Someone once told me that “the first and last steps of anything are the hardest.” When I think of Big Sean and his career, there doesn’t seem to be a more appropriate expression. From taking his first step by freestyling to Kanye and ultimately turning that into a record deal to releasing platinum albums, Sean has somehow felt like the underdog amongst his peers. He has more hits than you could count on both hands, but his album sales have never reached the likes of Kendrick, J. Cole or Drake, all of whom he is directly compared with. With every subsequent album Sean releases, so does the hope that he has finally taken the step from star to superstar. 2015’s Dark Sky Paradise was the closest he has gotten to approaching that status. That album saw a more confident Sean, whose rapping was more self-assured. Gone was his reliance on features and cheap attempts at crossover hits, and instead it felt like he was making the album he wanted to as opposed to the one his label said would be a success. The result? His highest selling album and singles to date. Call it a validation or an “I told you so”. Whatever it was, it would be interesting to see if Sean would continue to build off that momentum with his next album.
Enter I Decided, Sean’s fourth studio effort. Backed by lead single and certified hit ‘Bounce Back’, Sean seemed to pick up right where he left off. ‘Bounce’ is a milestone of sorts for Sean as it is his first major hit without a feature. The fact that this single is just outside of the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 shows that Sean’s star status has most certainly grown in the time since Dark Sky Paradise. Sean boasts a confidence in both his flow and lyrics here that are rare for a commercial single release. Similar qualities reside in the second single ‘Moves’ as well. It’s a brisk effort backed by an 808 mafia beat that creeps and crawls parallel to every bar. ‘Moves’ ends almost as soon as it begins, but not without leaving its mark. We’d be hard pressed to mention the singles without touching on the songs with potential to be hits themselves. ‘Jump out the Window’ is the obvious first candidate. Sean’s singing, while not the strongest, does its job and does so adequately here. The bouncing instrumental is reminiscent of ‘Show Me a Good Time’ off Drake’s debut LP Thank Me Later.
Drake comparisons have been no stranger to Sean throughout his career. Whether it’s who started what flow, beat selection, or similarities in cadence, they have always been there. They’ve kept a friendship despite this, but not without some friendly competition here and there. Comparisons are likely to continue as Sean reinterprets Eddie Kendricks’ ‘Intimate Friends’ on the Jeremih assisted ‘Light’ similar to how Drake did on ‘Going in For Life’ off his Comeback Season mixtape. The instrumentals are almost identical and Sean uses the smooth foundation to deliver introspective tales such as “so lately I been trying to get what’s inside outside/ so many people wanna see my insides outside/I’m from the city four hours east of southside/where everyone outside but don’t fuck with no outsiders.”. Jeremih delivers an appropriately lush hook and the song serves as a nice introduction to the album and Sean’s current state of mind. Moments of introspection occur frequently across the album. Sean’s rapping has always been strong when speaking on these topics. Whether it’s on the airy The-Dream assisted ‘Sunday Morning Jetpack’ or the ode to his mom ‘Inspire Me’, Sean once again sounds at home on these songs, albeit a little bored this time around. All the elements are there: A strong hook, deep verses, good features, but it’s nothing Sean hasn’t done better on past tracks like ‘Memories’ and ‘One Man Can Change the World’.
Sequencing becomes an issue throughout the album as well. Transitioning from deep cuts like the aforementioned ‘Inspire Me’ to a Migos assisted song like ‘Sacrifices’ and then back to another deep cut such as ‘Bigger Than Me’ feels strange in the flow of the album. The latter of those songs closes the LP and features the Flint Chozen Choir which is a poignant choice. The song is a nice closer, but suffers from the fate of sounding too familiar to past Sean tracks. The spoken word outro from his mom is the cliché cherry on top. This is a tactic we’ve just heard on too many rap albums before. The elephant in the room for Sean’s career is finally addressed on this album as well. “When are you going to get an Eminem feature on one of your albums?”. ‘No Favors’ finally answers that question and the song had the internet going crazy before it was even released. They each take their turn at the beat. Sean leads things off and sounds right at home as he sets the stage nicely for Em. The Wondagurl laced beat is uncharacteristic of what we’re used to hearing Shady rap on. Reactions about this verse have been on polar ends of the spectrum with no in between. Truth is the verse is neither as good or bad as people are saying and realistically falls somewhere in the middle. If you’ve heard an Eminem verse in the past three years, then your opinion of this verse will probably be similar to your opinion of him over that time.
Sean’s label opted not to release physical copies for this release on the first week, possibly in hopes of avoiding a leak. This makes the sales projections that have come in surrounding I Decided hard to compare to previous efforts. While it’s still projected to debut at number one on the charts, it will do so with only 120-130k first week. In comparison, 2015’s Dark Sky Paradise did 173k first week with physicals. In the age of streaming, it’s hard to predict how much this would have changed things. The projections could indicate that Sean’s star hasn’t grown as much as some have speculated. While Sean may have decided that he deserves that spot in the superstar category, it seems as if the general public is still undecided. He can undoubtedly craft a hit, he can sell out shows, he can rap with the best of them, but he still struggles to craft an album that people will revisit ten years from now and say “that’s the one”. At only 28 years old, he still has plenty of time left to accomplish that. I Decided is an absolute step forward for Big Sean’s rapping ability, but not a song making one. Dark Sky Paradise found Big Sean running laps around his past work, both commercially and critically, and while I Decided is hardly a misstep, it finds the rapper running on a treadmill.
Repeatable: ‘Light’, ‘Moves’, ‘Bounce Back’, ‘Jump Out the Window’
Skippable: ‘Same Time, Pt. 1’, ‘Voices in my Head/Stick to the Plan’
By Scott Evans