Big Sean’s motto is “Finally Famous.” It was the title of his first three mixtapes and his debut album, and he repeats the phrase a few times on his just-released Dark Sky Paradise. But what does it mean to be “famous,” anyway? Is it a way to purchase more things? Attract partners with wealth and power? Assemble a wide audience for his art?
For much of his career, Big Sean didn’t really bother to answer those questions. But on Dark Sky Paradise, he appears to realize that rappers aren’t awarded greatness unless they have some kind of substance, whether it’s evoking their community, inventing a new twist to the form, or simply expressing their inner thoughts. He rhymes about growing up in Detroit, and sounds anguished at how his old friends view him now. On “Win Some Lose Some,” he admits it took a few years to afford his mother a new car. “People thinking I’m rich, and I wish they knew that/ I’ve been signed for four years, and I’m just now able to do that,” he raps. It’s a telling moment that contradicts the instant money narrative he often promotes.
Dark Sky Paradise has a bunch of party raps, too – see “Blessed” with Drake – and that’s fine. Unlike his sometimes-overwrought mentor Kanye West, Big Sean is mostly a lighthearted guy. It’s what we’ve liked about him so far, whether it’s the “Hammertime” silliness of “Dance A$$,” the chipmunk bounce of his “My Homies Still” duet with Lil Wayne, or the urban pop airiness of “My Last.” The new album isn’t a masterpiece by any measure, but perhaps it marks a turning point when Big Sean balances the pop-rap instincts that keep him “famous” with the gravitas that earns the kind of industry respect he hungers for.