Dark Sky Paradise, the 3rd studio album from Big Sean, is absolutely obsessed with the concepts of work ethic and being ‘deserving’ of fame. The hip-hop theme of ‘grinding’ is thoroughly played out. Nonetheless, Sean decides to squeeze it for every last drop. And it works for Sean. Because he really believes in the singular nature of his story.
Dark Sky Paradise explores themes of failing to live up to potential. Or rather it explores themes of failing to receive the accolades that you deserve. It’s a fitting title. Now that Sean is ‘finally famous,’ he’s obtained paradise. He has fame, wealth, women and critical respect. But there’s a dark side to this paradise. And it’s not the dark side you might expect. Drugs, fake friends, feuds, egos – these are not problems. The dark side for Sean is that paradise just isn’t big enough. The money isn’t as good as he imagined. Even after being “signed for four years,” he’s only just able to afford to buy his mother a new Cadillac (Win Some, Lose Some). He still hasn’t got the props he feels he deserves. Lil Wayne kindly sums up Sean’s ‘failure’ – “I feel like Sean, don’t get enough shine.” Wayne consoles Big Sean “it ain’t about if they remember you, they remember rap / so just spit it back and hope they digging that.” Don’t stress about critics says Wayne, just do your thing and hopefully some will enjoy it. It’s a concern that’s not the least bit relatable. Still, it’s a neuroses Sean can’t escape. “A little fame but I ain’t famous – still I feel like I deserve it” croons the hook, in the appropriately titled Deserve It. It’s a strange sentiment, but it is interesting
But there’s also a whiney quality to it. One Man Can Change The World, which features vocals from Academy Award winner John Legend, sounds like it would be right at home on the Selma soundtrack. But the song is really about Sean’s success in changing his own world. What Sean chooses to do with that money and power is to live like a playboy. His impact on his surroundings is negligible. It’s a very masturbatory anthem.
Sean receives a substantial chop out from his label boss Kanye West, who agreed to be an executive producer on the album. It benefits greatly from Kanye’s experience. Both this and Pusha T’s last effort definitely have a post-Yeezus feel. It’s most evident on the standout track All Your Fault where a brilliant sample is abruptly cut off. Don’t let anyone say that Kanye lets his squad fend for themselves. The structure of the album is superb. It dips briefly into clearer waters around the middle, before it permanently descends into the deep darkness, which is the albums primary sonic fixation. Mike WiLL Made-It successfully conjures storm clouds with booming horns and a single menacing piano key in Paradise. There’s also some modern interpretations of the RnB sound that are very well executed on Play No Games and Stay Down. Dj Dahi provides one of the standout beats on Outro. Sean glides over a funky riff and sample. It’s frustrating that this breezier track has been relegated to the end.
Sean’s rapping is also on par. I was misled by a couple of restrained features he gave on popular Kanye West songs. His verse on Clique was slow and simple. It was subdued. His verse on I Don’t Like is more indicative. Only his verse on the fantastic g.o.o.d Friday’s release Looking For Trouble truly showcases the ‘exponential’ quality of his flow. It’s always entertaining when Sean delivers his ‘wind-up flow,’ like on Paradise. He starts very slow, speeding up the last couple of words to give the feel of gathering momentum, before slowing again. It’s exactly like a train piston, where the final movement is the quickest. He keeps cranking the winch, before finally unleashing a supersonic flow. This trick never gets tired.
Sean’s got punchlines for days. “Getting dressed up for court, that’s a law suit / ain’t wearing V-necks but niggas ask what happened to the crew,” is one of the many bombs he drops on Win Some Lose Some. Sean is actually at his best when he’s telling stories. Sadly, only the album’s bonus tracks engage strongly with imagery. The Ariana Grande assisted Research deals with the theme of a snooping girlfriend, while Platinum and Wood refreshingly details life before he was Finally Famous.
Standout track is the first single IDFWU. It’s an internet-friendly club track that’s fun and infectious. Sean positively bounces on the beat, slowing down and speeding up where appropriate. It’s all performed over a cute 70’s keyboard riff. It’s the breakup anthem that you know is going to inspire a million memes. “I mean for real, fuck how you feel / fuck your two cents if it ain’t goin’ towards the bill,” yells Sean at what must be a red-faced ex. Another highlight is the incredible All Your Fault. It’s another erratic 70’s sample with one of the most fitting autotune choruses Kanye has ever delivered. You’ll be waiting desperately for the chorus to come back around. There’s an organ and a wood block. There’s a huge verse from Kanye. Sean kills it again with his peculiar affectation; winding up for a flamethrower verse.
Dark Sky Paradise has everything you’d want from a rap album: some brilliant production and some dexterous flows. It also showcases Sean’s artistic development and is definitely a more mature offering. It’s visual and aural exploration of darkness is novel and it really does give off the entire feeling of an ominous raincloud. It’s a very good album, but, unfortunately it’s not enough to catapult him to the megastar status he so doggedly believes he deserves.