He knows you’re wondering why his debut album took so long. It’s been four years since he dropped his first mixtape, Finally Famous. Four years that have seen a rhyme style he pioneered become so widespread and prevalent you stopped even noticing when rappers would do it. In that time, he’s had a video directed by Hype Williams, released two more well-received mixtapes—UKNOWBIGSEAN, with Mick Boogie, in 2009 and Finally Famous Vol. 3, with Don Cannon, in 2010—and appeared on last year’s XXL Freshmen cover. But none of that’s enough. And he knows rap fans are impatient.

It’s not like Sean “Big Sean” Anderson has enjoyed all the waiting. He didn’t really understand the delay himself.

“You know, it was weird,” he says. “I didn’t understand why that was happening. You know, all I would hear is, like, ‘Man, you gotta get it popping, man. You gotta get it bubbling.’ I would hear that from, like, Gabe [Tesoriero, a publicist] up at Def Jam. I’m like, ‘What the hell you mean? Why don’t you put my song on the radio, and I’ll be poppin’.’”

But he had to wait. It was okay. He’d waited before.

By now, people know his first-big-break story. In 2006, he was working a telemarketing job when he approached Kanye West outside of Detroit’s Hot 102.7 station and freestyled for him. Kanye saw potential and called him to say that he wanted to sign him to his label, G.O.O.D. Music. Fresh out of Cass Technical High School, a magnet school, 17-year-old Sean had to make a grown-up life decision, like a McDonald’s All-American point guard pre–NBA eligibility policy: go pro or attend Michigan State University on an academic scholarship.

Many members of Sean’s extended family are in academia. His parents split up when he was just a baby, and he was raised mostly by his mother, who matriculated at the University of Michigan, before getting a master’s at NYU. Lucky for Sean, she had a passion for the creative arts; she pursued acting after school. She took classes with Denzel Washington and would go on to appear in television commercials for national brands like Gerber. But when she became pregnant with Sean’s older brother, Brett, she put her career on hold. After Sean was born, she put it on stop, opting for the steadier employment of being a school teacher.

So she well understood what it meant for her son to get an opportunity to follow his dream. “When it was my time to do what I wanted to, she was more than supportive,” he remembers. “She was in tears, like, ‘Baby, you gotta do this. Education will always be there if you want to go back.’”

With his mother’s blessings, he declined the scholarship, poured himself into rapping, and waited…and waited…and waited. “I was home for, like, a year and a half to two years. It was, like, no contact [from Kanye]. I didn’t know what was going on. I gave up everything, but I still wasn’t signed. All my friends were at school, telling me how fun it was. ‘I fucked this many bitches, man. Parties every day. I’m high as hell. Class is crazy...’ All this fun shit that young people are supposed to do. I’m at home with my mom. I was broke. I kind of had a buzz around the city, so it’s not like I can just go and get a job, honestly. It was one of the worst times of my life.” At the end of 2007, he signed to G.O.O.D. Music. The next year, he signed to Def Jam.