Close to a year ago, things weren’t looking so good for Big Sean. The G.O.O.D. Music rapper was in the midst of a breakup with former fiance and Glee star Naya Rivera; it seemed to be on the verge of getting very public and very ugly. Kendrick Lamar’s verse off “Control” — a throwaway from Big Sean’s 2013 LP, Hall of Fame — overpowered much of the talk around his sophomore effort that didn’t live up to its name due to its lack of focus and cohesion.
Instead of being steamrolled by the pressure, the 26-year-old wordsmith went back to the pad — both his rhyme book and the Sunset Strip mansion that doubles as his recording home. And on Sept. 12, everything changed. He announced his signing to Roc Nation management and unexpectedly released an untitled four-song EP that featured everyone’s new favorite splitsville soundtrack, “I Don’t F— With You,” assumed by many to be a sniper shot at his aforementioned ex. The E-40-featured sing-along peaked at No. 11 on the Hot 100 and rejuvenated the excitement for what came next from a new, brasher Big Sean.
That next big thing is here: The rapper’s third studio album, Dark Sky Paradise, is gloomier and more angsty than its predecessor. Like a pendulum, he oscillates between basking in his luxuries and the fear of losing it all; between knowing he’s one of the greatest of his generation and worrying if one even notices; between toasting to his blessings and battling his demons; between bemoaning past loves and thanking God for his new girlfriend, Ariana Grande (who’s featured on bonus track “Research”). With sterling wordplay and a consistent melancholy vibe, the Detroit native took all the tension, the highs and lows, and laid it out on wax, compiling the strongest project of his career. What a difference a year makes.
Read on for Billboard‘s track-by-track review of Big Sean’s Dark Sky Paradise.
1. “Dark Sky (Skyscrapers)”
The opening track of Dark Sky Paradise sets the tone for the album. Big Sean hops on a sparse Boi-1da instrumental to shake off mooches, reflect on his hard work and the fruits it’s afforded him. He also digests some OG wisdom from Bigger Sean: “Was talking to my dad though on some other s–t/ He like ‘Man, slow down with the girls you’re f–king with/ If they ain’t a quarterback, there’s no point of rushing it/ Don’t make the same mistakes I made with your mother,’ but that’s on some other s–t.” Reflection, diligence, decadence, the chip-on-his-shoulder mentality — they’re all constant themes throughout the LP.
2. “Blessings” (Feat. Drake)
Kendrick Lamar famously stole the show on Hall of Fame leftover “Control.” This time around though, Big Sean would not be made a two-time corpse by one of his other comrades, Drake. He floats all over the eerie Vinylz production, toasting to his good fortune with wordplay sharp as broken glass: “Never going under even with anesthetics/ At the top of the rap game and progressin’/ Check after check, checking off my checklist/ Try and blow my cake, just know that’s a death wish.” Drizzy’s verse is consistent with his current narcissistic phase, but the blithe “wayyy up” portion of the hook is his strongest contribution here.
3. “All Your Fault” (Feat. Kanye West)
It’s hard to believe Big Sean and Kanye West have only recorded one rap duet prior to DSP, considering how seamlessly they trade lines over this colorful ‘Ye track; it’s reminiscent of Jadakiss and Styles P. On top of delivering the type of soul he starved us of on Yeezus, Kanye West is the only way he knows how to be: crass. “Young Walt Disney, I’ma tell you truthfully/ If you leave Mickey you gon’ end up with a Goofy/ I imagine thats what Chris told Karrueche/ Girls be actin’ like it’s diamonds in they coochie.” Overall, the song isn’t so much a torch lateral as much as a symbol of Sean’s graduation to the elite. “I ain’t satisfied bein’ on that top 5 list… ‘Til everything I spit is all timeless,” he asserts.
4. “I Don’t F–k With You” (Feat. E-40)
“I Don’t F–k With You” is the type of record that could’ve emerged from a Friday night dorm room hangout in which a group of six friends smoked like 1,000 blunts and drank 80 PBRs each. Yet alas, with the elastic synths of DJ Mustard’s most soulful beat, E-40’s signature lingo and D.J. Rogers “Say You Love Me, One More Time” sample (flipped by co-producers DJ Dahi and West), Big Sean’s petty party becomes a contagious anthem to dedicate to fake friends and bitter ex-lovers: “Everyday I wake up celebratin’ s–t, why?/ ‘Cause I just dodged a bullet from a crazy b—h.” Big Sean scored the most pivotal record of his career by telling us how he really feels.
