"I always imagine myself as like, someone who failed at everything he ever did at life, you know, and I got to the end of life and just regretted it all and somehow, this is my chance to go back and get it all right."

Big Sean is a hugely successful rapper. He's been nominated for three Grammys, dropped eight singles that have appeared in the top five of US rap charts, performed on Saturday Night Live, and seen at least one of his albums go platinum. He is in no way a failure, having achieved everything an aspiring rapper could ever hope for, and he's even gone above and beyond that as a philanthropist with his Sean Anderson Foundation, buying his old high school a recording studio and donating $10,000 to help out with the Flint water crisis. And yet, Sean still feels like he hasn't lived up to his potential, as is obvious in the concept, sound, and scope of his new release I Decided.

It's a "concept album" by the loosest definition possible, with skits and perhaps around 10% of the lyrics devoted to a kind of Benjamin Button/reincarnation/"wise beyond his years" story about Sean deciding that he'd like a do-over, and succeeding at this because inside of his head, he's secretly an old man who's already made all of life's mistakes. That only presents a muddled-at-best picture of Sean's self-doubt-- what really reveals his biggest regret at this point in his career is how grandiose and personal he makes the album. Unlike plenty of other artists for whom bangers and hype seem more important than agonizingly-constructed album, Sean's main goal has always seemed to be crafting a "classic" album. He's studied the classics to be sure, as evidenced by a Complex article from a 2011 where he listed his 25 favorites, and chief among those were three of the five Kanye West albums in existence at the time. Sean's now three albums in, and seems very frustrated that none of them have been viewed on the level of Kanye's early work. 2015's Dark Sky Paradise was his first big-budget attempt at capturing some of the magic 'Ye got on those first three albums, and I Decided expands on that, mixing the synth-led ambition of Graduation with the down-home charm and strings of College Dropout

Sean's far from the only member of the cottage industry of rappers who've attempted to emulate various parts of West's pre-Yeezus career-- J. Cole and Logic are the other most prominent members of this group of rappers who could've feasibly ghostwritten The Life of Pablo's "I Love Kanye"-- but despite his more modest mindset, Sean's probably the best at creating alternate reality Kanye albums. He flirts with modern trends, throws synths and strings on everything, and always seems to ruin otherwise good verses with a clunky bar or two, which quality aside, is basically Kanye's pre-2012 M.O. If it wasn't for a few clear Sean-specific moves, I Decided could believably be a concept album about waking up one morning, realizing that your life up to this point was a failure, and deciding to do it all over again, but this time as Kanye West.

I Decided's songs can be divided into roughly five categories: the soul-tinged, uplifting ones ("The Light," "Sunday Morning Jetpack," "Inspire Me," and "Bigger than Me"), the trappy, trendy ones ("Bounce Back," "Moves," "Sacrifices"), the relationship ones ("Jump Out the Window," "Same Time, Pt. 1," "Owe Me"), the ambition-driven ones ("Halfway off the Balcony," "Voices in My Head/Stick to the Plan"), and the Eminem one ("No Favors"). There's strong songs in every category but the last, but especially between the first two categories, there's quite a bit of stylistic disconnect that doesn't gel all that well. Is Sean a skyward-gazing, Chance The Rapper type, a triplet-flowing Migos collaborator, or TWENTY88 Rap 'n B dude? Can he successfully be all three at once? I think he could evolve into competence in all three, but first he needs to step his damn bars and flows up.

Sean is a rap innovator, to be sure. He's the rightful inventor of the hashtag rap that Drake and many others went on to jack from him, and he's definitely invented a flow or two, so I'll give credit where credit's due. But for somebody who's often held aloft as a lyrical champion in the mumble rap dark ages, Sean is far from the most consistent or wittiest rapper out there. The following are just a few of his mind-numbingly bad bars on I Decided: "Flows on flows, I might drown in this bitch/Ye found a pro, I guess I'm profound in this bitch," "Remember when you used to come through and hit the Mario Kart and you always picked the princess/I realized you was princess way back then," "Girls from law school in this bitch/Yeah, they paralegals/Barely 21, that's very legal," "Subtract if it isn't adding," "I'm Mr. Anderson in the Matrix/Check the last name it's all facts." Then there's the borrowed flows, which are more prevalent here than on any of Sean's previous albums: Drake's "6 Man" cadence on the first verse of "Bounce Back," a distinctly 21 Savage flow on the bridge of "Sacrifices," and Migos triplet flows all over the place. Sean has plenty of great verses on I Decided-- "No Favors," "Moves," "Sunday Morning Jetpack," "Bigger than Me"-- but too many are derailed by a momentum-killing flow or an awkward bar. 

The good news for I Decided, like Dark Sky Paradise before it, is that it's head-and-shoulders above everything else Sean's done thus far. What everybody, regardless of how much they like Sean's music, seems to agree upon is that he continues to drastically improve with every release. DSP managed to fit Sean's biggest single to date, "IDFWU," and his one Grammy-nominated track, "One Man Could Change the World," under the same roof, despite containing quite a few weak tracks, and I Decided has even higher highs and only half of the filler. Sean's increasingly able to both dazzle with his writing and hit you straight in the gut with his emotive abilities, and is one of the few rappers I can imagine being able to pull off putting the Migos on the track directly preceding an album's tear-jerking climax. He made the wise decision of increasing keyboardist/producer Amaire Johnson's role after his involvement on "One Man Could Change the World," and with Johnson playing on eleven of the album's fourteen tracks, Sean's finally able to harness some of that powerful synth-and-keyboard-driven energy that Kanye had on his second and third albums. Aside from a hometown-obliged Eminem feature (which you can't tell me is anything but hot garbage), Sean's also getting better at choosing collaborators, with the additions of Jeremih, The-Dream, and Starrah especially aiding the album's emotional peaks. 

I don't know if I fully buy I Decided's narrative of Sean "starting over" anew. Aside from the addition of trap influence and a little more uplift, he's basically making the same album as last time. Sean's proven himself incapable of writing about anything other than his family, romantic life, and come-up, but he's making those subjects more interesting on each ensuing album. I Decided sees him further coming into his own and maturing, and we don't need the disembodied voice of "Old Sean" to tell us that. Like 99% of rappers, Sean didn't come out of the gate with fully-formed genius like Kanye did in '04, but unlike the majority of hip hop, Sean is showing patience and marked improvement with every new album. He'll eventually make a classic, even if it takes ten years to get there.