Sean Anderson, better known by his aggrandising stage name Big Sean (as if there was a smaller Sean somewhere who he needed to be distinct from), has been a consistently-visible figure in contemporary hip-hop, rubbing shoulders with the best and brightest, gathering star-studded guest spots and Grammy nominations along the way. While some may only know him for dating Ariana Grande, or his 2013 song “Control”, which featured a guest verse by Kendrick Lamar, shooting the upstart MC to superstardom through its unbridled savagery, it’s fair to say that Sean’s latest full-length LP has been widely anticipated.
The album’s first song proper, “Light”, is a song of dignified defiance set to R&B-styled, mellowed-out organ chords, a tangible echo of “Ultralight Beam” from Kanye’s 2016 album The Life of Pablo. The song kicks off with Sean’s spoken introduction, asking “Is it time?” before unloading “Look, I spent my whole life trying to improvise, I’m not saying that sh*t for you to sympathise”. The song’s message aims to consolidate, as if addressing the entire African-American congregation with bars like “Hood n*ggas takin’ chains, slave master take our names / 5-0 take the shot, young souls take the blame / Man but they can’t take away the light”, before a melodic hook from Jeremih, setting the album’s mood out as apparently hopeful, in the politically-conscious vein of hip-hop’s most respected artists.
Distinctly, it becomes clear that I Decided is an album of two halves, as the second track “Bounce Back” takes on a Future-esque trap quality – “Last night took an L, but tonight I bounce back / Wake up every morning, by the night, I count stacks”, and the rest of the track’s rapid-fire club rhymes, couldn’t be further from the socially-positive imagery of the previous song. It features all the radio-friendly tropes of a Drake cut (probably down to its production by Young Boomin), but minus the man himself. If Sean expects this to become as huge as “Jumpman”, he may be mistaken.
“Look, I spent my whole life trying to improvise, I’m not saying that sh*t for you to sympathise” – “Light”
Eminem’s verse on “No Favors” is one of the most notable features of the album’s tracklisting, and only three songs in, it’s poised to elevate I Decided from its relatively calm beginnings. Utilising a lower voice in the first few lines, the D12 trailblazer’s verse wastes little time in getting to his trademark, raspy delivery, name-dropping Dr Dre and Donald Trump (not the new President’s only namecheck on this LP). Eminem proceeds by boasting about his longevity, and hitting every traditional Eminem checkpoint along the way, including specific violence against women, graphic violence against women, and even more violence against women. Em’s stylised verse on Dre’s 2015 album Compton, while just as wantonly provocative, delivered a little more weight based on the context and history present: here, it’s just gratuitous.
Sean himself drops some ear-catching flows over the course of the album’s 50 minutes, delivering on rhythmically-diverse rhymes but lacking in lyrical consistency – “Moves” sees Sean declare “I got this bitch going off more than breaking and entering” and “I gave my whole family jobs and I take care of my Mom” within the space of a few minutes. The vocal talents of Jhene Aiko are put to good use in “Same Time Pt. 1”, and Sean sings and holds consistent notes in places (“Owe Me”), with varied results. Pitch-shifted vocals swell and create a dramatic atmosphere in “Halfway Off The Balcony”, one of the album’s most realised pieces, dealing with personal issues in a subtle but sympathetic way. Moments like this, such as the following track “Voices In My Head/Stick To The Plan”, are where Sean comes into his own, where lyrics like “voices in my head saying that I knew better” portray an honest emotiveness, separate from the trap hi-hats and lyrics about buying houses for his relatives.
With a title as declarative and ambiguous as I Decided, it was perhaps reasonable to assume that this album would have a narrative, or some kind of theme to tie together its overall message, but between Sean’s separate musings about his career misgivings, thoughts about his family, and battles with his own conscience, it’s hard to take any one conclusion from the album’s 14 parts. I Decided is a product of its time, and certainly a reflection of the populist, instant-media atmosphere which took hold in 2016 – Harambe, the gorilla shot at the Cincinatti Zoo last year, who subsequently became an overdone internet meme, gets a namecheck at the end of “Owe Me” – and the album’s mood aims to please, attempting to tap into sounds and moods which worked well for other artists. The misses, I feel, outnumber the hits.
Album closer “Bigger Than Me” aims to tie together a few separate concepts, ditching the club-anthem mentality for more of the sentimental, inward-looking material found earlier, closing with a touching but seemingly-scripted phone call with Sean’s grandma. It’s a sweet notion, robbed of some of its emotional impact by the haphazard, diverging ideas present in the preceding 13 tracks. Despite this LP’s scattered, unrelated trains of thought, unflatteringly varied sounds, and indistinct emphasis from subject to subject, it’s clear that Big Sean’s music turns out best when Sean just does Sean.
Josh Will Eden