When you stack up Big Sean’s I Decided. against his previous albums like Hall of Fame and his debut Finally Famous, it is quite clear that the Detroit-based rapper has taken a more introspective turn in his career. Songs like “Dance (A$$)” and “Guap” are a thing of the past compared to his more recent offerings. Dark Sky Paradise was a good indication of this change, mixing fun and more lighthearted party rap with deeper, reflective tracks. I Decided., Big Sean’s fourth studio album, is not unlike what other rappers have been doing lately, but it still is Big Sean’s best work yet.
Things get rolling, theme-wised, in the album’s intro track. Big Sean’s older self, voiced by actor J.R. Starr gets hit by a car and dies. He is then reincarnated as his present self in another life. The whole album serves as a reflection on Sean’s life, with his older self is giving him advice and wisdom every step of the way. It is a cool theme, but one that is underused. The intro track came and went but I was only reminded of the theme later in the album on “Halfway Off the Balcony.” I Decided. has a clear and consistent message throughout, but I would have liked the bits with J.R. Starr to be sprinkled a little more throughout.
“Bounce Back,” the most popular song from the album, also happens to be one of the highlights from the project. It is an upbeat banger about bouncing back after taking an “L”. Big Sean has some great flow on the track, similar in style to the flow found on Drake’s song “6 Man.” Next on the track list is “No Favors,” a controversial collaboration with everyone’s favorite rabble-rouser Eminem. Produced by WondaGurl, the song marks the first time Eminem has appeared on a Big Sean’s album. Big Sean’s verse is great, but the biggest take-away is Eminem’s verse, where he makes a bunch of verbal jabs, including a threat against Ann Coulter. Whether he meant it or not (he probably did not), people are still taking some offense. This is not the first time Eminem has said something controversial. He is the king of controversy of course. It should not be a surprise to anyone.
These are not the only bangers that appear on the album. “Voices in My Head/Stick to the Plan,” produced by Metro Boomin, is another great track with a double-edged sound. In the song, Big Sean tells himself and his listeners to stay true to himself and to heed the advice of your elders. Then things heat up and quicken as Metro steers the beat in a new direction with the second part, where Sean convinces himself to stay focused amid the endless distractions of drugs, money, and sex. One of the more personal tracks, “Sunday Morning Jetpack,” is a song full of nostalgia and the struggles and how they made him the person he is today. The song features The Dream, who gives a great hook over a breezy beat. The song almost acts as an alternative “One Man Can Change the World,” one of the strongest offerings from Dark Sky Paradise.
Not every track is a slam dunk. “Same Time Pt. 1,” featuring Big Sean’s lady friend Jhene Aiko, is an underwhelming ballad that features a less-than-stellar verse from Aiko. I was expecting a little more from the TWENTY88 duo. There is also “Inspire Me,” which is a cliché and sappy tribute to Sean’s mother and the role she has played in the rapper’s life. It is sweet in concept but does not bring anything fresh to the table when compared to similar tracks from other rappers.
I Decided. is capped with “Bigger Than Me,” a booming track featuring Starrah and the Flint Chozen Choir. Big Sean wraps up the album, going off about how he has made it to the top but still needs to improve as a person. There are some great moments with the choir and a nice verse from Starrah. The track ends with a phone call with Big Sean’s grandma, just like his previous albums. A lot of I Decided. is predictable, but it is the culmination of Big Sean’s career in a good way. Big Sean has matured as a rapper and a person and that is prevalent in almost every corner of his latest project. There are bangers galore and reflection aplenty. Big Sean fans will rejoice.
