Written by: Andrew Kirkpatrick
Big Sean knows how to take an L in stride.
Such is the topic of the Detroit rapper’s latest sticky-hooked single, “Bounce Back,” the overall theme driving his latest record, I Decided, and a fitting summation of his career. After spending the formative years of his mainstream stardom putting out nothing but shitty material (even when he found his way onto otherwise great songs like “Mercy”), the GOOD Music MC has seemingly woken up in the past couple years. His guest verses on tracks like “B Boy,” “Holy Key,” and “Detroit vs. Everybody” — on which he bested Eminem, Royce da 5’9″, and even Danny Brown — have been fantastic, and he finally put out a decent project with 2015’s Dark Sky Paradise.
I Decided continues the hot streak in workmanlike fashion. Nothing here is deep, nor do I see many of these songs having real staying power past a few months for most people, but Sean Don nonetheless delivers a pretty focused and surprisingly introspective record with some extremely high highs and lows that really aren’t that bad.
There aren’t any party tracks here, nor is there much chest-beating hyper-masculine posturing. For the most part, I Decided focuses on the importance both of finding inspiration in loved ones and maintaining a strong work ethic. Not the juiciest subject matter to be sure, but there’s a grounded maturity here that takes the album a long way.
The last third of the record doles out the most highlights. Here we get “Sacrifices,” a straightfaced posse cut with the Migos (and anchored by a harpsichord loop!) that serves as good old fashioned motivation music, channeling the likes of Jay Z, and early Kanye and Eminem.
(Quick sidenote on Marshall Mathers: he appears on the track “No Favors,” and sweet Jesus — he spits one of the worst verses I’ve heard in years. Towards the start of his feature he raps “what you lookin’ at, hater? / I saw dem eyes like an ass raper,” to which I nearly throw my fucking phone across the room. Big Sean and Eminem are trending in opposite directions in terms of the quality of their music over time; once Sean is in the game as long as Em, all logic says he’ll be as good as Rakim or Nas or some shit.)
Getting back on track, I Decided‘s final stretch also features “Sunday Morning Jetpack” and “Bigger Than Me,” both tied for my favorite track on the album. “Jetpack” is sugary-sweet soul; a delicate instrumental that sits almost exclusively in the treble range provides a light backdrop to Sean’s bars reflecting on faith and family. Things go from pleasant to downright beautiful as layers of strings enter the fold alongside fellow Roc Nation/GOOD Music affiliate The-Dream’s soaring falsetto.
“Bigger Than Me” is even more dramatic, and serves as one hell of a closer. Textured strings, swirling samples, huge grand piano chords, stirring synth horns, white-knuckled trap drums, and powerful backing vocals from The Flint Chozen Choir create a staggeringly opulent atmosphere that’d make Sean’s mentor and label boss — Yeezus himself — proud indeed. And Sean Don makes sure to match the instrumental’s urgency with lines like “First time I seen a body was when I was 14 and I felt the pressure / Like if I don’t get it, I might end up next to him” and “This must be the feeling you get when you know you close / And you know it’s a way even when the doors are closed.”
Just as a quick reminder: this is still the same guy who got famous for singles like “Dance (A$$)” and hooks like “I’m up working like I’m Mexican / That mean 10:00 to 10:00.” Even if I Decided isn’t a showstopping album, it’s impressive to see if Sean become one of the rare mainstream rappers who continually strives to improve rather than grow complacent.