5. “Play No Games” (Feat. Chris Brown and Ty Dolla $ign)
Can we please get some more Guy samples in hip-hop? Key Wane slithers from the new jack swing trio’s “Piece Of My Love” to create a groovy soundbed for Big Sean to spit his playboy bravado. He hits Drake-level lady pandering: “I’m the one that you gon’ take that dress you saving out the closet/ I’m the one you need alone/ I’m the one that when you ’round your friends, that you gotta put on speakerphone/ Just so you can let them know what we be on/Like, ‘he the one.'” Chris Brown and Ty Dolla $ign, “Loyal” co-conspirators, contribute vocals that guarantee another hit for all three.
6. “Paradise (Extended)”
Big Sean put the entire rap game on alert when he dropped his untitled four-song EP in September, which featured “I Don’t F–k With You,” as well as this Mike WiLL Made-It-laced heat rock. And, while the original version was an eyebrow-raising lyrical workout, the added album verse only ups the ante. “Look at my girl, ni–a, f–k yo’ bae list/ F–k yo’ night list, f–k yo’ day list, f–k yo’ playlist/ I’m from the D, f–k your A-list/ I been working eight days a week/ I don’t even know what the f–k today is,” he rhymes swiftly, with fire in his eyes burning bright as ever.
7. “Win Some, Lose Some” (Feat. Jhené Aiko)
The album takes a dip in mood on this first of two Jhené Aiko collaborations. Her voice haunts the chorus like an old ghost tale, as Sean expresses survivor’s remorse to friends from Detroit who don’t understand how his lifestyle prevents him from keeping in touch. He’s looking in the rear-view, frustrated, questioning past decisions, like his failed relationship with Naya Rivera. “Wishin’ me and you were no strings attached, but we’re knots,” he rhymes, later indirectly shaking his head at her post-breakup accusations that he stole a Rolex watch from her.
8. “Stay Down”
After rationalizing the demands of his 25-8 grind on “Paradise,” Sean salutes his day ones with “Stay Down,” a mellow pledge of solidarity. With it’s tempered instrumental, the bromance anthem lacks the energy of, say, Wiz Khalifa’s “We Dem Boyz,” but it’s sure to prompt many to obnoxiously stand on couches while at the club and spill your Jack and coke on the friendless bobbing.
9. “I Know” (Feat. Jhené Aiko)
Big Sean and Jhené Aiko serve as each other’s stress relievers on the sexier song of their DSP double header. While he invites her to get lit at SXSW, the feather-voiced singer offers up herself as a “vacation” from his turbulent relationship, with innuendo that might make Quagmire blush (“Take a load off on my private island/ Come inside and go into hiding,” she coos.) The climax comes in verse four, on which Jhené’s soothing voice overlaps Sean’s baritone to form irresistible harmony.
10. “Deep” (Feat. Lil Wayne)
The last of three consecutive sullen tracks on Dark Sky Paradise finds our host getting introspective. He’s paranoid of losing it all but still confident that he’s here to stay. It’s boilerplate Big Sean material, but the real coup is mixtape Wayne, whose wordy verse reminds you why you should still care about Tha Carter V: “F–k the finish line/ Just finish your lines/ And if getting your point across crosses the line/ Some of the time/ Then cross it with pride.”
11. “One Man Can Change the World” (Feat. Kanye West and John Legend)
Through the downcast sounds and themes comes a glimmer of sun peeking through. Always one for positivity, Big Sean marvels at his long road to success before using the closing verse to beautifully eulogize his recently deceased grandmother. John Legend croons a tender chorus while Yeezy gets an Auto-Tune boost over gentle piano keys.
DJ Dahi plucks the acoustic guitar and light vocals from ’70s soul singer Darondo’s folky hit “Didn’t I” to build a funky headnodder of a beat for Big Sean to obliterate. The hook-free closer ends the often murky LP on a bright note, cementing that while many have made the same claim, Big Sean has finally compiled a work that squarely puts him in the conversation of the best out.