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Junk Mail: Big Sean 'Dark Sky Paradise' Album Review

by Carolyn Menyes   Feb 25, 2015 18:15 PM EST

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Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Kyle Dowling and Caitlin Carter chat about Big Sean's new album Dark Sky Paradise. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section, and check back next week for more.

Caitlin Carter: Welcome back to Junk Mail! This week we have Big Sean's highly anticipated Dark Sky Paradise on the docket. Marking his third studio album, Dark Sky Paradise is really the Detroit rapper's breakout effort after his first two albums failed to launch.

The lyrical content is heavily influenced by his struggle, come-up, failed relationship with ex-fiancé Naya Rivera, current relationship with girlfriend Ariana Grande, the death of his beloved grandmother and more.

With executive production courtesy of his mentor, Kanye West - who discovered the rapper in 2005 during an impromptu audition at a Detroit radio station - Dark Sky Paradise sees Sean experimenting with a variety of flows and beats, hoping to be catapulted into the upper echelon of the young rap game, where Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Drake currently sit. The question is, has he arrived?

Oh, and on a slightly related note: Naya Rivera announced her pregnancy the same day he dropped his album. OH THE SCANDAL!

Carolyn Menyes: Yeah, I was going to say this definitely felt like a debut album, both in the way it was launched and the lyrical content. I mean, you don't talk about your struggles this much when you're three records deep usually, do you? I'm not more than a casual rap fan.

It definitely feels like this album can help boost Big Sean from the guest featured rapper to his own star status. We already saw him have his first big breakout hit with "IDFWU," and that song has such a beat it deserves all the hype it's gotten and probably more. I love his cadence on it, but we'll probably get more into that single later.

Will this launch him to Kendrick or Drake levels? Ehhh? Probably not.

And, god bless Naya Rivera. She's nuts and I love it.

Kyle Dowling: The lyrics here are certainly very raw. If you match that with the immense amount of talent that gathered together for the album, I'd say Dark Sky Paradise is a win... for the most part. Do this mean he's going to be shooting to the level of those who were featured on the album? I'd have to agree with Carolyn and say probably not. Nevertheless, the hype is certainly understandable and justified here.

CC: Sean can definitely spit some heavy bars that range from super clever to really cheesy. It's undeniable that his abilities as a rapper have definitely improved. However, is having the skill to rap enough? What makes K. Dot and J. Cole great is their ability to weave a story throughout their intricate bars. Sean walks the line here with dumbed-down (but nonetheless awesome) party songs like "IDFWU" and more thought-provoking "One Man Can Change the World." Do you guys feel like you connected to his stories or did it feel more like a collection of bars?

CM: Hmm... I think he does a pretty solid job of telling a story. Is he at that Kendrick or J. Cole level? No. But he can hold his own. He's really opens up about all his hard work on "Blessings," and that level of detail kind of makes you know that the song is real. Of course, the story highlight of this album is "One Man Can Change the World." I love his line about looking up at the stars -- sure, it's a little cliche, but I'm a notable sucker. Better than that is his story about meeting Jim Carrey. "You're not the only one who came up wearing a mask," that's really great on a few levels.

Sean flops though, "Stay Down" is nothing but a me and my crew throwaway money anthem, and that's boring to me.

KD: Definitely no doubt he's telling a solid story here. "One Man Can Change the World" is an incredibly well done song with honest lyrics. It's beautifully done, which is a weird saying for a rap song. I was very impressed by the album's opening track, "Dark Sky (Skyscrapers).

Of course, there were a couple I found to be a bit higher on the dud scale, specifically "IDFWU" - eh, the chorus is catchy but for some reason it was a miss for me.  

CC: I think "One Man Can Change The World" was such a great collaboration. It's something that could have easily gone the cheesy/cliche route, but he manages to keep it real. I love how he pays tribute to his grandma, who seems like she was one hell of a lady (WWII vet, female police officer, etc).

What I love about "IDFWU" is that it's almost juvenile. It's like what middle school boys would say to each other, "You little stupid ass bitch." I think that, along with the beat, is what makes it so fun. It's not trying to be sophisticated.

Moving beyond what are clearly the hits of the album, I also liked "Blessings," "All Your Fault," "Win Some, Lose Some," and "I Know."

I wish they would've included his Ariana Grande collaboration "Research" on the regular album rather than just the deluxe.

Although I can appreciate the skill and varied flow of "Dark Sky (Skyscrapers)," it didn't do much for me.

"Play No Games" did nothing for me, despite having Chris Brown and Ty Dolla $ign on deck and neither did "Stay Down," as Carolyn mentioned earlier.

He seems to do better when he's talking about personal stories rather than the cliche verses about being on top with his squad and making money.

CM: I honestly think most rappers are better when they're not just trying to brag about partying. Sure, for like Lil Wayne and Pitbull, that's all they have to do, but that message just doesn't work with Sean's rapping style or his persona. It's why "Stay Down" and "Play No Games" are such flops to me.

I buy Big Sean as the sensitive type, I buy him as the guy trying to make it in the game and I'll even buy him as the biting ex, but I don't buy him as a popping Cristal in the clubs for a second.

