Big Sean was downright giddy after his appearance on Saturday Night Live last week, and though the performance might’ve been a little awkward, you couldn’t judge it too harshly on account of the disarming smile on his face.
On the whole, Big Sean seems happy to be here and doing stuff. During an interview on The Daily Show last Wednesday, Big Sean told Trevor Noah his foundation had donated $100,000 to those affected by the ongoing Flint water crisis. During an interview with Jimmy Fallon two weeks ago, he beamed about his trip to SNL with Kanye West. This, Sean’s first SNL visit in name only, was sometime after Sean floored West outside WHTD’s studio in Detroit with 16 bars so fire that West had no choice but to give Sean the standard conflict-free, diamond-encrusted Jesus piece, lifetime Guggenheim membership, and the URL to Kanye’s widely mythologized ghost Tumblr blog that all no doubt comes with signing to G.O.O.D music.
His charm is such that it’s difficult to not be in his corner. He was overcome with emotion performing a meh debut album cut in front of a sold-out home crowd in 2013, and still, it was beautiful. He told Vanity Fair that he was overcome again when his third album, Dark Sky Paradise, was released in 2015, and that was beautiful too.
His fourth album, titled I Decided., is out Friday, and I’m willing to bet my knockoff Ambush ring that we’ll mull over the spacey beats and cheek-reddening punch lines for a day or two before collectively arriving at the same Big Sean conclusion we always do. Yes, he is, indeed, Rap’s Most Improved Act, a mantle usually bestowed upon abrupt game changers. Big Sean is not really a game changer, though. He is a game manager. We’ll get to why, but first, let’s talk about Clint Barton.
Like the rest of the Avengers, Clint Barton, known as Hawkeye, fights crime, but he’s not a cop or anything. Unlike the rest of the Avengers, Hawkeye has no superpowers*, just a quiver full of arrows — some of which explode, some of which don’t do much of anything at all — preternaturally good aim, and passably good comedic timing. His successes feel both effortful and replicable. Like with any number of Under Armour–ed-out kids launching NBA-range 3s in school gyms around the world or pinning up Mathieu Valbuena posters in their bedrooms, there’s a comforting sense that comes from Hawkeye’s learned skill: With practice, he plucked a Chitauri off a flying battle chariot from two rooftops away without looking, so why couldn’t I?
All this to say: Hawkeye isn’t saving the world by himself, but he can work crowd control and at least be counted on not to screw up the world-saving effort. He is charming and has a sweet, trustworthy face. He shows up every two years, and we root for him. He, too, is a game manager. You see where I’m going with this? No?
OK, bear with me: In June, Kanye released “Champions,” the lead single from Cruel Winter, which will be out the 12th of Never, probably. He told Big Boy on Los Angeles’s 92.3 radio station that the song featured “The Avengers of Rap.” As you’ll recall, “Champions” is a large mess that should just be a Quavo and 2 Chainz song (fight me). But Big Sean, in possession of the least superpower of the bunch, did have a technically adept verse that shortened “hand sanitizer” to “hand san,” and it was fine. Good, even. But it wasn’t memorable. That’s game management.
“Fine; good, even” feels like Big Sean in a nutshell. He’s AJ McCarron circa 2013. A safe and sharply outlined signal-caller that you can count on to not forget the plays he is supposed to run; a Heisman hopeful because he’s on the best team in the nation. Not the other way around. He’s predictable, minus a few tattoos you can attribute to a brief period of low impulse control, and who he’s dating is up there with the most interesting things about him. At worst he’s not throwing pick-sixes, and at best he’s stat-padding.
It’s fine to dote upon the one who throws the 35-yard fade, as long as we can acknowledge that playing under the league’s best coach probably had something to do with the resulting six points, and that someone else took that fade another 60 or so yards to the house. On 2011’s “Marvin & Chardonnay,” the part of Amari Cooper was played by Roscoe Dash. On “Blessings,” it was Drake. In 2013, well, you know, Kendrick Lamar bulked up on Bane venom and snapped the rap game over his knee.
None of this is to say Sean can’t hold his own. “Paradise,” which lived as an intro for Mike Will Made-It’s 2014 Ransom mixtape, sounds as if Big Sean grabbed a power line and turned into the stories-tall version of Chev Chelios from Crank: High Voltage. I scream-rapped along to it for a straight month, terrifying all of my neighbors and Lyft drivers. (We’ll ignore that the magic sort of fell apart on the extended version that wound up on Dark Sky Paradise.) As for the leading I Decided. singles, neither of which had features — “Bounce Back” was good, skittering shake-back music, and “Moves” was a blunted and liquored-up pop-leaning club record that seemed even better from a distance. The problem with both is the same one that plagues “Paradise” the further away we get from it: It’s difficult to make out whether the newer is actually better, or if it’s just new and … more. And faster. Over better production.
Cramming a lot of syllables into a small amount of space seems remarkable to a listener at first — I could’ve sworn Sean had the Migos-assisted “Sacrifices,” the penultimate track on I Decided., in a choke hold. But then you lean in closer and the line is just: “My girl is a mix of Aaliyah and Sadé.” To be fair, I might’ve happily taken that bar from Lil Wayne circa 2011, and any one of Migos could get away with it today, or any day of the week. But, as ever, Sean is overpowered by his more compelling guests, with the exception of an Eminem verse coughed forth from a horrorcore subreddit: “The Aaron Hernandez of rap” is a weird title to hanker after and an even weirder one to self-apply, even on a song called “No Favors.”
As for the more genial Sean, he is throwing a ceramic bowl full of flex bars at the wall and picking the one that dribbles down the slowest. Sometimes it reads as playful, other times it’s vexatious. It’s just that “I realized when it comes to girls that chemistry means way more than anatomy” (“Halfway Off the Balcony”) can be either, depending on the day, and it’s one of those far more often than it is the other. He might’ve restrained himself for two full minutes before saying “Donald Trump card” on the opening salvo, “Light,” and that is progress, but it’s not the substantial, Most Improved accolade kind.
Regardless of how short the shelf life might’ve been on each, Big Sean is four albums deep. He’s had a no. 1 album and he’s gone platinum. He might be a game manager, but game managers are still regular starters, and, sometimes, they get rings.