With the announcement that “I’m in album mode” on his “Overtime” single, Big Sean season has returned. The Detroit rapper broke his year-long hiatus with the cathartic track from his upcoming Don Life album, where he delves into his previous disillusionment with music and life through summative lines like, “I didn’t take a break, my n—a, I broke.” Sean sounds put back together on the 4-minute song, where he rhymes vigorously over instrumentation which includes a triumphant loop from Jay-Z’s “Hovi Baby.” He rhymes, “f*ck that sh*t that you believe in, I believe in me.” What may sound like an inconsequential boast is actually an affirmation of triumph for Sean, who admitted to Billboard magazine in March 2018 that he was dealing with depression and anxiety.
After a (refreshingly civil) breakup with Jhene Aiko and a mixed response to his Double Or Nothing joint album with Metro Boomin, Sean canceled his 2018 tour plans last February and went dark. He told Billboard that, “I had some things to work out in my head…I never really took the time out to nurture myself, to take care of myself. It took me a lot of depression (and) having a lot of anxiety to realize something was off.” But now, Sean says he’s his “best self,” and his self-improvement is reflected in new music that he claims is “the best it’s ever sounded.”
The “best music yet” claim is a quintessential rapper cliche, but there’s reason to believe Sean. At the time he spoke to Billboard, he wasn’t just working on his bars, he was working on himself. He announced in February 2018 that he was “in a deep creative space” and needed “to stay focused in the studio.” A year later, on his 31st birthday, he took to Instagram to let fans know that during that period, he felt “lost” while dealing with depression and anxiety. The Detroit rhymer found a therapist who he said “made me realize one thing I was missing in my life, and the one thing I was missing was clarity.” It’s commendable that he made the journey to become his “best self” mentally, and that work may influence him to tap into his full creative potential with an undeniable album.
Ask ten hip-hop fans about Big Sean and you may get ten different answers. Some people love his zest for topical, low-hanging wordplay like “what goes around comes around, faster than fidgets” while others, like those who panned such lines on his Double Or Nothing album, think they’re cringeworthy. Some may agree with Jeff Rosenthal for Village Voice that “his art may be shaped in Kanye’s mold, baked in Kanye’s kiln, and awaiting Kanye’s critique,” while others know he wasn’t exaggerating when he rhymed, “I hear a little bit of me in all your favorite rappers” on “Holy Key,” as his “Supa Dupa flow” was “borrowed” by almost every star rapper of note at some point. Devotees may extol Dark Sky Paradise as a modern classic, while skeptics don’t believe that he has an album that justifies fitting him on the Mount Rushmore of 2010s rap with Drake, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and Meek Mill.
Sean has a chance to quell that polarizing legacy with Don Life. He has a solid catalog, with Dark Sky Paradise regarded as his best work. The 12-track album was lauded for being one of Sean’s most substantive, personal albums with songs like “One Man Can Change The World” and “Blessed.” So many classic rap records win their “undeniable” status with the poignancy and heartfelt reflection he displayed on those songs.
Sean is going in that direction with Don Life, as he told Zane Lowe that, “I feel like I got a lot to say that a lot of people may not be addressing right now.” It seems sensible to assume that Big Sean could re-explore the winning Dark Sky Paradise formula of a shorter, confessional album after a year of soul-searching and a breakup that he explores on his latest track, “Single Again,” that surprisingly features Jhene Aiko. But it won’t come from a place of gloom, as he told Lowe that “he’s getting back to having fun” with his creative process, after a time period in which it felt like a “burden.”
It’s too early to know what producers he’s been working with or what the project’s major themes are, but it sounds like Big Sean is focused in a manner that he hasn’t been in a long time, if ever. He deserves commendation for taking the brave step to work on his mental health. Hopefully, his renewed outlook on life stirs him to release what is truly his best project yet.