Critics are always fighting conflicting urges. On the one hand, there's the need to be objective and evaluate each work on its own merits. On the other, there's the desire to fit each new release from an artist into an over-arcing career narrative. The trick is to find a balance between the two.

This is especially hard to do with Big Sean, largely because his story so far has been one of success in spite of his obvious flaws. Although signed to Kanye's imprint may be considered an accomplishment in and of itself, the rapper (let's face it) has never really made a decent album, despite being decent on the mixtape circuit. It's a problem that plagues many rappers as they transition from mixtape stage to album stage, and Sean has pretty much flopped on that transition.

On tracks like "Clique" and "Mercy," Sean built a reputation for delivering Dad joke-ish groaners a la 2 Chainz, only without The Honorable Two Necklaces’ sense of self-awareness.

In the grandiose, Shakespearian tragedy that is G.O.O.D. Music, Sean is the comic relief, the Fool to Kanye's King Lear. He exists to take a bit of the pompousness out of the proceedings and maybe keep the audience members from going home and gouging their own eyes out. When Sean spits, you can practically see the following conversation taking place in a stage whisper inside a tastefully decorated Parisian apartment.


PUSHA T (at the arm of a throne covered in Louis Vuitton logos): Why do you keep him around, man?

KANYE (detached): He....amuses me.


Following up two lacklustre albums, Finally Famous and Hall of Fame, the general consensus would have been that Dark Sky Paradise would continue in the same mold. But then something strange happened. First, Big Sean dropped four tracks at once, including "IDFWU," proving a new-found passion in his raps (and this passion translated over to fanbase excitement). Then, over the course of the past two weeks, new tracks started to make their way onto the internet.

Of course, that in and of itself isn’t strange. Everything leaks a bit early nowadays, but what was strange was the reaction to these more recent tracks. On “One Man Can Change The World” Big Sean opened a vein and - for the first time - let his fans in on something personal. The down-tempo Kanye West and John Legend collaboration let listeners follow along as he wrangled with the death of his grandmother.

The other early release, “Win Some, Lose Some” with Jhene Aiko, featured a similar aesthetic and mood, helping to grow the buzz. Big Sean was finally rapping about things. The trademark puns were still out in force but the jokes seemed crafted to fit the song and not the other way around.

All of the sudden, a follow-up album to the truly forgettableHall Of Fame became hotly anticipated. Would Dark Sky Paradise be the album where Sean becomes a fully-fledged rapper in his own right, and not merely the foil to some of the greatest rappers working?

Unfortunately, if you were looking for Big Sean to drop a "classic," then DSP is going to let you down.

Sean definitely has his moments throughout the album. The aforementioned “One Man” and single “I Don’t Fuck With You” are obvious standouts. Big Sean even goes up against Drake on “Blessings” and manages to hold his own, making it another great collaboration on DSP.

However, each high is weighed down by a corresponding low. “Paradise,” previewed on Mike WiLL Made It's Ransom mixtape earlier this year, brings out all of Sean’s worst tendencies over a beat reminiscent of Childish Gambino’s “You See Me.” 

Tracks like “Dark Sky (Skyscrapers)” prove that slowing it down and getting serious don’t automatically lend a rapper gravitas. He's not quite comfortable being all the way serious, and it can spoil the mood. Big Sean may have issues that he’s going through, but he’s not an intellectual on the mic. He’s not, as the Lil Wayne collab puts it, “Deep.” Sean can make us think he’s a serious rapper for a song or two, but over the course of a whole album the cracks begin to show.

Even highlights like “Blessings” feature moments where the curtain is pulled back to reveal the same old Sean. “When your stars align, you do like the solar system and plan it out” almost derailed an otherwise excellent track, but Drake and Sean doing their best Young Thug impression was too good to stop.

In short, Dark Sky Paradise isn’t a career 180 from the hyuk-hyuk-ing Big Sean of his first few albums. What it is, is a step toward hip-hop legitimacy and proof that we should be just as excited about Sean’s next release as we were in the week before this one.