Young Metro and Sean Don accomplish different things.
For a few years now, Big Sean has occupied an indeterminate space in hip-hop. He’s affable, ingratiating, and so famous that we tend to mention him alongside Drake and Kendrick. At the same time, he can’t seem to outrun Twitter memes and criticism over a perceived lack of lyrical depth. It’s to the point that his music releases are always a mild controversy; where some fans see moxie and fun, others see a corny nuisance. Really, his music may very well lie somewhere in the middle.
Double or Nothing is quintessential Big Sean: lofty aspirations and lyricism that falls a little short of delivering. From the opening track, “Go Legend”, Big Sean and Metro Boomin live up to the album's name, staking it all on a sample of Diana Ross’s “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)”. It’s the kind of brazen decision that only someone like Sean’s big brother Kanye would make, not unlike snatching a crucifix off the altar and proceeding to customize it. But Big Sean isn’t afraid of tripping over a classic; if Diana Ross’ longing and uncertainty previously yielded fates unknown, Sean has already come to term with his destiny— “microphone legend, yeah/ Sean a legend”.
Big Sean’s ego is well documented, but Double Or Nothing's more interesting narrative is Metro Boomin’s evolution as a producer. “Who’s Stopping Me” is a surprising, audacious detour; another sampled piece, Metro goes acoustic with some Brazilian folk, while Big Sean could be forgiven for saying it “sound like Narcos." Sean’s sly, braggadocious raps are well-suited for the sway and machismo of Latin-pop. It’s such a good pairing that I’m sorry we had to wait this long for “Despacito” to inspire imitators. Whether or not these hits actually last, Double Or Nothing can at least be examined as a testament to Metro Boomin’s capacity to sidestep stagnation. It’s not simply his newfound reliance on samples, either. As melodic and emotive as the production on songs like “No Hearts, No Love” can be, those built on Metro’s traditional beat-making are equally as innovative, like the long, somber lamentation “Savage Time”.
Though Metro Boomin shows enough talent and desire to diverge from Atlanta’s trap mold, his future success will hinge on strategic collaborations; as great as his work with 21 Savage and Gucci Mane has been, those acts aren’t popular enough, or palatable enough, to usher in a full-blown mainstream pivot. It makes sense that the initial steps would come with Sean Don, a man always at the cusp of reinventing himself. I can only hope that Big Sean is not an endpoint because, frankly, their chemistry is too-often uninspired.
Big Sean simply can’t inhabit the simplicity or subtlety of Metro Boomin’s production. He’s too impatient when he should wait, too chatty when he should chill. Their biggest hit, “Pull Up N Wreck” belongs more to 21 Savage than to Sean, and highlights the incompatibility between artist and producer. The disjoint reaches a peak on “Savage Time," a song approached from two vastly different emotional states. Metro builds a lot of negative space with deep bass kicks and sparse piano scales, but Big Sean can’t let the damn thing breathe. He relies on useless filler to hold an unnecessarily high-tempo flow, inserting unimpressive stunting and lame double entendres into what would otherwise be a thoughtful reflection on systemic racism and police brutality.
Far less urgent in our fraught political era are Big Sean’s bawdy tales of ass and sex. So is it bad that I like them better? Rap, more than any other genre, translates authentic experience into good music, and goofiness is authentic Big Sean. “So Good” is the album’s standout track. Metro creates the kind of beat you want to lean into and sway, and Big Sean’s lyricism is unforgivable (in the best possible way). This track also features, Kash Doll, who drops a sharp, clever rejoinder to Big Sean’s alpha-male stuntin’ (perhaps the best guest verse on the album). Big Sean has found his niche here, the place he can deliver good music without having to lean on expensive producers or pop trends, like in the last verse of “Big Bidness”. Unapologetically inane or unapologetically earnest— that’s the Sean Don we need.