REVIEW: Big Sean – ‘Dark Sky Paradise’

Artist: Big Sean
Album: Dark Sky Paradise
Genre: Hip-Hop/Rap

Dark Sky Paradise is not one step closer to the record fans have been waiting for Big Sean to create, but five. Coming off the largely forgettable Hall Of Fame, the Detroit native spent the majority of 2014 crafting his most honest, ambitious, and creative record to date. It’s not perfect, but then again neither is he.

Opening with “Dark Sky (Skyscrapers),” Sean reintroduces himself while touching on topics like wealth, success, and the patience you need in order to attain either. His flow flip-flops from slow to fast and back again, always with slight variation in tone. There is a clear sense of newfound aggression on this track and it remains consistent throughout the best moments on the album. Determination has never been something most have doubted about Sean, but his drive is made crystal clear in “Blessings,” which features Drake without becoming a Drake track. The same cannot be said for Kanye’s influence on “All Your Fault,” but it is hard for anyone to steal the spotlight from Yeezus when he chooses to showcase his once prominent rap skills. In fact, it is Sean’s admirable and damn-near-successful attempt to even match wits with Kanye that makes the song memorable. When they begin swapping bars at the end, it’s as if a time warp has occurred and the heyday of Run DMC has returned, only with a 21st century attitude.

The mega-single “I Don’t Fuck With You” plays as well now as ever, but its high energy fun is quickly lost when the disposable “Play No Games” begins. Chris Brown and Ty Dolla $ign do their best to make the quasi R&B crossover work, but given the serious and aggressive tone of the preceding material it’s a change of pace that could not come at a worse time. Fortunately, an extended cut of last year’s viral hit “Paradise” hits just in time to regain any momentum lost in the previous four minutes. It’s here Sean delivers some of his strongest lines by once again reflecting on his hometown and its economical decline.

“What, you think this life just landed on me? / My whole town looks like it’s abandoned, homie / And we came straight out of those abandoned homes / Every wish we ever had got granted, homie.”

There’s something to be said about eventually finding new stories to tell, but Sean’s entire career has been about inspiring others to rise above their surroundings. Talking about Detroit’s rough conditions and how he found a way to get out without leaving his friends or family behind is as important to who Big Sean is as an artist as his signature flows and catchphrases, if not more so. He hasn’t always leveraged it in the most original or engaging ways, but it’s clear on Dark Sky Paradise that he has turned a corner. This may be due to the death of his Grandma, or perhaps the end of his engagement, but whatever the case he’s been able to see past the easy references to excess and touch on more meaningful scenes from his life. Sean’s biggest problem has always been balancing heart with ego and a love for the wild life. His thirst for bigger and better things has been the best and worst thing about his career. It works on singles, but on the last few records it became redundant. That is not the case here, but all those components are as present as ever.

The back half of Dark Sky Paradise starts extremely strong with the one-two punch of “Win Some, Lose Some” and “Stay Down.” The former finds Sean questioning the age-old saying regarding one’s ability to always come out on top while carrying out a conversation with himself with two unique flows. It’s a high concept track that works largely due to its simple metaphors and mid-tempo flow, which makes it something everyone can appreciate. “Stay Down” is far more straightforward, with Sean taking a thematic break from the seriousness of the album to celebrate the fact he made it to the top with his closest friends at his side. It’s yet another concept we have found Sean including on every record, but this does a far better job than most of fitting the flow of the album while having radio play potential. You can close your eyes and see the late night club-themed music video that will likely surface sometime in the year ahead.

Aside from the outro, on which Sean gives out his phone number to anyone looking to speak with him, the last tracks of Dark Sky Paradise boast some of the album’s biggest features. The Jhene Aiko-assisted “I Know” is a darkly sensual song about escaping a relationship on the rocks with a beautiful stranger, while “Deep” features one of the best Lil Wayne verses of the last three years. It’s not better than Sean’s contribution to the bass-heavy track, which, as the song suggests, dives deep into the issues Sean faces on a daily basis, but it tops 90% of Sorry For The Wait 2. “One Man Can Change The World” has less rap than either of the previous songs, but thanks to a gorgeous hook provided by John Legend and Kanye West it’s likely the song that will stay with you the longest. It’s a sweeping, yet not-too-long track about loving yourself and using your inner happiness to make the world a better place. Not exactly the toughest or hippest of themes, but that doesn’t matter because you can sense Sean’s passion for the material and in the end it’s that connection that matters most.

It may take several hundred listens to understand how he’s done it, but Big Sean finds a way on Dark Sky Paradise to combine ego, excess, and good intentions with true stories from his own life to not only inspire others, but entertain them without coming across as cheesy or altogether forgettable. He’s long had his own place in the world of hip-hop, but here he proves that his sound could very well be the dominant sound of urban music in 2015. He may not have been a true contender for the crown the last two years or so, with this release Sean does far more than simply enter the ring. No, with this release Sean enters the ring and delivers a swift uppercut to everyone currently leading stagnant careers off the success of their previous singles. He, like many consumers, is demanding more from himself and everyone else. He’s kicking off a new year with a renewed drive to succeed, and unless someone else steps up soon he could very well make 2015 the year of Big Sean.

SCORE: 8.5/10
Review written by James Shotwell

James Shotwell
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