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.
To understand why My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy earns its title, sounds both sensuously epic and a bit of a dick joke, and manages to combine deep melancholy and triumphant hubris into a stunningly intense experience, let’s backtrack to Kanye West’s debut, 2003’s The College Dropout. On “Never Let Me Down,” Kanye multi-tracked John Legend and Tracie Spencer’s backing vocals into a full-blown gospel chorus as he ruminated on how his parents participated in lunch counter sit-ins during the civil rights movement, and how that legacy made him different. “Niggas can’t make it to ballots to choose leadership/ But we can make it to Jacob’s and to the dealership/ That’s why I hear new music and I just don’t be feeling it,” he rapped. Matched against Kanye’s earnestness, guest rapper Jay-Z’s Cristal-stained boasts were woefully out of place.
Seven years later, Kanye has become another errant choir boy. His religious upbringing and Black History Month studies help him make outrageous claims of being a pharaoh, a deity similar to Allah himself. “Malcolm West had the whole nation standing at attention,” he claims on “Power.” He speaks about light-skinned girls as if they were new Bentleys to be licked and humped. (Cue R. Kelly’s “You Remind of My Jeep.”) And suddenly, Jay Hova himself sounds right at home. He murders “Monster.” Even Rick Ross, who repeats his familiar shtick of personifying big-balling hustlers on “Devil in a New Dress,” is apropos to this tall tale of adult children lost in a world of designer clothes, luxury vehicles and scantily-clad women, with TMZ and Gawker keeping score. Brilliantly, Kanye couches these fantasies in a hip-hop context. By inviting the aforementioned plus the RZA, Pusha T, Swizz Beatz, Raekwon and Kid Cudi, he demonstrates that materialism and hubris are essential to understanding hip-hop culture as it is lived, if not necessarily how Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa first envisioned it. As Pusha T says on “Runaway,” “I’m just young, rich and tasteless.”