By Ayana Archie
On I Decided., Big Sean’s fourth album, the rapper embraces his vulnerabilities and realities perhaps more than he has ever done before. However, he also re-enlists his same bravado, which teeters on arrogance. Sean has always given himself credit if others are not willing to. And many people haven’t, often writing him off as corny (there have been moments, circa, “they was trying things, trisexual”).
But Sean knows his place—“Been top 5, these n****s sleep though / only thing that sold out is the seats though (Never sold my soul, never will never have) / n***a how dare you stand before me and not respect my authority,” he raps on “Bounce Back,” one of two of the infectious singles from the record.
While with flaws, he considers himself the best, and I Decided., released on Feb. 3, journeys the decisions he has made, and continues to make, along the way to be able to claim that title.
“Intro” focuses on the life of an old man, who can safely be identified as Sean’s older self. On his promo run for the album, Sean made an appearance on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, in which he elaborated on the album’s themes and artwork.
“There’s like a current day version of me, and then there’s an older version of me, an old man version of me, and we’re parallel,” he said. The old man is complaining about his current life, which would have been Sean if he had not decided to pull himself from his own circumstances.
Old Man Sean pops up several times throughout the album, representing the looming question of “what if?” in Sean’s life. What if he didn’t answer his mother’s phone call? What if he lacked the strength to put on a brave face for the paparazzi? What if Kanye West hadn’t given him a record deal?
With this album, some key, overarching elements include regret, respect, relationships and realization. “Jump Out the Window” and “Same Time, Pt. 1” easily blend together, although separated by one track. Here, Sean is struggling for stability in his romantic relationships. “Jump Out the Window” is a sacrificial ode to the one that got away. “We already wasted too much time / and your time is the only thing I wish was mine / So I think I’m ready to jump out the window,” Sean raps.
“Same Time, Pt. 1,” features Jhené Aiko, Sean’s girlfriend and one half of their duo twenty88. On this song, there is still a flitting sense of security. “I see you every blue moon, full moon / We never did the relationship, it get too messy.” Sean and Jhené sing the majority of the song in harmony, signifying a mutual understanding between the couple characterized in the song, that they will always be there for each other whether they are together or not.
Whether this pair of songs centers around one person in particular is unclear. Nonetheless, it is evident from each that, unsurprisingly, Sean’s fame has had a deeply profound impact on his interactions with women and the ability to achieve normalcy, despite how illusory normalcy may seem.
Sean is also expressing his frustrations with continuing to be overlooked. The underdog is not a label he deserves. “How many hot verses ’til you bitches start acknowledging?” he raps on the Eminem-assisted “No Favors.” On this track, Sean’s tolerance for others’ apprehension is low and counters any skepticism, as he is the most lyrically agile here.
When it comes to Sean’s place in the industry, self-reliance is the name of the game. “You can save your hand I ain’t gotta shake it,” Sean raps, capping off a trifecta of Sean’s refusal to engage in handshakes from the fakes [“Don’t give no dap to me n***a” (“Blessings”) and “I can’t dap you without hand san’ / I don’t know where your dirty ass hands been” (“Champions”)].
At 44, Eminem still maintains his effortless ability to absolutely conquer a track with his wit, delivery and cadence. Em’s verse creeps up and begins with a gentle, internal boil, and eventually crescendos into the more outward aggressiveness he is known for, which he characterizes as “amazingly sturdy, zany and wordy/brainy and nerdy, blatantly dirty/insanely perverted, rapey and scurvy.”
The first song of the album, “Light,” featuring Jeremih, is a beautiful, elegant cry of self-perseverance when others insist on throwing stones. Sean has an epiphany that life’s essentials are internal. “Spent my whole life trying to find the light that’s at the end of the tunnel/I should have realized it was inside,” Sean raps.
Nonetheless, finding that inner light can be a long, tumultuous journey, one that Sean is not unfamiliar with. While others have doubted him, there have also been times where Sean has doubted himself.
At the end of “Owe Me,” a tale of a tormented woman who comes back into Sean’s life, bringing chaos with her, Sean speeds off in a car, ignoring the superficial prying of the paparazzi. This segues into “Halfway off the Balcony.” From the title, one might assume that Sean is having suicidal thoughts. The stresses of his career and fame and relationships are withering him. However, Sean seems to be contemplating a metaphorical decision to jump off the balcony for a chance at rebirth, rather than literally falling to his end.
“Throughout my life, I always felt like I got a second chance at everything somehow,” Sean told Noah.
Some of these feelings of contrition continue on the next track, “Voices In My Head/Stick to the Plan.” On the earlier half of the song, Sean’s pessimism is hounding him, telling him he is not good enough, that he could always be better. This half isn’t as lyrically dense as earlier songs on the record, however, the track is arguably the most artistic and complex of the album.
The sonics (provided by DJ Dahi and the whimsical, ever talented Metro Boomin) are slow and dark, which help to express his darker inclinations. But once the song shifts to “Stick to the Plan,” Sean forcefully kicks away his cynicism and is aiming to get back on track. The beat gains more punch, coinciding with Sean’s newfound confidence, and picks up speed, and in the last 30 seconds, he goes on a lilting sprint with his rhymes.
From this point on, the album is wildly optimistic. Sean is positively weighing the highs and lows, and embracing the highs, realizing that they are much more plentiful and potent. Sean dedicates two songs, “Sunday Morning Jetpack” and “Inspire Me,” to two of the women most important to him: his grandmother and mother, respectively.
“Sunday Morning Jetpack,” featuring The-Dream, who delivers a soulful performance, reflects on Sean’s relationship with his grandmother and the lessons she taught him. Interestingly, the jetpack is used as a symbolic mode of transportation from the ground up to the sanctuary of the heavens to talk with God. On his way back down, he returns with blessings, knowing they will help salve the pain, doubt and confusion.
Metro Boomin returns for the third time on “Sacrifices” when Sean collaborates with his labelmates, the culture-shifting, highly sought-after Migos. The production is spooky, sounding like the ghost levels in Super Mario.
It is fitting, as Sean comes out of the gate swinging and hungry. “Look at all the ones I outlasted / I’m the one at the end like I count backwards / never satisfied details classified / till the afterlife make a sacrifice, Don,” Sean raps. Offset brings the extra punch and Quavo brings the smooth. This is an important track, as Sean recognizes that while he may have to experience the tribulations described throughout the album, it is worth the trouble.
With this in mind, the album rounds out with “Bigger than Me,” featuring Starrah and The Flint Chozen Choir. As a Detroit native, the opportunity to include a part of Flint has a personal and communal meaning. Sean is a very philanthropic individual, and interprets his life as a reflection of those who admire him.
“Everybody in the city to me like a distant cousin, brother, little sister / I see myself in the young ones / when I look in their eyes it feel like a mirror,” Sean raps. Being able to positively represent and give back to his city gives him the confirmation he needs that he has achieved some level of personal success.
Taken from a conversation between Sean and his mother, the last line of the album—“I guarantee we’ll live life to our best potential. It’s that simple. It’s all about living in the moment. Period.”—finds the voices of present-day Sean and Old Man Sean merging into one, as Sean Anderson arrives at peace with the decisions he has made.
Featured Photo Credit: Feature photo courtesy of BIG SEAN on Facebook.
Ayana Archie is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.