Detroit rapper and GOOD Music affiliate Big Sean has never been away from the game for this long, but the time off has evidently given him quite a bit to talk about. With his fifth studio album, a sequel to an early 2012 mixtape that had a huge part in putting him on the map, Sean delivers 21 tracks of content spanning a wide range of topics including overcoming mental health struggles that caused him to take a musical break through inspirational self-help tactics and his faith, his on-and-off romance with Jhene Aiko, and as always, his relationship to the city that raised him. While Sean has never truly put together a refreshingly creative album or one with an engaging storyline, just listening to him power through verses with his laid-back charisma, clear technical skill and impressive wordplay has always been a pleasure. He’s honed his craft even further on this one, and stacked the guest list with more superstars than just about any other album this year. Sean’s far from being one of the most essential characters in hip-hop, but this is an event album, and he’s got more than enough bars to back it up.
The album kicks off with the fiery and defiant “Why Would I Stop?” as Sean delivers a swift kick to his detractors through some speedy internal rhymes, lyrically asserting himself as a larger-than-life cultural force over a blaring and triumphant synth line. It’s certainly a top-notch way to re-introduce himself. As the album progresses, the extensive list of features causes the sound to jump around quite a bit, but at this point in his career Sean has essentially settled into a trademark style of delivering his bars and offers a grounding throughline with his verses. With the biggest hitmakers in the game like Hit-Boy, Mike Will and Take A Daytrip behind the boards, there’s an enjoyable song for you here no matter what you’re into. “Wolves” sounds like a surefire hit single as Sean invites Post Malone onto the track, a dark and foreboding trap cut with chilling piano hits as the two play fully into melodramatic horror imagery discussing their hard upbringing. Immediately after, Sean goes full R&B for “Body Language,” a sensual slow jam with Ty Dolla $ign and girlfriend Jhene Aiko that sounds just as good with some strong vocal performances and charismatic bars. He concedes the floor to the late Nipsey Hussle on early standout “Deep Reverence,” letting him attack a hard-hitting West Coast beat before coming in later on in the track with some introspective bars where he reveals having a tough time after Nipsey’s death and even a miscarriage with Aiko and suicidal thoughts. Sean’s never really gone this in-depth into his personal life, and he only continues to go there on quite a few tracks in the album’s first half. Before a beat switch that sees his most spastic and technical stretch on “Lucky Me,” Sean takes the opportunity the jazzy piano instrumental provides to reveal some near-death experiences both medical and as a product of the dangers of Detroit.
The track “Harder Than My Demons” is another easy standout, coasting over a Mike Will Made-It beat of what sounds like a looped gospel choir as Sean takes a bit more of a lyrical dive into how his religious faith has helped him through some harder times with some of his most impressive internal rhyme schemes and humorous punchlines that catch you off guard. “ZTFO” continues with some similar themes of the spiritual and holistic practices Sean has been employing to ward off negative energy. With some Travis Scott ad-libs and a hypnotic hook aiming to put the listener in the same feeling of zen Sean is trying to achieve, he cuts through the meditation with some more technically strong verses as he tests out different flows and delivers the kind of larger-than-life braggadocio that we love him for. The track “Guard Your Heart” is a show-stopping musical moment in the middle as well, as Sean is absolutely blessed by some of Anderson .Paak’s most soulful vocals on a stunningly beautiful intro before he sinks into a funky piano groove and discusses being caught in the middle of rap beefs and living life to the fullest. The always consistent Wale appears as well with a late verse that takes a powerful political angle as well as he touches on his absolute exhaustion with the times we’re living through. Around the same area we get “Everything That’s Missing,” which despite some powerful lyrical meditations as Sean feels as though his chasing fame has seen him distance himself too far from a city he claims to represent and the comforts of regular life, is one of the biggest misses on the project sonically as the percussion drops away and Sean takes a slower-paced approach that sees him singing and faltering a little without the rhythm to guide him.
The album begins to falter slightly past its halfway point as Sean’s identity starts to get lost a little in the sea of features, but he still ends up delivering the odd engaging verse or set of ideas from here to there. His repetitive hook and disinterested-sounding bars that kick off the track “Respect It” are saved by a characteristically quirky Young Thug verse and Sean evidently charging up his energy for a final barrage of words as the sirens blare, but “Lithuania” sees him getting completely subsumed in another artist’s sound as Travis Scott, not trying as hard as he does on his album tracks as usual, takes over the track with his psychedelic and reverb-heavy sound. “Time In,” as well, might be the weakest contribution yet from Twenty88, Sean’s R&B side project with Jhene Aiko. Despite a catchy hook from Jhene, Sean’s singing voice here is seriously off the mark as he reaches up into a falsetto range that he should never touch again. “FEED” is another deeply introspective track that seems like it could have been cut due to addressing some similar themes over a less engaging beat, but “Full Circle” is the bright spot that keeps the project going until it regains its energy with a strong ending. With some cinematic synth patterns and a knocking boom-bap beat, Sean taps into some 90s storytelling with some classic come-up bars, once again showing some sonic versatility.
Somehow, a track like “The Baddest” ended up being buried as track #17, but it fights out of that rubble in a big way with one of the greatest beats of the year from the legendary No ID. Chopping up an old-school Godzilla theme complete with its booming and eerie minor-key horn melodies and adding a skittering hi-hat pattern, Sean takes the beat and runs with his most energetic attack of the album. There aren’t many rappers that could truly harness a beat like this one, but Sean’s cool confidence makes it sound easy. Frequent collaborator Lil Wayne finally makes his appearance on the Michael Jackson-sampling “Don Life,” a bass-heavy track with enough syncopated rhythmic hits to really punctuate Sean’s speedy flow, before he has a little fun as the album winds down by recruiting the entire city of Detroit for a nearly 10-minute cypher. It has mixed results, of course, but hearing the camaraderie and some standout verses from artists like Kash Doll, Payroll and, who else, Eminem, is a great moment. “I’m quick on the draw, so when I pull it, surprise (Pulitzer Prize) like Kendrick Lamar”??? My goodness. Closing track “Still I Rise” sees Sean essentially taking a celebratory victory lap over the sounds of a marching band and summing up the album’s themes before closing it out with a motivational speech.
After all the topics that Sean gets into over the course of this album, it’s hard not to root for him, and this is another strong collection of tracks. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s a great time from front to back, and many other rappers have proven that’s a difficult thing to achieve with an album of this length.
Favourite Tracks: The Baddest, Wolves, Guard Your Heart, Body Language, Full Circle
Least Favourite Track: Everything That’s Missing