Big Sean is explicitly aware of his limitations.
Over the past five years, Big Sean has gone from a “Wait, what?” also-ran to being one of the biggest rappers in the game. This is due to good ol’ hard work—his rapping ability and sense of melody has dramatically improved—as much as it has to do with being in the right place at the right time. He rapped to Kanye West outside of a Detroit radio station, sat in on the Graduation recording sessions and eventually released his middling debut Finally Famous in 2011.
The album made a minor splash, but Sean’s fortunes shifted dramatically because of two epochal appearances on G.O.O.D. Music’s compilation Cruel Summer. His swaggering verse and insanely catchy chorus on “Clique” showed that, while he might not be able to overtake Kanye or Jay Z, he was able to keep up with them. Moreover, Sean’s grand slam “ass shake”, “ass quake”, “ass-state” and “ass-tray” rhyme on “Mercy” is easily one of the greatest moments of idiot-savantism in this young century. Since then, Sean’s released two solid full-lengths, Hall of Fame and Dark Sky Paradise, the latter of which scored him a radio hit with the petty anthem, “I Don’t Fuck with You.” Big Sean’s fourth album, I Decided, is a decidedly more mature, measured and serious than his earlier output.
Featuring cohesive production and a rough narrative through line, I Decided is an album meant to be listened to as a whole. There’s a sense of precision and beauty to the musical backdrops here—subdued, but still somehow opulent, they’re almost cinematic in the way they flow into each other. Sean’s lyrics match this accordingly, with songs like “Bounce Back” and “Moves” providing a window into his never-ending hustle, alongside others like “Sunday Morning Jetpack” and “Inspire Me”, which give props to God and his mother respectively. This kind of holistic unity is the sort of centering move that seems right at this point in Sean’s career.
After playing something of a combined Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to West’s Prince Halmet, it’s due time for Sean to make his “statement” record. The problem is, the statements made on this record aren’t particularly innovative, and instead cycle through ideas that have largely been done before (and brilliantly) by more naturally talented rappers. In fact, I Decided is incredibly similar to Drake’s Take Care. On that record, Aubrey Graham crafted a self-styled masterpiece that immediately set him on a new playing field artistically.
I Decided doesn’t do that, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because that’s not what Big Sean is about. One of the most beautiful things about this record (and Big Sean’s catalog in general) is that he is explicitly aware of his limitations. He knows that he has the ability to be a sharp technical rapper when in the pocket and, at times, has a superhuman ability to catapult a dumb joke into the heavens. But, even with all his talent and album-oriented ambitions, he raps about generally rote subject matter in platitudes. This would be a glaring flaw for most artists, but there is a wonderful amalgam of whimsy, conviction and casualness that makes his music more accessible, listenable, and enjoyable than so many of his peers.
I Decided proves that Sean’s fantastic at making a great, if noncommittal pop-rap album. And this overall sense of goodwill keeps the album from buckling under the weight of its flaws, like the technically intriguing but misplaced Eminem feature on “No Favors.” Likewise, it’s not hard to imagine that the painful overstretch of “Voices in My Head / Stick to the Plan” is meant to be one of the album’s centerpieces, but the song actually illustrates how little conceptual nuance Sean has.
And yet, it’s hard not to be in Big Sean’s corner. One of the most representative moments on I Decided is the ending lyric to the first verse on “Jump Out the Window” (which at first glance would read as a suicidal meditation, but actually isn’t), that goes: “Remember when you used to come through and hit the Mario Kart/ And you always picked the princess/ I realized you was princess way back then/ We the best thing that never happened.” Now, on paper these might be some of the worst, most groan-inducing lines, but, when paired with Sean’s charming delivery and the smooth chorus, they become something altogether more heartfelt and universal. Like these lyrics, I Decided certainly won’t change the game, but it’s charming and earnest enough to earn Sean some more good will.