trade the mic EPMD-style on the last verse, which sounds so good; you wish they had done the whole song that way.
He borrows Jhené Aiko from Childish Gambino for the slowed down "Win Some, Lose Some," which is basically a "bro' letter" to his Detroit homies, and "I Know," your typical joint about bumping uglies. John Legend definitely helps "One Man Can Change the World" succeed in being the most inspirational hip-hop song of the year, while the melancholy "Deep" pairs Sean up with Lil' Wayne. "I Don't Fuck With You" is the deleted expletive-driven radio hit we all remember from last fall, while "Stay Down" and "Play No Games" could honestly have been left off the album and no one would have noticed.
"Paradise (Extended)"might be the hardest and most menacing track he's ever recorded. Sean picks up where he left off from the first version (which dropped in September) with wrecking ball type lyrics through a wicked Mike Will Made It-style beat. It's as if he has his thumb stuck on the "B" through the whole song: "Aw damn, I'm illuminated, man, I knew I make it/ And I get that shit accumulated/ Never throwing money out, I boomerang it/ Finally famous over everything, that's a numerator/ Weed lit, yeah, it's laminated, room lookin' like it's fumigated."
The best thing about Dark Sky Paradise is that Big Sean is still himself. He didn't morph into a gangsta caricature or withdraw into his inner core to become an insecure emo rapper. He stuck to his style, stepped up his game, got us up-to-date on his journey, and brought forward more of the person he truly is. This ultimately created a third album with just as much substance as it has shine.