Wednesday, February 25, 2015

album review: 'dark sky paradise' by big sean

I haven't been looking forward to this.

Because those of you who are familiar with this series probably know that I'm not a fan of Big Sean, something that seems to baffle his bewildering number of fans. And if you take a look at just his highest charting singles, it'd be hard to disagree with that. This is a rapper whose first and biggest hit was a song with Nicki Minaj called 'A$$' that seemed to be made on a bet to see how asinine hip-hop could be - no pun intended. This was a guy who for no adequately explained reason showed up on a Fall Out Boy record on what was otherwise a good song to completely miss the point with sixteen bars delivered in a nasal whine that completely lacked presence or lyrical punch and stole a punchline from goddamn Simple Plan.

But those were aesthetic quibbles - going deeper, was there anything more to him? Well, I'll say this, at his best, he worked with some producers that I did like such as No ID and he did have personality, which can do a fair bit to redeem lyrical deficiencies. And while Big Sean is not a terrible technical lyricist, his punchlines are so basic and corny and his vocal style is so cartoonishly nasal that I only really find him entertaining when he's trying to be funny - which isn't often. Coupled with incredibly thin subject matter that barely descriptive or interesting, there's so little dimension to Big Sean for me to grasp beyond the moments that just irritate me. And don't even get me started on songs where he's trying to be hard - I'm sorry, but he's got nowhere near the heavier timbre in his voice to pull that off. He doesn't sound imposing or threatening, he sounds laughable - and the sad fact is that the majority of the time he's either not funny or not trying to be funny.

That said, when I heard that the title of this album was Dark Sky Paradise, I laughed my ass off - as I said, we wouldn't let symphonic metal or goth rock get away with that, and somehow Big Sean's getting a pass, coupled with some pretty damn awful opening singles to boot? And I wasn't enthused by the changes in his producer line-up either - you swapped out No ID and The Neptunes for Mike Will Made It and DJ Mustard? Sure, you might have gotten what is popular right this second, but dark minimalism and atmosphere was the last thing Big Sean needed for his usual bars of clumsy bragging. But you all kept asking that I cover this, so what did we get?

Well, honestly, it was a bit better than I was expecting. I'm not saying this album is anything close to great or awesome or within spitting distance of the stronger rap records this year, but it's not terrible and does show Big Sean steadily improving. And while there are definitely songs that were pretty damn bad, there were also a few songs that showed some promise, enough that I can kind of start to see what people might see in this guy. 

So let's get the obvious issues that haven't gone away with Big Sean out of the way first. I'm still not a fan of his more nasal delivery, especially when he tries to get hyped up and just comes across as unnecessarily exaggerated. And I'm torn whether this is him lacking charisma or him trying to play up the more cartoonish side, because what's odd is that it feels very much like an affectation he puts on, because there are points where he does intensify his flow and delivery and it's not nearly as bad. And I think I've nailed down my issue with his technical wordplay: he tries to cram too many words into each bar instead of maintaining any sort of syllabic structure or meter. The frustrating thing is that if he cut out the filler words and put his bars through a tighter edit, he could land tighter punches - sure, it wouldn't get rid of him rhyming words with themselves or repeating words and phrases to fill up space or the corny as hell punchlines, but it'd be a step in the right direction.

