Six years ago, when Detroit rapper Big Sean broke out with his inelegant club jam “Dance (A$$),” he seemed an unlikely candidate to cross over into conscious hip-hop. Yet, moments into his excellent fourth album I Decided, the 28-year-old MC rhymes with a perfect mix of personal and political aplomb: “My dad from Louisiana, man the smallest town / Where if they know you brown, they might hold you down / And even hose you down.” On his 2015 full-length Dark Sky Paradise, Sean hinted at fusing social awareness with Drake-indebted party rap; here, he’s perfected the style.
Take “No Favors,” a dark early highlight produced by Drizzy collaborator WondaGurl. Over a twinkling melody and sputtering drum machines, Sean deftly flips from sharp showboating (“Thought I had the Midas touch, and then I went platinum too”) to incisive commentary (“I do this for the crib, the D to Flint / Kids who get sick with lead, others get hit with lead”). Even Eminem’s troubling guest verse — including a threat to murder Ann Coulter as vengeance for the deaths of Philando Castile and Sandra Bland — doesn’t sink the otherwise stellar track.
Luckily, I Decided‘s other guests make better contributions. Jeremih and The-Dream lend their shining falsettos to “Light” and “Sunday Morning Jetpack,” respectively. And of-the-moment producer Metro Boomin helms the boards for three tracks, including “Sacrifices,” a reunion with “Bad and Boujee” partners Migos that proves classical harpsichords and Southern trap aren’t mutually exclusive.
But where Dark Sky Paradise featured Drake, Kanye West, and Lil Wayne, the only rappers who crop up on I Decided are Eminem and Migos. Instead, over the album’s 50 minutes — refreshingly brief by rap’s current standards — Sean applies his dexterous flow to a bevy of musical styles and lyrical themes to easily maintain interest on his own. He’s even scaled back his cringe-inducing one-liners, generally keeping only the best ones. (“You walked in with a perm / And now yo hair look like the Weeknd’s,” from the infectious “Jump Out the Window,” is one of the album’s laugh out loud moments.)
Other young MCs, like Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper, appear poised to reshape hip-hop in their images, but Sean occupies a more reactionary space. I Decided doesn’t push boundaries — instead, it’s a skilled synthesis of the many strains of rap currently flourishing, from nods to Drake and Future to the Chance-tinged gospel of “Bigger Than Me.” But that means it’s a supremely listenable album, loaded with comfort-food hip-hop fit for booming club sound systems and earbuds on the subway alike. It’s also Sean’s most cohesive, personal work to date, light-years ahead of the “ass ass ass” chant that put him on the map years ago.