The concept Big Sean had in mind for his fourth studio album I Decided is clear from glancing at the cover: The two sides of the Big Sean coin are set to clash. Throughout the album’s 50-minute runtime that’s exactly what they do, clash, and frustratingly so.
For an artist who is presented as glitzy, smiling and well-kept, sonically Big Sean likes to revel in darker tones and moodier content. That juxtaposition was what made his last album Dark Sky Paradise such a surprise, and the quality of the songs he presented made it a pleasant one. On I Decided, Sean doubles down on that aesthetic as he seems to languish on all his life’s ills: relationship woes, his obligation to pay his mother and family members back for raising him, race relations, society’s woes (he’s no Donald Trump fan) and everything in between. The world is crumbling around Sean Anderson, and the weight of that weighs on him like never before.
“Voices in My Head / Stick to the Plan,” produced by DJ Dahi Metro Boomin DJ Khalil and Amaire Johnson, is as frenetic a track as the split title and lengthy producer credits suggest. It’s the album in a nutshell, as Sean jolts in every which direction, the song crescendoes at one point, changes to an entirely new instrumental at another, and the flows and deliveries throughout are numerous. It all works in that space, for that moment, but for nearly an hour it can become too disjointed at times.
What makes this so frustrating is both halves of Sean create quality material, it’s his inability to fuse them together that might keep him from leaping into the top tier of rap where he already fancies himself belonging. His mentor Kanye West, and the artist he seems to be nudging constantly with subliminal disses about stolen flows and mini-me’s, Drake, have mastered the craft of meshing multiple facets of their personality over an album’s run time. They’re able to create nuanced versions of themselves and spread them out, hopping between moods and tones, then blending them all together when need be. Where those artists seem to be able to shift gears on command, Sean is a touch more robotic, only able to handle one speed at a time.
The motivational anthem of redemption “Bounce Back” has rocketed itself up Billboard charts and to a gold plaque, and deservingly so; this is one of the best examples of Sean mixing his qualities together for a boisterous, tactful journey. He’s able to be both boastful and humble, satisfied with what he has but hungry for more all at once.
But on too many songs it feels like he’s taking turns shifting moods, rather than being one person who experiences all these moods together. In that way Sean not only cheapens himself, he holds himself back. On I Decided it’s clear he wanted to try more, shackling himself to a concept and pushing through it for the entire album, for better or for worse. The problem is he never quite commits to the leap, constantly reverting back to his comfort zone, refusing to fully embrace the potential of the concept he created. What becomes apparent is Sean probably already made his leap on Dark Sky Paradise, and may be plateauing on this album.
Sean Anderson is at his most passionate and enlightening on “Light,” with Jeremih, a tale of one’s spirt overcoming any obstacles placed in their way. “Hood ni***s takin’ chains, slave master take our names,” he says. “5-0 take the shot, young souls take the blame / Man but they can’t take away the light.” It’s a beautiful opening to the album, and that same positive and infectious attitude returns later on “Inspire Me,” an ode to his mother. But too often this Sean gives way to his alter ego Big Sean at strange and ill-fitting times.
While Sean Anderson is introspective, thoughtful and tortured, Big Sean is as jovial and frivolous as ever. Tracks like “Halfway Off the Balcony” and “Sacrifices” are paced by especially poignant choruses, while the verses leap into common rap tropes about cars, women, jewelry and copious amounts of cash. Sean wanted his two alter egos to face off on the album, instead they seem to take turns contradicting each other, and calculated juxtaposition gives way to problematic unevenness throughout.
That’s not to say I Decided is bad, it’s actually quite good. Like every Sean album, I Decided is produced beautifully, as his ear for tone-setting instrumentals is matched only by the Rick Rosses and Drakes of the world. His flows are varied, even off-kilter, and while the guest rap verses are simply OK — even Eminem’s much-maligned verse on “No Favors” has its redeeming qualities — the sung guest-appearances by The Dream, Jeremih and Jhene Aiko are all welcomed additions.
If you came to I Decided expecting greatness, know that it’s only pretty good, which means it can feel underwhelming. If you were expecting Big Sean to come out of his shell, you get half-hearted attempts to poke his head out and break the mold but at the end of the day he never finishes the job.
Ultimately, it’s Sean’s nonsensical, uneven content that keeps him and I Decided from a leap into the upper echelon of rap. He’s right there, but this grasp at a conceptual album falls just short. Sean got exactly what he wanted on I Decided, his two alter-egos colliding on top of an impressive sonic backdrop. When they collide they don’t meld together into something greater, they simply crash, and while beautiful cars can make for an impressive wreck, at the end of the day they’re still wreckage headed for the scrap heap.
Just like the cover predicts, there are plenty of hues, moods, tones and perspectives presented on I Decided. Unfortunately, just like on the cover, the never mix, instead choosing to stay in their own allotted spaces, existing separately when they would have been better off figuring out a way to co-exist and create new colors.