Monday, February 13, 2017

album review: 'i decided.' by big sean

I struggle to comprehend why people are fans of Big Sean.

That's not saying he doesn't have a few good songs - he does - or that he can't pull together a decent flow, because over the past two years he's proven he actually can. But if you're going to throw your weight and critical attention as a fan behind any rapper, I simply don't understand why you'd pick Big Sean over literally anyone else. Sure, a flow matters, but an excess of corny punchlines, his choice of beats that often are way heavier than he can convincingly back up, and he's been frequently outshone in personality and content by his guest stars. But it's not just that he's frequently a mediocre artist: he's an inessential artist. More often than not, even when he's at his best it's music that's passable and fills time, not that anyone is going to remember or care about or sing at karaoke in five years. Hell, even when I reviewed his big collaboration EP with Jhene Aiko TWENTY88 I got the impression that she'd rather be singing opposite Drake than him.

And so I couldn't help but feel a certain amount of poetic irony that the buzz going into this record was that Big Sean was looking to mimic the sound and style of Drake, specifically off of the project If You're Reading This It's Too Late back in 2015. Now I didn't really like that project - it wasn't really in Drake's wheelhouse as a performer, the style and flows never seemed to fit him comfortable - but hey, maybe Big Sean would be able to make something out of it, right?

Well, here's what I'll say about I Decided.: Big Sean looks to have finally reached the point as a rapper where his bars aren't an abundance of utter corniness, there is some quality here. He has certainly evolved as an MC, and when I say that, I mean from generally mediocre and forgettable to competent - and also forgettable! Yeah, not going to mince words with this, I found this record pretty damn underwhelming and tedious, and following in the wake of J.Cole's last record, also overburdened with a concept that's nowhere near as interesting or insightful as it thinks it is. Again, it's not precisely a bad record, but it is completely inessential, and is rapidly proving that Big Sean doesn't exactly have more interesting stories to tell - or indeed things to say at all.

So let's start with him, shall we? Let's start with his flows and delivery - and yes, he's gotten better. He's not quite as nasal, mostly because he's sticking to a slightly lower register and not feeling the need to shout or contort his voice, and while he'll never be as expressive as the artists he's ripping off, he's at least competent. And yes, I'm never going to not dock a ton of points for flagrantly rhyming words with themselves or his occasional verbal pileup that comes with trying to shove too many words into a flow, but at the very least he's improved. But enough dancing around the issue: for a significant chunk of this album, Big Sean is trying to sound like Drake circa 2015 - and to his credit he's not bad at it, mostly helped by the fact that Big Sean is at least marginally more convincing using these flows. Now just like with If You're Reading This It's Too Late it's still exasperating to see Big Sean hop on flows that are obviously cribbed from other rappers - especially the triplet flow, but to his credit he at least brought Migos on board on 'Sacrifices' - but he is approaching them with enough confidence and skill to prove he can mimic them well. And it also helps he's not really being shown up here in terms of his guest stars - The-Dream and Jeremih show up for hooks and the only big name rapper is Eminem, who decides to drop an overlong protracted violent rant that not only doesn't fit with Big Sean's content but undercuts his own political point dissing Trump by opening with a series of rape references and a list of objects he wants to shove up Ann Coulter's ass, all in the name of justice - way to completely miss the point, Em!

