In the annals of rap history, Fat Joe holds a curious distinction. Joe is a just-OK rapper, a guy who fills space just fine on tracks but who almost never says anything that’ll rattle around in your consciousness. But Joe has been on more great songs than any other just-OK rapper in history. The list of hits is long, and it crosses eras and regional lines: LL Cool J’s “I Shot Ya,” Big Pun’s “Twinz (Deep Cover 98),” his own “John Blaze” remix, Terror Squad’s “Lean Back,” Ja Rule’s “New York,” Young Jeezy’s “Go Crazy” remix, N.O.R.E.’s “Más Maíz,” DJ Khaled’s “Holla At Me” and “We Takin Over,” probably a few others I’m forgetting. Joe can’t really take much credit for any of those songs, except maybe “Lean Back” or “New York,” and even there, Remy Ma and Jadakiss, respectively, eat his lunch. But you have to respect the man’s ability to be in the right place, at the right time, for an ungodly long span, on a whole pile of classic tracks. Up until now, Big Sean has spent the past few years building a slightly different reputation. He’s been the actively shitty rapper on more great songs than any other actively shitty rapper: Kanye West’s “Mercy” and “Clique,” Lil Wayne’s “My Homies Still,” Meek Mill’s “Burn,” Pusha T’s “Who I Am,” Drake’s “All Me,” his own “Dance (A$$)” remix and “Control (HOF).” Sean was easily the worst rapper on every last one of those songs, and yet there he was, his presence a reality that you simply could not get around. Today, Sean releases Dark Sky Paradise, his third solo album. It’s really good. I don’t even know, man. Maybe it’s time to reevaluate things.
On those old songs, Sean was an irritant, a high-pitched darting yammer that made him sound like the most obnoxious kid on the playground. (He even did some version of the nah-nah-na-boo-boo chant on “My Homies Still.”) He made doofy jokes, crammed in way too many syllables, lost the thread of the beat as often as not, and generally slapped a mile-wide shit-eating grin on everything he came in contact with. Here’s the thing, though: Those songs, even with him attached, are still great songs. So how shitty could he be? Sean had a giddy, clowninsh energy that, even if we might not want to admit it, gave those tracks a little extra push. We might’ve made fun of the “build a house on that ass, that’s an ass-state” bit, but I don’t know anyone who hated that verse enough to edit together a Sean-free version of “Mercy,” something that would’ve been easy enough to do. So Sean, even at his most irritating, had something. That something, however, did not seem especially conducive to making good albums. And yet that’s what Dark Sky Paradise is. It’s a glittering big-budget rap album, one made with intention. It flows, it hangs together, and it finds ways to present Sean as an important person. Kanye West, Sean’s mentor and label boss, is one of rap’s all-time great vision men, and Dark Sky Paradise has more of his fingerprints on it than Sean’s last two albums did. And there are a ton of guests, most of whom do great work. (Lil Wayne even takes time out of his verse to claim that Sean doesn’t get enough shine, which, even on an album this good, is debatable at best.) But Sean deserves credit, too, for stretching his voice and persona over the course of a full album without wearing out his welcome. He’s figuring things out. He’s getting better.
The success of Dark Sky Paradise has everything to do with “I Don’t Fuck With You,” the joyously pissed-off breakup song that Sean released last year. As with so much Sean does, there’s plenty to hate about “I Don’t Fuck With You,” especially if that’s what you’re inclined to do. The first time I heard it, I either hated it or wanted to hate it, and I can’t even remember which now. It’s a song entirely dedicated to Sean calling his ex-girlfriend a bitch, and that’s always a dick move. Sean claims that it’s not about his ex-fiancee, the former Glee actress Naya Rivera. But come on, it’s absolutely about his ex-fiancee, the former Glee actress Naya Rivera, and the song’s shameless willingness to play on tabloid narratives turns its willful obnoxiousness into something playful. The track also has a madly spluttering E-40 guest verse and a sproingy DJ Mustard bassline and a chorus full of cuss words that practically demands you yell along with it. It’s a fun song, and a lot of its fun comes from the dizzy, overjoyed way Sean tosses out grade-school insults. It’s the song that, for the first time, truly harnessed the power of Sean’s most annoying qualities and turns them into assets. Sean threw the song up on Soundcloud last fall, along with a few other loosies, and it quickly became his biggest solo hit ever. That’s no surprise. It’s the first one that truly shows what Sean can do when he’s not being the worst rapper on a song with a bunch of others.