This year’s top ten album list was a little bit of a surprise to me. If you don’t know already, I am a pretty big fan of rap music which means that most of the music I listen to during the year tends to be rap and hip-hop. In turn, this leads to top ten lists that are mostly comprised of rap albums. This year was a little different. This year’s list, although still mostly rap, branched out a bit and brings some diversity to the table. As usual, I should note that this list is my top ten albums that I listened to this year and is not indicative of the all the albums that came out in 2015. The simple fact is there was a lot of music that came out this year and sometimes I didn’t have the time to listen all of it. I can’t speak for albums that I haven’t listened to so I wouldn’t feel right putting them on my list, regardless of their critical reception. With that out of the way, let’s get to the list…
Honorable Mentions: Mr. Wonderful – Action Bronson, Ludaversal – Ludacris, Everything Is 4 – Jason Derulo, Revenge of the Dreamers II – J. Cole and Dreamville Records
10. Title– Meghan Trainor
The world was introduced to Meghan Trainor in 2014 but we didn’t get her debut album until 2015. Title is a strong debut for one of the more trending pop artists of 2015. Not only does it include “All About That Bass,” the song that put her on the map, but it also includes lesser known tracks like the album’s intro “The Best Part” and the fun “Walkashame.” Not to forget, the album also contains “Lips Are Movin” and “Dear Future Husband,” two of her other more popular songs. The album has a diverse sound and there is a lot to like about it.
9. Dark Sky Paradise – Big Sean
For his third studio album, Big Sean reflects on his life and gets a little introspective. It’s a change of pace when compared to the rapper’s previous albums and this change works really well. Dark Sky Paradise was also largely produced by Kanye West, a.k.a. the album has a great sound as well. You are already familiar with “I Don’t F*** With You,” one of the album’s premiere tracks, but the atmospheric and deep “Blessings” is another song that deserves a listen. The album also has a strong introduction with “Dark Sky (Skyscrapers),” where he reflects on some of the past decisions that he has made in his life. “One Man Can Change the World” proves that Big Sean opens up big time on his album, making it a necessary album on Sean’s discography.
8. GO:OD AM– Mac Miller
Mac Miller’s career trajectory has been a little hard to predict. He started off small with his release of Blue Slide Park and then moved to bigger and better (and profoundly different) things with Watching Movies with the Sound Off. With his latest release, GO:OD AM, Mac seems to have dipped a little bit in terms of mainstream recognition, but certainly not in quality. This also marks his first major label debut. GO:OD AM is a nice collection of tracks that mix some of the “trippy” Mac with his older sound. “100 Grandkids” is the song that I point to because it is a good representation of what you are going to get with the album. Other standouts include “Brand Name,” “Rush Hour,” and “Weekend” featuring R&B superstar Miguel.
7. At.Long.Last.A$AP – A$AP Rocky
2015 treated rapper A$AP Rocky pretty well…for the most part. The death of Rocky’s good friend A$AP Yams was a punch to the gut, but he seems to be doing pretty well with a starring role in Dope and a great album with At.Long.Last.A$AP. His sophomore album not only shows off the rapper’s talent, but it also acts as a dedication to his late friend Yams. The album kicks off with the deeply meditative “Holy Ghost” but then moves on to the trip-fest that is “L$D.” The album also contains “Everyday,” a collaboration between Rocky, Mark Ronson, Miguel, and Rod Stewart. Yep, you heard that right. A$AP Rocky was not afraid to experiment with different sounds and feels on the album, making it a unique experience. Finally, the project wraps up with a touching tribute to A$AP Yams. It wasn’t the best track on the album, but the energy was there.
6. Beauty Behind the Madness – The Weeknd
I will never stop being fascinated with The Weeknd’s voice. It’s the single aspect that got me instantly hooked when I listened to his indie project Kiss Land. For a time, The Weeknd was mostly underground, shying away from the mainstream light. Beauty Behind the Madness is the artist’s first foray into the mainstream light, and he handles himself pretty well. There’s a little bit of everything on the album to cater to a lot of tastes. “Can’t Feel My Face” harnesses a strong Michael Jackson influence to cater to the masses while songs like “Often” and “The Hills” harken back to the artist’s previously dark sounds. The album gave us the best of both worlds on top of some of the year’s best production. All The Weeknd needs to do is just keep being himself and all will be good.
