If she gives him a chance, your mom will like Big Sean. Classic, mom-approved values have always been at the core of his work: hard work, sacrifice, persistence, gratitude. On his fourth studio album I Decided, he positions himself as hip-hop’s poster-boy for all of these qualities, but in rapping about such unassailable ideas, he comes away with uninteresting results.
It’s a shame, because Big Sean has serious talent. He kicked off his career by impressing Kanye West with a sixteen bar freestyle, and it’s not hard to see how. His delivery is varied and confident on I Decided, showing a wide range of pace and flow that justifies his impressive resume of prestige features. He matches Eminem at one turn, Migos at the next. But he sets up a premise early on “Light,” “So lately I been trying to get what’s inside outside,” that doesn’t come through to fruition. Or worse, it does, suggesting there’s not much to unpack. Big Sean’s introspection yields a commitment to the same virtues he’s always championed, and there’s no sense of change made or new insight won. When his mentor Kanye looks inward, he brings the craziest corners of his psyche to the fore. When Kendrick Lamar looks inward, he comes back with the world. When Big Sean looks inward, he comes back with healthy platitudes that could soundtrack a car commercial from his hometown Detroit.
Lead single “Bounce Back” is a perfect example. Produced by Metro Boomin, it’s a certifiable earworm and a solid anthem for Detroit about coming back for more in the face of defeat. He raps about his killer work ethic, shoots down his competition, and explains “Last night took an L, but tonight I bounce back.” It’s good material for the locker room, where it’ll probably stay in rotation for years to come, but it’s not new ground for Big Sean, and it’s certainly not new ground for hip-hop.
If there’s anything new on I Decided, it’s a new level of confidence. The man who brought you “I Don’t Fuck With You” and debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 with his last album Dark Sky Paradise has been around the block and bounced back from his fair share of Ls. Accordingly, he sounds deservedly self-assured on “No Favors” (favors—he doesn’t need them), which he shares with fellow Detroit-native Eminem. Paired up with the only rapper from his city ahead of him career-wise (Royce da 5’9” has the chops, but not the singles), he holds his own. Eminem’s verse, meanwhile, is one of the album’s most memorable moments. He raps with his signature speed, violence, and vulgarity, and it’s fun to hear him shout, “Trump’s a bitch.” It’s not fun to hear him list the objects (Klan poster, can opener, banjo, et. al) he’d use to assault Ann Coulter, but that’s what Marshall Mathers does, still, I guess.
Sean offers his best work on the Migos-featuring “Sacrifices”, opening with a tight verse delivered at Eminem’s breakneck pace. But when you stop and listen, he’s talking about fast cars and cheating girlfriends. Compare that to Offset’s verse: “the devil had entered my soul, my momma had beat it out of me.” One wonders when Big Sean, who has never forgotten to thank God throughout his career, has had to suffer an exorcism.
But the song ends on I Decided’s high note, the clearest insight we get into Big Sean’s strong moral code: “I know my great, great, great aunty was a slave/I could only imagine all the sacrifice she made.” There’s a powerful, sincere respect for his origins and an overwhelming drive to succeed, and it’s the best explanation for why Sean has explored the same virtues throughout his career. Hard work, respect, and gratitude haven’t just been the cornerstone of his music; they’ve been central to his life.
I Decided closes with “Bigger Than Me”, which features the Flint Chozen Choir. Last year Big Sean raised $100,000 for the Flint water crisis. In the wake of today’s onslaught of political terrors, Flint has slipped into the background, though the city’s problems are far from solved. Big Sean hasn’t forgotten, though, because his music isn’t just a celebration of diligence and endurance; it’s about knowing where you’ve come from and loving your community. On I Decided, these subjects don’t always make for the most engaging album, but they reflect Big Sean’s character. He’s a man of integrity, a positive force in the world, and as solid a role model as any. Your mother will love him. B MINUS