“I Don’t Fuck With You” worked as a single, and it works even better within the context of Dark Sky Paradise, even though it’s a giant cartoon middle finger of a song and even though the album does everything it can to position Sean as a thoughtful adult rapper. It works for the album because it comes at the end of a hype-as-fuck suite of insanely well-produced bangers. “Dark Sky (Skyscrapers)” is very much in the same vein as Meek Mill’s “Dreams & Nightmares Intro.” It’s not as good as that, but it follows the same formula effectively — a churning, energy-building, hook-free rant of a song. Even with Kanye’s verse conspicuously absent from the album version, “Blessings” is a monster, an imperial statement of dominance where Sean sounds like he belongs next to Drake. “All Your Fault” broods and twinkles, and it could be a dirge if it didn’t have Sean and Kanye doing an energetic back-and-forth Run-DMC tag-team routine that completely caught me by surprise. Through those songs, the album builds towards “I Don’t Fuck With You,” and it hits like an explosion.
After that, the album goes through peaks and valleys, and they don’t all work. “Win Some, Lose Some” is Sean in self-pitying funk mode, and “I Know” is him and Jhene Aiko exchanging singsong come-ones; I could do without either. And after the buzz of that initial volley wears off, it becomes pretty clear that Sean still has a lot of the problems that have always plagued him. When he tries to rap too fast, he can often fall totally off the beat, something producers disguise by dropping out the drums. And he has so many howlingly dumb lines: “I’m doing extra numbers like I’m Chinese,” “I been fucking with these bitches like they hypoallergenic.” (On that last line: Is Sean allergic to bitches? Can he only live with hairless women? Is Amber Rose his ideal mate? I am so intrigued!) He can get a little too into the idea of his own importance, as on the maudlin ballad “One Man Can Change The World.” Still, the album does heroic work in camouflaging those weaknesses. The production is masterful throughout. A song like the Chris Brown/Ty Dolla $ign collab “Play No Games” could’ve been a too-slick rap&B stumble, but instead it uses its Guy sample and its wobbly synth-bass, turning it into prime ’80s synth-funk revivalism — the sound that Dâm-Funk and Snoop Dogg tried and failed to capture on that 7 Days Of Funk album. And the sequencing is on-point, too. Sean knows to follow his more introverted songs with something like the madly honking “Paradise (Extended)” or the prettily hammering Lil Wayne collab “Deep.” It’s expensive-sounding music, made by professionals. Throughout, Sean sounds like a star. And why not? Rap music can do anything.
Dr. Yen Lo – “Day 0″
Brooklyn DIY paragon Ka hasn’t left his dark, meditative head-cloud in years, and the whole idea of collaboration isn’t drawing him out. Instead, producer Preservation, Ka’s partner in the Dr. Yen Lo project, laces him with a beat that sounds like a lighthouse pulsing through an ominous fog, and Ka drifts even further into his own heavy headspace. Ka mutters something about clearing your haze, but he has absolutely no interest in clearing his own.
Young Thug – “I Swear To God”
Young Thug practically isn’t here. Instead, he’s mewling and growling and cooing softly to comfort himself. He’s talking about a girl, and he seems to be lost in half-conscious feeling, losing himself in possibility. In his own way, he’s as deep in his own zone as Ka is on “Day 0.” And that stuttering sample that London On Da Track introduces near the end is exactly the reason why he might be Atlanta’s best producer right this minute.
RetcH – “Fuck Do You Mean”
Paterson, New Jersey street-rap hope turns growling demon over a ghostly, floating, minimal beat. The video comes with a dedication to the late A$AP Yams, and songs like this might be the most enduring part of Yams’ legacy. In the wake of the A$AP Mob takeover, even the hardest hardheads in the New York’s tri-state area are getting really, really weird with it. I like how the song only has one chorus, and it shows up as the song is ending, just like “Don’t Stop Believin’.’
Boldy James – “Bet That Up” (Feat. Kevin Gates & Snootie Wild)
Boldy comes from Detroit, but he raps like a New Yorker, keeping his head down and his tough-talk minimally expressive. He’s a rock-solid presence, and he tends to seem most comfortable rapping alongside wizened veterans like Prodigy or AZ. But on “Bet That Up,” he goes the other way, teaming up with two of the South’s wildest singsong nutballs. Maybe it’s the pure contrast, or maybe it’s that menacing glimmer of a beat, but it absolutely works.
Montana Of 300 – “Planet Of The Apes” (Feat. Talley Of 300
As someone who lives in the South, I wholeheartedly embrace the idea of hunting camouflage becoming the new goon-rap uniform. There is simply no fashion choice more terrifying. The whole secret of Chicago’s Montana and his whole 300 crew: They’re dorks in goons’ clothing. Montana broke out with last year’s cult hit “Ice Cream Truck,” which had everyone dressing like scary clowns in the video. “Planet Of The Apes” sounds hard, and it is hard, but it’s also piled high with endearingly goofy punchlines: “So much blood on my sword / But there’s love from my lord / Banana clips for all you monkeys curious just like George.”