5. Tetsuo & Youth – Lupe Fiasco
You’re probably looking at this album and probably wondering where the hell it came from. I am going to go ahead and declare that Lupe Fiasco’s Tetsuo & Youth was the most underrated rap album of 2015. I consider Tetsuo & Youth a smart man’s rap album. There is everything from instrumental melodies to nine minute masterpieces. Lupe also tackles topics like religion in tracks like “Madonna” and “Adoration of the Magi.” The album’s best track is “Prisoner 1 & 2” which provides a unique perspective on incarceration and racial profiling. These aren’t the only hot button issues that the album takes on either. There is a lot to Tetsuo & Youth and it all comes together in a well-rounded package. The album came out pretty early in the year and I knew the second after I finished listening to it that it was going to make it on this list.
4. Summertime ’06 – Vince Staples
When I think about it, this might be the second most underrated album of 2015, although it gained wider mainstream acceptance due to word of mouth. Vince Staples’ debut project is an interesting one because it is rooted in a story. Over the course of the album, the rapper goes into the summer of 2006, a season that really changed him as a person. Similar to some of the other albums on the list, Summertime ’06 is a reflective experience. “Life Me Up” and “Birds & Bees” are great examples of the rapper opening up about his childhood and his life growing up on the North Side of Long Beach. The double album has a cohesive theme that sticks the whole way through. Summertime ’06 came out of nowhere for me and now I am looking forward to what is to come from Vince Staples.
3. Compton: The Soundtrack – Dr. Dre
Who said the old man couldn’t hang out with the new guys? Dr. Dre, who hasn’t released an album in almost sixteen years, proves with Compton that he hasn’t missed a beat. Compton came out around the same time as the movie Straight Outta Compton, which really boosted the rapper’s resurgence in 2015. The longtime producer was dormant for the longest time but he comes back with an energy uncontested by many. Dre pays homage to his past with tracks like “Genocide” and “It’s All On Me” while at the same time looking where he has come since then in tracks like “Talking to my Diary.” There is a lot of Dre on the album but there is also a bunch of guest features including the likes of King Mez, Justus, and Candice Pillay. There is also a good bit of familiar voices like Eazy-E, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, and Snoop Dogg that lead to some great collaborations as well. The album has the old school Dr. Dre sound with a modern feel. This could be the rapper’s last album, but what a way to shut it down.
2. Our Own House – Misterwives
What!? An indie pop album from a New York based band as my second best album of 2015? This was exactly the way I felt when giving this album a comfy spot high on the list. My fascination with Misterwives’ music started with a free download of their song “Our Own House,” which later led to my purchase of the entire album. It’s a really fun and energetic album. “Reflection” and “Best I Can Do” are great examples of the energy that I am talking about. The album goes to some deep places as well with “Oceans” and “Coffins.” The group is super talented, fusing the fantastic voice of lead singer Mandy Lee with a mix of different instruments, yielding a final product that is unlike anything else on this list. The album really resonated with me, making it perhaps my biggest surprise discovery of 2015. The album is also great for blasting on long drives. Trust me, it has happened.
1. To Pimp A Butterfly – Kendrick Lamar
It’s almost like Kendrick Lamar can do no wrong, right? Kendrick is probably one of rap’s hottest commodities, having himself one of the best years he has had in a while. It wasn’t going to be easy to top his previous album good kid, m.A.A.d. city but he did it. He topped that album with To Pimp a Butterfly. What an album. Kendrick Lamar is one of the best lyricists in the game right now with a deep talent for storytelling. Almost every song on the album is phenomenal, with standouts like “King Kunta,” “Alright,” “How Much a Dollar Cost,” and “The Blacker the Berry.” Kendrick also dives into a bunch of cultural and social issues that have taken hold of our current society, making it one of the most relevant albums of the year as well. I’m pretty confident in saying that this relevance won’t just stay in 2015 either. I’m not lying when I say that this is an album that is going to be talked about years from now as one of the greats. Yeah, the album is that good. You should probably listen to it.
