Pitchfork Review of Big Sean’s Dark Sky Paradise by Jordan Sargent
Dark Sky Paradise, his newest, does not wholly shed his aspirations for a certain level of legitimacy, as the nonsensical but very official-sounding title would implicate. But it is by many lengths his best album, and the first one that gets closest to hitting an elusive sweet spot where his music works as mindless fun while still leaving you just enough to chew on. The best example of this is “I Don’t Fuck With You”, the song that kick-started the album and perhaps saved Sean’s career as we know it. Put online in September along with three other tracks, the song is an obvious banger with an instantly catchy hook and some truly great lines—”I just bought a crib, three stories, that bitch a trilogy”—that also leverages his broken engagement with “Glee”’s Naya Rivera in a way that feels authentically inspired. That song is where everything clicks for Big Sean, and the confidence he seems to derive from fully harnessing his powers seeps from its pores.
Not all of Dark Sky Paradise is as successful, but when it’s at its best it feels like it came from the same place: a guy rapping more ferociously than he ever has because he knows that he’s better than he ever was. It’s that quantifiable oomph in Sean’s rapping that makes Dark Sky Paradise feel immediately more substantial than anything he’s released. Lyrically, he still straddles a line between being knowingly bald-faced and straight up showing his ass too often—”Headed to the game for OK seats/ Now I’m courtside at OKC”—but there’s palpable kinetic energy in the way he raps now, spitting in an almost-literal sense, his words splattering across beats in places that he may not even have intended.
There’s a controlled but energizing chaos to songs like “Dark Sky (Skyscrapers)”, the standout Kanye feature “All Your Fault”, and especially “Paradise”, which was uploaded to SoundCloud alongside “I Don’t Fuck With You” but appears here with a new, and fantastic, second verse. On these songs, Sean’s eagerness imbues his music with a sense of urgency that makes his typically dopey lyrics—”I was in Florida, no Marlins, nigga/ I’m that Shawn, no Marlon, nigga”—feel not just like rib-nudging cracks but legitimate boasts.
Unfortunately, the album only sustains that energy for about half its run time. After “Paradise”—which is preceded by the admirably boogying R&B palate cleanser “Play No Games”—Dark Sky Paradise becomes dreary and ponderous much like his second album, with leaden beats running past the five minute mark for no apparent reason. The album picks back up with its closing two tracks—the slightly treacly but skillfully executed “One Man Can Change the World” and the DJ Dahi-produced “Outro”, which chops up a soul song (Darondo’s “Didn’t I”) about as well as Kanye ever did—but it’s hard not to feel like the album’s second side represents a major missed opportunity.
The deluxe bonus tracks—most notably the Ariana Grande collaboration “Research”, which has a beguilingly tricky beat—help redeem the proceedings, and if you’re the type of person who doesn’t mind actively perfecting tracklists, you can make a pretty solid little rap album by replacing the album’s soft midsection with those three songs. Regardless, Dark Sky Paradise is a big leap in the direction of the ideal Big Sean full-length. Whether he will ever make it there is certainly an open question, but in the meantime the smirkiest rapper in the business finally has an album that justifies all that self-satisfaction.