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Big Sean works on focus with third LP

By Dale Shoemaker / Assistant News Editor

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Big Sean

Dark Sky Paradise

Grade: B

In his music video for the single “I Don’t F*ck with You,” which GOOD and Def Jam released in November, Sean plays a high school football quarterback making the final drive of “the big game.” 

In the first half of the video, he is unfocused. He snaps the ball, then spits part of a verse, then huddles with his team, then gets caught up in a daydream, then switches to the chorus where he reminds some other girl that he doesn’t f*ck with her, and so on. At the 2:38 mark, Kanye, who plays his coach, cuts the music and whispers one word — “Focus.”

Dark Sky Paradise, as the title suggests, is often muddled and foggy like a storm cloud. Thunder rumbles on some tracks, but that single bolt of lightning focus is absent. 

Sean, for perhaps the first time in his career, is focusing on something beyond a single or a feature verse. 

This extended, though intermittent attention gives the illusion of lighting flashes in black clouds bring success to Dark Sky Paradise. The album’s features, however, are excessive and distract Sean, darkening  the album’s promise. 

The sheer number of features on his third full-length album is the strongest argument for Big Sean’s muddled aims. In just 12 tracks, Sean recruits nine features on seven separate tracks. On the deluxe edition, he adds two more features on three additional tracks to this tally. This isn’t necessarily bad, but the features produce no consistency. 

Whereas Drake may release a feature-heavy project, as critics noted he did on Take Care, his guest performers all generally come from the same camps, namely his Cash Money and OVO crews. Sean’s features are all over the place. He crosses the border with Drake and PARTYNEXTDOOR features; dips south with Chris Brown, Ty Dolla $ign and E-40 features; goes back to his early roots with three Kanye features; dips back into Drake’s camp with Lil Wayne and Jhené Aiko features; throws back with a John Legend feature and then tacks his current bae Ariana Grande onto the penultimate track.

Rather than pulling seemingly random artists together to produce a real piece of art like Kanye has done on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus, Sean’s features are random and inconsistent. He almost seems to be bragging, “Look! I’m famous enough now for ALL of these features!”

He’s not wrong, though. Sean, who largely got famous for his singles and features, doesn’t fail on a single song. Track by track, Dark Sky is a solid album, but, as a whole, it lacks cohesion, and lacks a central theme. Even when Sean’s rhymes are cheesy or don’t match the beat he is rapping over, his features salvage the song, as Chris Brown and Ty Dolla $ign do on “Play No Games.”

Even though Sean sounds better over a Mike Will Made It beat than one by DJ Mustard, all of the songs on Dark Sky are, nevertheless, well-produced. His flow is, for the most part, solid and smooth, and the features still add interesting spices throughout. Sean conforms to his features’ style, however, rather than the other way around. 

Blessings,” for example, on which Drake is featured, was produced by Boi-1da, one of Drake’s key producers. Whereas Sean’s verse vibed well on Drake’s “All Me,” he does not fit well into Drake’s new, darker production. As a result, the album sounds more like a playlist of Big Sean features rather than a Big Sean album. 

Indeed, nearly every song, with a few exceptions, features a different producer. Though so many different sounds swarm Sean’s skies, he maneuvers his verses deftly through them.  On “All Your Fault,” for example, a mashup of classic, soul-sampling Kanye production and brooding, acid-house Kanye production, Sean swaps lines with Ye with the same skill as Jay Z. The two sound like they belong on a song together, and the result is energizing. 

It is at moments like these, especially as  “All Your Fault” transitions into “I Don’t F*ck with You,” — two back to back Kanye productions — that Sean sounds like he’s found his groove. He sounds like he belongs on Kanye production, for one, but he also sounds focused.

Sean’s verses, then, make much more sense in the context of a personal search. Throughout all of the disparate tracks Dark Sky features, Sean’s hunger is consistent. From track one, he goes in dark and heavy. “I’ve been waiting all goddamn year/ I can tell that it’s near/ but near ain’t here/ man, them bills is here now,” he spits on “Skyscrapers.” “Is there rehab for a workaholic?”

Later, on the outro of “Win Some, Lose Some,” Sean quotes his father, who further clarifies Sean’s mindset on Dark Sky. “Life is a feeling process,” his father states. His father echoes and, thus, emphasizes, as the track fades out. If Sean took his father’s words to heart, Dark Sky is him feeling out his life, his sound and his place in rap. 

Through this lens, then, Dark Sky makes sense as work of self-exploration. He’s taking Coach Kanye’s advice — his focus isn’t needle-sharp yet, but he’s whetting it. Perhaps Sean hasn’t found his sound yet, but he has the drive and desire to do so, and he is confident he’s on the right path. Dark Sky is a transition album for Sean, and from here his trajectory looks positive. “Life is a feeling process,” Sean’s father states on “Win Some Lose Some,” and If the darkness of the title is Sean hiding away while he works on himself and feels out his sound, it is likely his skies will clear soon.

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Big Sean works on focus with third LP