MTV was hyping this year’s MTV Video Music Awards to be super crazy and off the rails. There was even talk about the program being put on a slight delay. Why? Well, because Miley Cyrus was hosting them and let’s just say she knows a thing or two about crazy. All you have to do is take a quick look at her Instagram to see why. Ever since she left her squeaky clean Hannah Montana image behind her, she has redefined what it means to be an attention grabber. With her hosting the VMAs, things were probably going to get weird…except they didn’t. It was actually a relatively tame showing from Miley, with the emphasis being put on the multitude of performances.
Nicki Minaj started off the night with a raucous performance of “Trini Dem Girls,” complete with tribal dancing and vaginal slapping, pretty much par for the course when it comes to a Nicki Minaj performance. She then moved on to “The Night Is Still Young,” where the crowd was met with a surprise when Taylor Swift came out to join her on stage. If you didn’t know already, the two had some beef brewing between them, but if this performance meant anything, the beef between them had finally been squashed. What a way to start the show.
With one celebrity squabble crushed another one was built up…by Nicki Minaj of course. After being presented the award for Best Hip-Hop Video, Nicki Minaj proceeded to call out Miley Cyrus who was standing on the other side of the stage. Miley Cyrus was talking negatively about her in an interview a while back and Nicki thought the bright stage of the VMAs would be the best place to settle things. Things didn’t really settle however, but only got worse, leaving us with a pretty awkward moment.
Now that we’re on the topic of Miley Cyrus, let’s talk about her hosting performance shall we? She was pretty tame in terms of the things she did. She started with a brief little monologue talking about how MTV will probably go back to having no hosts by the time the night is over. The monologue had some other jokes here and there that pretty much fell completely flat. Miley Cyrus is better when she does her own thing, without a script put in front of her. She had numerous wardrobe changes, some more interesting than others, as the night went on. There were also a number of sketches that were sprinkled in between. Aside from an “accidental” nip slip towards the end and a head scratching performance at the end, Miley wasn’t really the Miley that most were probably expecting. In fact, she kind of left me disappointed. She got progressively more annoying as the night went on and definitely less funny as well. Perhaps the most surprising thing coming from her end was a surprise announcement of a free album, “Miley Cyrus & Her Dead Petz.” Pretty bold move…
As far as other performances go, there wasn’t really any “bad” performances. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis graced the outdoor stage outside the theater with a performance of their newest single “Downtown.” The Weeknd gave a pretty solid performance of “Can’t Feel My Face,” complete with flames galore. Twenty One Pilots and A$AP Rocky might have given us the most interesting and different performance of the night with a mash up of their songs. I didn’t know what to expect from it at first, but I liked it. Demi Lovato took the outdoor stage with a fun performance of “Cool for the Summer” with surprise guest Iggy Azalea…who no one particularly asked for. There was also a cool performance from Pharrell Williams of his newest song “Freedom” that took place on the outdoor stage as well. I thought the stage outside the Orpheum Theater in the streets of Los Angeles was a pretty cool setting in my opinion.
Justin Bieber made his return to the VMA stage after a five year hiatus. That span of five years has been pretty tough for the young rascal and he looked like a changed man last night. He gave an electric performance of “Where Are U Now,” followed by his newest song “What Do You Mean” which ended with Bieber literally flying in the sky performing some acrobatics. After making his landing safe and sound, the artist was in tears…for no apparent reason. Perhaps it was because he felt good to finally be back on stage again after all he has been through…or maybe it was the straps that might have rubbed him the wrong way…your guess is as good as mine.
