Sean Anderson is almost 30 years old. And since his raucous debut in 2011, his playboy-by-Arlecchino performance has only worn thin, acquiring a veneer of critical fatigue and a shoulder halo. As Luke Winkie put it in his brilliant, hilarious exegesis of Sean’s ill-advised appearance on 2013’s “All Me,” nobody knows why, exactly, he finally became famous. Big Sean is major-label hip-hop’s resident class clown, though he possesses no redeeming instincts, instead harboring one of the largest of chips-upon-shoulder in a game of most impressive, sizable specimens.
And for good reason: he has consistently played second fiddle to superior artists of a younger generation and more remarkable mold, surpassed and out-classed by most, if not all, of his fellow 2010 XXL freshmen. He is like Kid Cudi, Sean’s fragile progenitor and another, previous study in West’s Narcissus project. Yet in emphatic response, albums Hall of Fame (2013) and Dark Sky Paradise (2014) pretended something of a game-changer, presenting something of a super-ego in suspension, exposing a (slightly less) superficial side of Sean that most would have dismissed out-of-hand, garnering some critical and commercial favor and, sequitur, staying power. Like all artists, Sean thinks he’s a genius, but he lacks the gravitas, charisma, and sui generis impulses of his career models and contemporaries.
Though, as Big Sean reminds us here, “you don’t need a master’s just to be a masterpiece.” I Decided. — stylized with a full stop, so you know he’s serious — follows, and retraces, an immediate career trajectory, offering just about everything fans and critics have come to expect of Sean: equal parts introspection and performed extroversion, both punctuated by the tear-jerking residual, the 11th-grade English class punchlines that populated Finally Famous, minus the skits. It’s the first entry in Sean’s catalog to lack the overt appearance, curatorial or otherwise, of mentor and #1 fan Kanye West, though his spiritual presence is very much a part of the album’s sound and vision. And that’s partly the problem with I Decided.: without an adequate treatment or storyboard, it feels listless and wanting immediate predicate. It lacks a ready place on the shelf.
“Motherfuck all your comparisons/ I’ve been talkin’ to God like that’s my therapist/ I’m African-American in America; I ain’t inherit shit.”
Populated by the stream-of-consciousness rambles and rants forming his particular sub-variant of pseudo-cloud rap, I Decided. is largely another malingering autobiographical feature. There is the usual hand-wringing vis-à-vis the trappings of fame, the votive name-checks and name-drops (the Holy Trinity, et al.), the aspirations to the inspirational, the low-brow stabs at dignity and consciousness. One man can change the world, but Big Sean can’t seem to tie the strings himself. The album also showcases the typical hand-holding guest appearances from lyrical and aesthetical superiors, the likes of Migos and Eminem — the latter of whom loudly and hilariously proclaims he’s “basically 30,” among other embarrassing entries.
They only provide temporary distraction, however, from Sean and his team’s wide stance. Production-wise, the album is so Midwest it’s Mideast, tendering an understated amalgam of influences, both regional and local, modern and contemporary. It is hardly trap and only rarely feels overproduced. Yet Sean himself squanders the moment, succumbing to his worst instincts, finding himself constantly biting other, more successful maestros left and right: from appropriating Drake-voice on lead single “Bounce Back” and “Moves” — the former of which, by the by, features an inexcusable and characteristically late “Beast Mode” hat-tip — to his adoption of Ty Dolla $ign’s distinct Atlantan drawl on the reprise of “No Favors” to his co-opting of Kanye’s manic suicidal ideation on “Halfway Off the Balcony” and “Jump out the Window.” The closest thing to a trademark, his cloying cadence-over-subject double-time technique — “We making moves like Tarantino/ Like J. J. Abrams/ Moving like Channing Tatum/ Moving like Jason Statham,” par exemple — is no more impressive here than it was five years ago. His motto-of-the-moment, “take no Ls,” has existed for decades.
At the same time, you can’t help but be endeared by Sean. He is earnest, proud even: presenting a positive self-vision that has readily and apparently inspired a young crowd of GOOD Music devotees. He is not a bad rapper, simply an average evangelist, and I Decided. is the latest chapter in his average brand of hero-worshiping gospel. He is a welcome change from the inheritors and the try-hards; he brings a tired smile to the face.