You can debate about a lot in Hip-Hop—best albums of all time, best rappers of all time, the 100 best songs of all time etc. Even though these are subjective categories that we’ve all discussed ad nauseum with each other, there is usually a general consensus among Hip-Hop heads because of the accumulated time and influence artists and their work have accrued. The one category that everyone seems to argue the most about is Rapper of the Year. Maybe it’s not as prestigious or glamorous as something credited with an “all time” status, but it is still important enough to make a difference in an artist’s career. Perhaps the category’s constant state of flux makes it such a debatable subject; or, perhaps it’s because perspectives can change drastically in just 12 months. Any way you slice it, there are always multiple rappers in the yearly “who was hottest” conversation with never any firm, democratic conclusion.
Despite the heated debates amongst Hip Hop lovers and experts alike, one name has consistently failed to make the cut as frequently as one might think: Big Sean. Since his debut mixtape dropped in 2007, Sean seems to always get left out of the big debate no matter what it is he does. Obviously, those who have had Big Sean pegged as their number one rapper since his Finally Famous mixtape days are going to disagree with this; but, you have to remember that group unanimity is powerful in Hip-Hop and a rapper’s relevance in the grand scheme of things is not determined by a small group of die-hard fans.
This isn’t necessarily because Big Sean’s projects have all been trash—it may be because he gets regularly outshined year-in and year-out. For example, in 2012 Big Sean had an onslaught of killer features and verses on G.O.O.D Music‘s collab album Cruel Summer. Anthems like “Mercy” and “Clique” gave Sean a wave of momentum into the release of his critically acclaimed mixtape, Detroit, which dropped on September 5th of that year. But just about a month and half later, Kendrick Lamar released his world stopping album good kid, m.A.A.d city and all of Big Sean’s accomplishments that year seemed to slip everyone’s mind. As a result of these shortcomings, Sean got placed in a second-tier box. His 2013 album Hall of Fame generally got mixed to negative reviews, and Lamar even stole his spotlight once again with his infamous “Control” verse. Consistently being told, whether directly or indirectly, that he is not as lyrical as J. Cole or doesn’t have as many hits as Drake puts him into an awkward “runner up” spot that might have hurt his ability to deliver—until now.
Big Sean’s newest album entitled Dark Sky Paradise is hands down his most concise project to date. Unlike his other studio albums that seemed driven by long radio single rollouts, this album only really nibbles at the strength of late 2014’s hit “IDFWU”. On September 12th, that track that was allegedly not a Naya Rivera diss dropped with a few other songs, giving listeners a peek into what Big Sean was cooking up for DSP. What we heard was a darker, gloomier sound with nothing but pure rhymes—something Sean brought even more of on the album. The overall tone of the album is exactly as the title describes; dark. The production and musical style are probably the furthest things from any album cuts you would have found on Finally Famous. Even though Sean employed a multitude of producers for the album, from song to song there is a noticeable consistency. He has credited his go-to producer and fellow Detroiter Key Wane with keeping things cohesive—and we can tell.
As a whole, the album’s production and aesthetic flow mirror an actual thunderstorm. It starts off with songs like “Blessings” feat. Drake, “All Your Fault” feat. Kanye West and “IDFWU” feat. E-40 —all of which are sharp and distinct on their own and seem to build up to something larger. This is not to say that Sean gets out-rapped on these featured songs, but the stage is clearly shared while Sean’s full lyrical prowess continues to grow stronger. That “something larger” comes in the form of the song “Paradise”. Not only does it literally have storm sound bites at the beginning but it is the lyrical equivalent of a massive thunderstormstorm. It is technically and stylistically perfect. He knocks down quick similes, clever metaphors, multisyllabic rhymes and some of the best rapid fire delivery we’ve heard in years. It is relentless—just when you think he’s done, he brings the thunder right back again and again.
Next roll in songs like “Win Some, Lose Some” feat. Jhene Aiko and “Stay Down” that serve as the calm after the storm. Sean takes this time to really address the tribulations that have caused him to take the darker route this time around. He touches on bits and pieces of his troubling past few years without excessively name dropping or sounding desperately corny. Lines like “Sometimes the best teachers is ourselves goin’ through somethin’/Real life will teach your ass way f***ing fast/I always thought my last girl was supposed to be my last” show us that Sean has no problem honestly admitting his thoughts about the past in a relatable way.
This relatability gets taken to a whole other level on “I Know”, another track with Jhene Aiko and “Deep” feat. Lil Wayne. Realistically, for the full effect they should be listened to as one whole song simply because their beats fit so seamlessly into one another and the subject matter goes hand in hand. From talking about the strenuous minutiae of relationships to dead family members to missed opportunities in life, Sean comes heavy-handed in these two. He even brings out the best Lil Wayne verse in recent memory. Closing out the album is “One Man Can Change The World”, which sounds exactly like that strong ray of sunlight poking through after the storm clouds have cleared. Feat. Kanye West and John Legend, the song is a piano-heavy ballad where Sean raps about the good, the bad and his grandmother. It is a genuinely positive and empowering song that will put a smile on your face even after an entire album of “thunderstorms”.
Without a shadow of a doubt this is Big Sean’s best work. He is confident, clear, honest and rapping at an extremely high caliber at every turn. This just goes to show that in today’s rap game to be the best, cohesive projects always trump. Not to say that this album doesn’t have stand alone tracks that you can hear in the club or drive around to, but from top to bottom the theme here is too evident to deny. With 2015 just getting underway and a lot of unreleased projects from Sean’s peers on the horizon, past experiences would tell us to count him out. But, if Dark Sky Paradise doesn’t put Big Sean at the top of your ‘best rappers of the year’ list, I don’t know what will.
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