Would you say that "IDFWU" and "One Man" are the two hits? I feel like "Blessings" has some major potential too, even if it is just because Drake's on the track.

OH and as for your saying that "IDFWU" was a miss? Oh man, how?! It's got such fire in the beat and I love his flow.

KD: It just didn't do it for me... I'm sorry, folks. :/ I would agree, however, that most rappers produce the best material when it's a personal story or struggle. It hits home with a lot of people so that's always refreshing to hear. That party-life thing gets old for me quickly. Which is shocking because as we all know, I am a HUGE club-goer.

I'm curious, there are so many great names on this album. Who did you enjoy the most?

CC: I think Kanye West, John Legend, Drake and Jhené Aiko's appearances were my favorite. They seem more in-line with Sean's style and brand than Chris Brown and Ty Dolla $ign.

Back to your comment Carolyn, I definitely think that "Blessings" could be a hit as well, but it's doesn't have the mainstream appeal of "One Man" and "IDFWU," so it might be more of a rap/urban hit than an all-over radio one.

One thing I think Sean does well is his word play. What were some of your favorite lines off the album?

CM: I'm a sucker for two things in rap: puns and pop culture references. So, after combing through his lyrics, I found I enjoy "Getting dressed up for court, that's a lawsuit" from "Win Some, Lose Some," and "Got my pinky on her brain while I'm getting brain, plotting world domination" from "All Your Fault." Those are fun.

Caitlin, I feel like you had some lines you wanted to throw out there? And Kyle?

CC: Carolyn, those two are some of my favorites as well. I also liked a few lines off “Stay Down” even though it wasn’t one of my favorite songs as a whole, also his Kanye-referencing line on "One Man" was pretty funny.

1. "Sexy, young thing, I might have to ID her / Ooh, damn, I got some ideas / We could fuck up the couch in the club like it came from Ikea" — “Stay Down”

2. "My step brother used to flip them bags outside the crib like it was trash day / No Kim K, but he bagged yay" — "One Man Can Change the World"

3. "Tryna get that hotel money/But you know them crackers ain't gonna let you get the Ritz” —“Stay Down”

KD: "Dark Sky (Skyscrapers)" is one of my favorites on the album, mainly the line, "I don't owe nobody in the world no favors, I started from the basement, made it to the skyscrapers." it's a pretty powerful line and I just like the way it's spoken.

This one is pretty simple but there's a lot to it, "But when you're getting fast money, slow down, don't crash / With all the drive in the world, swear you still need gas." - "One Man Can Change the World."

CM: Big Sean has come a long way from his Justin Bieber "As Long As You Love Me" days. That rap is so hilariously awful, it's my favorite.

CC: Kyle, do you think that the started from the basement/ made it to the skyscrapers is just a rip off of Drake's started from the bottom now we here? That was my one complaint with that line, but it's definitely well written.

I love puns and word play, which Sean has mastered pretty well.

What do you think is missing from the album?

KD: Yeah, I thought that almost immediately too. But I think with any artist (or anyone in general) who starts from the bottom and gets to where they want to be in life, it's a pretty proud moment and you want to express that somehow. Sadly, Drake hit it bigggg with that line and now anyone mentioning that they started from nothing is going to kind of be compared to him. That might be a bit much, but it's a thought.

CC: At least Big Sean actually started from the bottom... he was really from the streets of Detroit while Drake had a more privileged upbringing.

CM: ANYWAY to bring up your missing question, Caitlin, I don't know. I think it's pretty cohesive. I agree that his Ariana Grande collaboration should've been included on the standard edition -- their chemistry clearly shows. But you have to wonder if that's just a push to get fans to buy deluxe.

CC: I honestly think he could've replaced a few of the songs with those Deluxe tracks and had a more solid album.  

KD: I would agree with Carolyn. I think adding the Ariana Grande track on the standard edition would have been a nice touch. It's a good song, why the hell not, eh?

As far as the rest of the album, there might have been a track or two I'd skip over in another listen, but all in all I think it's a pretty well put together piece of moosic. 

FINAL THOUGHTS:

CC: I think Dark Sky Paradise was a solid effort for Big Sean. I don't think it puts him in the same league as Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, but I definitely see a lot of Drake similarities as far as the way his style has developed. I think this is just the beginning of a strong career for Sean, who had been floundering for sometime in the hip-hop world, trying to make a name for himself. He can spit with the best of him and his sound has definitely matured. There are a handful of solid hits that I think will help propel him to the next level and give him a new audience.  

CM: I said it once and I'll say it again, this feels like a debut album for Big Sean, and he's coming out of the gate (again) in a big way. When he's smart, he's smart. Though there are some definite duds on Dark Sky Paradise, especially when he's trying to be all about dat money, Sean is clearly becoming his own artist and it works. 

KD: I'm very happy we decided to review Dark Sky Paradise for Junk Mail. The album is packed with powerhouse talent, whether it be from guests like Drake or Kanye West, or even just from Big Sean himself. There's a personal story here that I think will really resonate with listeners. It's an album that has something for everyone, and an album that is obviously very near and dear to his tale.

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