As far as the televised awards go, Taylor Swift might have to be considered the big winner. She took home the Best Female Video award for “Blank Space” and Video of the Year award for “Bad Blood,” among others. Artist to Watch was given to Fetty Wap, most notably for his hit “Trap Queen.” Best Male Video was given to Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars for their infectious jam “Uptown Funk.” Finally, the award for Best Video with A Social Message went to Big Sean, Kanye West, and John Legend for “One Man Can Change the World.” Big Sean probably gave the acceptance speech of the night, dedicating it to his late Grandma who was a war pilot. It was a well-deserved award for Sean.
Let’s be serious though, perhaps the most talked about and most important portion of the night was the presentation of the Video Vanguard Award, which was presented to Kanye West. It was only fitting that Taylor Swift would be the one to present Kanye his award because of their past VMA history. Anyway, Kanye soon took the stage and just stood there for a good minute, soaking it all up. The crowd was going crazy, shouting “Yeezy” chants left and right. Kanye finally took the mic and started rambling on and on about a whole variety of different things ranging from his daughter to groceries to celebrity beef to award show and the culture that surround them. I have to admit, I kind of lost him a couple of times, but it was still fascinating to watch. He ended the big speech with a joke about running for president in 2020 before dropping the mic and walking off stage. It was a very Kanye thing to do, setting the social media sphere in flames.
Even though the show could have done just fine without the “crazy” antics and mischief from Miley, 2015’s VMAs still had its fair share of fun and talk-worthy moments. The emphasis was on the performances, which only makes sense in this day and age. No one watches award shows for the awards anymore. It’s all about which performance topped them all, and this year’s VMAs gave us a whole lot of performances to think about. I struggle to pick which one was my favorite because they were all equally great and exciting. The VMAs continue to provide a fun award show experience that tops most award shows on TV these days. I hope this trend continues on…but let’s have Miley sit out next time please?
Here’s the full list of winners from the night…
Video of the Year: Taylor Swift feat. Kendrick Lamar – “Bad Blood”
Best Male Video: Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars – “Uptown Funk”
Best Female Video: Taylor Swift – “Blank Space”
Artist to Watch: Fetty Wap – “Trap Queen”
Best Pop Video: Taylor Swift – “Blank Space”
Best Hip-Hop Video: Nicki Minaj – “Anaconda”
Best Rock Video: Fall Out Boy – “Uma Thurman”
Best Video With A Social Message: Big Sean feat. Kanye West and John Legend – “One Man Can Change The World”
Song of the Summer: 5 Seconds of Summer – “She’s Kinda Hot”
Let’s take a moment and look at what has been happening in rapper Big Sean’s life the past couple of years. His sophomore album Hall of Fame proved to be a sophomore flop, he had a pretty public break-up with now ex-girlfriend Naya Rivera, found a new (and even more public) girlfriend in Ariana Grande, and he recently signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation label. That’s a lot of fuel for a big fire. With Dark Sky Paradise, Big Sean’s third studio album, he manages to kindle those flames to produce his best album yet.
If you want a summary of the things Big Sean reflects on his introspective album, all you have to do is refer to the opening track “Dark Sky (Skyscrapers).” Big Sean keeps it raw and goes into the sorts of themes that are scattered all over the album, including the girls he has been with, the successes he has had, and some of the mistakes and struggles he has had to deal with along the way.
With a title like Dark Sky Paradise, you would think that Big Sean would follow the apparent progression from his struggles of his past to the paradise that he’s a part of now, but this is not the case necessarily. It seems like a missed opportunity to me, but it’s hard to argue with how an artist decides to order their tracks.
The album has a really strong start with some pretty heavy beats. “Blessings” and “All Your Fault”, which feature Drake and Kanye West respectively, go into the successes that Big Sean has had, and how he is literally “blessed” to be at his level. Both Big Sean and Kanye West go bar for bar on the last verse of “All Your Fault”, which was probably one of my favorite moments on the album.