But this does take us into the content, and to his credit Big Sean is at least trying for a record concept, with surrounding narration from an older version of himself that is killed and then sent back to try and guide Big Sean to make better choices and go on the right path. The big issue is that Big Sean really does nothing with this framing device besides extended transitions between songs and a load of sentimental songs on the back half - just like Drake did. And yet somehow tracks like the tribute to his mom 'Inspire Me' or the family church reminiscence of 'Sunday Morning Jetpack' wind up feeling even more weightless than when Drake was whining about similar material in 2015, mostly because old Big Sean's advice really doesn't add up to much significant, mostly serving to push his younger counterpart to pick up his phone and call his mother every once and a while and more often than not continue things that he was already doing! Hell, 'Voices In My Head/Stick To The Plan' quite literally shows Big Sean questioning his path and decisions before resolving... to keep doing what he's doing! 'Sacrifices' tries to get to what Big Sean has given up to get to his success, but for the most part it appears to be time, the rest undercut by Migos' bragging showing that he's easily covered his losses! And then we have the final song where he's going to acknowledge he needs to aim higher and aim for a bigger cause outside himself because he made that choice for him to live in the moment and be there... which is a cute Objectivist point of view that kind of flies in the face of the fact you brought on the Flint Chozen Choir and that no matter what people decide in that community the water is still poisoned and you don't even have the fucking spine to mention anything beyond yourself! It underlines one of the biggest problems with this record and Big Sean in general - he's a monumentally self-obsessed and self-focused rapper who can't make his story or problems compelling or unique and doesn't have the balls to address bigger issues outside his own - so it leads to a record trying to be introspective and it just rings as a hollow copy of what others have done before. At its very worst we get 'Jump Out The Window' - his version of Shawn Mendes' 'Treat You Better' - and 'Owe Me', which feels like a blend of Kanye's 'Blame Game' and Drake's 'Hotline Bling' with its concern-trolling directed at Ariana Grande, who may be a pop princess but is eons more compelling than Big Sean is! I literally have no idea what Jhene Aiko sees in this guy, but I will give them that their brief moment of chemistry on 'Same Time Pt. 1' was good, mostly for Jhene Aiko.

But fine, what does this mean for the instrumentation and production? Well what about it - if you've heard hip-hop production in the past two years, this selection of desaturated, skeletal trap beats won't surprise you, and if anything show a step back from the more lush and interesting production Big Sean had on Dark Sky Paradise. It's another choice to de-emphasize unique personality that he might have - also evident in the near complete absence of an okay sense of humor he showed on that last album - in order to fit more in the Drake mold, and as such... there's just not much to say. I didn't mind the more restrained keys on 'Light' - even though I'm a little surprised they never included a drumline, which seemed to be the opposite approach to 'Bounce Back' or 'Moves', which has a trap beat but little actual melody. But that's a common approach here: sparse key-driven melodies, a disinterested tapping trap hi-hat, some blocky bass beats, and hints of faded backing vocals to make the beats feel more cavernous. Sometimes you'll get a little more emphasis on the vocal samples and pitch shifting - which led to the completely grating sample on 'Jump Out The Window' and the second verse of 'Halfway Off The Balcony'- or the completely phony gang vocals and handclaps on 'Owe Me' that did nothing to build dramatic swell on the bells, or maybe a little more full bass and vocal harmonies like on 'Same Time Pt. 1', but it's not like any of it builds colour or soul or a sound you couldn't hear done with more texture by Drake two years ago, even with the brighter beat shift on 'Voices In My Head/Stick To The Plan'! Now to be fair it gets a little more melodic tone courtesy of the strings in the background by the time we get 'Sunday Morning Jetpack' or the eerie arranged instrumentals opposite the slightly wonky strumming on 'Sacrifices', but with the squealing chipmunk vocals in the background of the humid 'Inspire Me' or the more gospel touched 'Bigger Than Me', it's not always a good thing, even if the richer synths in the last case do a lot to help.

Now I'd make the case that none of the tones are as well blended or hit as hard as other trap bangers I've heard throughout the course of the past few years, but the more I thought about it the less I'm surprised. If Big Sean wants to jog sweating behind the curve to pump out mainstream accessible sounds and flows that have been done before and better, that's his right, and while I'll never understand why the public buys into it, that's their prerogative. What I take issue with is that this is interesting or compelling or that it doesn't firmly cement Big Sean as a near permanent b-lister in modern hip-hop at best, and with this album he may have become blandly competent, but at the price of sounds and humor that tried harder than this. For me, it's a 5/10, only a recommendation for Big Sean fans, and I can't even guarantee they'll dig this. Otherwise... look, there might not be a lot of quality hip-hop right now, but there's better stuff than this.

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