Granted, it's not like many of his guest stars are a good influence here. I've already talked about Drake's contribution to 'Blessings' on Billboard BREAKDOWN, but when Kanye squanders what was actually a pretty well-structured verse on 'All Your Fault' to jack Big Sean's flow for the following song, compare himself to Tom Cruise as a positive - which makes way too much sense in the worst possible ways - and compare him tearing the city up with his success to the protests after Eric Garner's death, you've got a problem. And the sad thing is that it's actually one of the better tracks, because their trade-off of bars on the third verse is really solid. Kanye actually shows up again to sing a heavily autotuned chorus on the piano ballad on 'One Man Can Change The World' with John Legend, who really should have been the only person handling that hook and it distracts from what otherwise was actually a pretty good crack at an inspirational tribute to his grandmother. But outside of that... E-40 of all people shows up to the deliver the best verse on 'I Don't Fuck With You' - not saying much, considering how pathetic that song is with Big Sean's repeated assertions he doesn't care about ex-girlfriend and Glee-starlet Naya Rivera which he proves wrong with each bar and the most grating vocal affection yet. Chris Brown and Ty Dolla $ign try to add R&B credit to 'Play No Games', a sex jam that Big Sean can't pull off thanks to not balancing sensual with sexual remotely well, and Lil Wayne tries to add depth to 'Deep' where the most introspection we get is why Big Sean doesn't get respect and what he'd be without money/fame. The most disappointing guest performance, though, comes from Jhene Aiko, who shows up twice, first as uncredited backing vocals on 'Win Some, Lose Some' to Big Sean playing the 'more money, more problems' game and claiming he's a victim, and second in a heavily pitch-corrected washed out hook-up song that's too leaden and slow and dark to be as sexy as it wants to be.

But coming back to Lil Wayne for a moment, his larger point is that you need to keep pushing boundaries to make potent art - and maybe that's one of the reasons that Big Sean just doesn't resonate with me whatsoever, because so much of his content is so safe, by the numbers and formulaic, with surface-level introspection at best. And sure, he's more of a pop rapper, but the best artists in this lane can interweave smarter bars with the formula, make it palatable to the mainstream, or at least intensify what little dimension you do have into something potent. And to his credit, Big Sean does have a few moments where he does this. I actually kind of liked the moment of pause on 'Win Some, Lose Some' where he reflects upon the example he's setting - not enough to actually change it, because he follows that song with a drunken luxury rap party anthem in 'Stay Down'. And while 'Paradise' isn't remotely deep, it does have a few solid lines and enough anger to make it one of the better songs, even despite some of Big Sean's lyrical problems. And the 'Outro' seems to have Big Sean complaining about people try to take advantage of him and don't want to hear him get political - but has Big Sean really tried in that lane? It's the same thing I'll say when Drake had a similar bar on his final track '6PM In New York' - as much as you say the radio won't play it, when I don't see anything even on the deep cuts of this album that reveals that insight, I just don't buy that there's anything there.

So okay, forget all of that, what if we're simply looking at this as a party record? Well, on that note, we're looking at production and instrumentation - and again, if you're trying to make fun party music, why are you opting for such dark, dreary, pseudo-gothic instrumentation, that's either in the minimalist chill of DJ Mustard or the rumbling thunder, bells, and ghostly vocals? With Drake it kind of works because he is angling for a harsher rap vibe, but Big Sean doesn't even have that - so why give him production that demands that sort of content and delivery? And the frustrating thing is that there are some solid instrumental moments here - the choppy sampling and gothic vocals brightened with the Ambrosia sample on 'All Your Fault' courtesy of Kanye, the wet rattle of the more soulful 'Play No Games', the melancholic piano on 'One Man Can Change The World', or the rain-soaked old-school soul of 'Outro'. Hell, I'd argue Mike Will Made It - in a change of pace - dropped one of the better beats on this album with 'Paradise' with the cavernous production, horns, and sizzling fuzz. Granted, it doesn't help matters that there are so many tracks are overloaded with pitch-shifted vocals, which I rarely ever like and become especially grating here. 

All of it is a matter of tone - for as much as Big Sean makes pretty lightweight hip-hop in his delivery and content, the instrumental tone doesn't match it at all, and Big Sean rarely brings enough sharp, interesting wordplay to save it even there. And it really doesn't help matters that at the end of the day, the elements that stick out the most about Big Sean are those that annoy me, which tends to even spoil the good-time vibe of his better tracks. As I described, there are scattered moments I like, and if you find Big Sean's persona less grating and his technical limitations easier to overlook, I guess I can see the appeal, but as it is, this record is a very light 5/10 and only a recommendation if you're a fan. Otherwise, if you're looking for a hip-hop record with wit, raw power, technical wordplay, and the hooks to back it up... well, All Hands by Doomtree isn't going anywhere, I'd take that instead.

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