If heartbreak creates the best art, then Big Sean had the perfect platform to deliver his own version of 808s & Heartbreak. But life throws curveballs, and six months after breaking off his engagement to Naya Rivera Sean found himself back on his feet with new love Ariana Grande and an album full of emotional roller coasters, indignant boasts, clever punchlines and his trademark bravado that stands far and away as his best work yet.

Dark Sky Paradise is Sean's third album for Def Jam, which means he's reached that defining point in an artist's career when it's truly make or break time. Not that Sean was facing such extremes—his standing in the rap game means that he wouldn't have disappeared had this album flopped—but he was facing a crossroads of a sort, caught between the potential for which he had shown flashes and the reality that he had largely underwhelmed on 2013's Hall Of Fame. In that sense, Dark Sky Paradise is the album that Sean fans have been waiting for since "My Last" first soared up the Billboard charts in early 2011. If Hall Of Fame finally closed the book on his Finally Famous chapter, Dark Sky Paradise marks his biggest step yet in turning that mainstream fame into widespread critical praise.

Sean set the tone last September by releasing four tracks at once, with "I Don't Fuck With You" the breakaway success from the quartet. Its vindictive, bitter hook represented a different perspective for the Detroit MC, shifting the balance of power towards himself rather than the women of previous cuts "Beware" or "MILF." The shift in narrative is found throughout Dark Sky Paradise on cuts like "Stay Down" and "Play No Games" with Chris Brown and Ty Dolla $ign in addition to the extended version of "Paradise," also released in September. "All Your Fault" with Kanye West is the standout track among many other deserving candidates, with 'Ye and Sean trading lines back and forth with the bravado and confidence of a Watch The Throne cut (and the beat is one of Yeezy's best), while Drake's hook on "Blessings" is destined to ring out in clubs for months.

Sean warned that the album would be "darker" and more "intense" than his previous efforts, and those are the tracks that give Dark Sky Paradise a dimension that he's rarely, if ever, explored before on record. Both songs with Jhene Aiko, "Win Some, Lose Some" and "I Know," explore the underside of the celebrity Sean so enthusiastically chased earlier in his career. The former is a self-examination of the sacrifices that come with fame, whether they be reduced time for family and friends or the decisions that are made in a moment that have lasting repercussions. The latter is a moody reflection on a relationship gone astray from the perspective of a long lost friend offering a helping hand, again spinning the narrative around in a way that sets it apart from a regular heartsick love song.

The album as a whole builds up rather than winds down, with two of the most poignant records, "Deep" with Lil Wayne and "One Man Can Change The World" with John Legend and Kanye West, standing alone as some of the best work Big Sean has ever done. "One Man" in particular, which deals with the loss of his grandmother and his acceptance of her passing, really underlines what the entire work is about: dealing with the ups and downs in life and figuring out the best way to accept them and move forward. With Dark Sky Paradise, Big Sean has finally found that balance. —Dan Rys