These songs then lead to the massive commercial hit “I Don’t Fuck With You”; a song that can be possibly linked to Sean’s relationship with Naya Rivera. At the surface level, there doesn’t seem to be too much depth to the song. However, E-40 lends a great verse with his signature style and Big Sean once again gets introspective with the last verse, which he later revealed that he wrote with Naya Rivera on his mind. The song also contains some good production from DJ Mustard which makes it a heavy-hitting banger.
It was at this point that the album started to trail off a bit for me. “Play No Games”, featuring Chris Brown and Ty Dolla $ign, and “Paradise” both were average songs that didn’t really do it for me. However, I can’t deny that the sound of “Paradise” was probably one of the best sounds on the album. “Win Some, Lose Some”, the first duet with Jhene Aiko, and “Stay Down” were not that special either.
It was Big Sean’s second duet with Jhene Aiko, “I Know”, that was one of the highlights on the album. The two trade verses on a track about the struggles that someone in a rough relationship is going through. The two both offer their support in a sexy and soulful duet. “One Man Can Change the World” was another soulful track that dived into the subject of Big Sean’s grandmother, who recently passed away. She was the “father figure” of sorts during his childhood, and he owed a lot too her, which he talks about on the track. Sean also brings on Kanye West and John Legend, who were both fitting features on the track of tribute to Sean’s grandmother.
Although there were a couple of missteps along the way, Big Sean hit hard with Dark Sky Paradise. It’s a cool experience to see the rapper go through his life and the problems he has had to put up with, and then reflect on how they have impacted his life. There’s some moments on the album where he talks about what it would be like to “lose it all.” It’s a good reflective question to ask yourself once in a while, but with an album like this, it’s hard to see Big Sean really “losing it all.” He has picked himself back up from the disaster that was Hall of Fame and has moved on to his Dark Sky Paradise.
God Forgives, I Don’t, Rick Ross’s last studio album, was a rare misstep for the rapper. It was almost like he was trying just a bit too hard. He was constantly boasting about his latest projects and it contained so many features and ad-libs that it could almost be considered a mess. With Mastermind, Rick Ross’s sixth studio album, he cleans up the mess, and he does a good job with it too.
When you listen through the album, I began to marvel at what Rick Ross has become. He went from being a young signee of Slip n Slide Records, a division of Def Jam Records, in 2006 to basically owning his own record label, MMG. He has come a long way, and there were definitely a fair share of struggles along the way for the rapper. In fact, the track “Nobody” goes into more detail about the shooting that he was a victim of back in the day. He came from a rough place, but he did end up progressing to the point where he is today.
Tracks like “The Devil is a Lie” and “War Ready” are where the album shines. “The Devil is a Lie” features two powerhouses on one track (Rick Ross himself and Jay-Z) and they both give verses that truly demonstrate their brilliance. It’s also an interesting song because it delves a little into the topic of faith, which is an area that most rappers don’t really go. On the other hand, “War Ready” is the definition of street rap at its finest. Jeezy, who gives a verse is the highlight of the track, outdoing himself as well as Rick Ross with his iconic raspy voice.
Other features that appear on the album are Diddy, French Montana, Lil Wayne, Big Sean, and Kanye West. There are some others too, but overall, there are far fewer features on this album than God Forgives, I Don’t, which is actually a good thing. There was so much features on his last album which made it seem all over the place in terms of content. With Mastermind, Rick Ross brings on some of the best in the game that give their take on the successes and struggles of the rap game.
The album has its fair share of deep cuts and street beats but you also see some blues, reggae, and R&B that give a break to those familiar Rick Ross tunes. The Weeknd, who is becoming one of the biggest names in R&B offers his talent in “In Vein”. We also see some features from Mavado and Sizzla who are becoming big names in the Reggae sphere. In general, there is a lot more variety on Mastermind than there was on previous albums from Rick Ross.
Don’t get me wrong, Rick Ross still raps about his money and his fame. That’s what he does. Rick Ross has become a millionaire through persistence and hard work, and that is what Mastermind is an example of. It’s a great example of where Rick Ross has come from, as well as why he has become one of the most successful rappers in the game.