Give It All to Me: Big Sean’s XXL Cover Story
Give It All to Me
Following the success of a critically acclaimed album, Big Sean is out to do it all over again. And he won't let fame or beautiful women get in the way.
Words: Sowmya Krishnamurthy
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
Inside the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, long-suffering actor Leonardo DiCaprio is basking in his post-Oscar glow from the night before. He holds court at a large table, seated next to longtime buddy and “Pussy Posse” cohort Ethan Suplee. Wearing a wrinkled t-shirt and baseball cap, Leo tries to keep a low profile, fending off gawkers like Yankees legend Derek Jeter, designer Vera Wang and Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire, while stealing French fries off of a friend’s plate. He’s got no idea that 50 feet away, Big Sean is totally geeking out.
The rapper is a big fan. He loved The Revenant and really wants to go over and give props to the actor, but he doesn’t want to look like a psycho stalker. After some trepidation, he decides against it. “I ain’t gonna bother him right now,” Sean says.
It’s 2 p.m. and the Polo Lounge is, as Sean puts it, “very lit.” Since 1941, the restaurant has been one of Los Angeles’ quintessential places to see and be seen. Frank Sinatra and The Rat Pack used it as their personal watering hole. Marilyn Monroe shacked up with her lover in a nearby bungalow. Enveloped in warm, rich wood and dark green décor, soft piano music wafts through the dining room and into a lush, outdoor garden where waifs in big sunglasses nibble on Russian Osetra caviar and tagliatelle with black truffle. “This is a level of success people dream of,” Sean muses.
He wears a grey t-shirt with Stevie Wonder emblazoned on it, dark jeans and a blue Detroit Tigers baseball cap. For two kids from the Midwest who grew up on the doughy, empty-calorie goodness of Olive Garden’s unlimited breadsticks, it’s kind of a mindfuck. “We’re probably the only people from Michigan right now sitting across from Leonardo DiCaprio or some other people who in here who got [millions] and [billions].” Sean takes a sip of pineapple and Jameson whiskey, letting the moment crystallize. “I belong here, too.”
Big Sean does belong here. In a way, his trajectory has been very much like Leonardo’s. Sean has wanted to rap since he was 8 years old. After three studio albums and four mixtapes, Sean’s finally getting his due. Over the past year, the 28-year-old (born Sean Anderson) has quietly evolved from hashtag rapper-cum-Kanye West protégé into a bona fide superstar. Buoyed by the success of his first platinum album, Dark Sky Paradise, and his headline-grabbing personal life, which yielded the Dear John banger “I Don’t Fuck With You,” Big Sean is a commercial and critical contender for the rap throne.
Sean notched six certified singles off the album (including tracks that weren’t intended as singles) and was the only rapper to become a trending topic at the 2016 Grammy Awards -- something even Grammy darling Kendrick Lamar can’t boast. He inked a deal with Jay Z’s Roc Nation management and he’s hitting the road overseas with Rihanna and The Weeknd this summer. He has a fourth solo album and a joint with soul chanteuse Jhene Aiko locked and loaded for early to mid 2016. And he’s done it all the old-fashioned way. Sean veers from controversy or beef and hates trolling on Twitter. Instead, Sean ascribes to the “Put your head down and do the work” mantra. He’s approachable, likeable and for lack of a better description, totally normal.
Nice guys do finish first.
“It’s been a come-up for me,” he says. “It’s been gradual. It hasn’t been an instant success. Something I really bust my ass for [or] really worked hard for,”
He orders a hamburger cooked “medium plus” with romaine lettuce swapped in for arugula. He hates arugula. “If you look at the track record, you see it hasn’t been an overnight thing. It’s been something I’ve been plotting on since 2006.”
Much of Sean’s everyman appeal comes from the way he was raised. The younger of two sons, Sean was born in Los Angeles when his mother, Myra Anderson, moved there to pursue acting. She studied alongside Denzel Washington but after her marriage fell apart, she moved back home to Detroit when Sean was two weeks old. “I guess that opened her up to being receptive to her kids’ dreams too,” Sean says. “She was always supportive of me and making sure that you know, I kept that open mind.”
He bounced between his parents’ respective homes -- mom lived between 6 Mile and 7 Mile and dad lived off of Linwood Street -- as well as his grandmother, Mildred V. Leonard’s place in a tonier neighborhood. Being raised by especially progressive women helped Sean see success at an early age. Myra had a Master’s Degree from New York University, and was a school teacher while Mildred made history as one of the first African-American women in WWII to serve as a captain. In her professional life, she served as a police officer, a teacher and a counselor in Detroit.
Despite being strapped financially, the family encouraged Sean to think beyond the block. He remembers his mother scraping together money so they could enjoy First World luxuries like fresh, organic foods and holistic care. “My mom is a smart woman,” Sean says. “She’s always been ahead of the curve. As kids, [she had] us take certain vitamins and superfoods and [eat] this amount of greens every day. I feel like that’s one
of the reasons I don’t have allergies [now]. I don’t have asthma. She really took that extra care.” It’s the reason he’s just as comfortable in the D as say, in Beverly Hills. Sean’s mother also supported his music, going into debt to pay for studio time and getting CDs pressed and defending her son when teachers -- his grandmother funded his private school education -- tried to dissuade him.
In many ways, Sean grew up in a cocoon of positivity from jump, but he wasn’t immune to the seductions of street life. Was he intrigued by the guys selling drugs with the hottest cars and the pretty girls? “Yeah, for sure,” he admits. “But I didn’t want to be a let down.” Aside from a minor arrest for truancy -- he and his friends skipped school to dick around at a Big Boy restaurant -- he learned from the cautionary examples around him. The fuck-ups of friends and extended family kept young Sean on the straight and narrow path. “I would see people around me doing it and they were a letdown,” he tells. “I didn’t want to be that. There gotta be another way.”
This desire to do better, to go beyond the confines of the D, it’s a prevailing theme throughout Sean’s career. Since signing with Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music in 2007, Sean has kept his nose to the grindstone. Maybe it’s some innate hunger or the obligation to pay his family back for their sacrifices but he consciously makes good choices. He avoids controversy like the plague -- even though his record “Control” (featuring Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica) is arguably the most vicious diss in recent history -- and finds no point in succumbing to stereotypical trappings of rap fame. “No time for that,” Sean says of beef. “No time for fuck shit. Beefing with somebody over stupid shit? I worked too hard to be in a position to actually make money off my dreams to be arguing with another grown-ass man. I’m not dis- counting anybody’s grievances [but] all of that shit is bullshit to me.”
He takes the diplomatic road when discussing his high-profile romances, too. His 2013 engagement to actress Naya Rivera and courtship with superstar Ariana Grande are in the past. He doesn’t bad mouth his exes and spins whatever residual feelings with a silver lining. “I’ve had a girlfriend since I was 15 but being single has been the best experience,” he explains. “It gives you room to focus on what’s at hand.” He does occasionally date (usually going to the movies is a solid first date, he says) and is the quintessential romantic. When he’s sprung, Sean’s the guy who makes thoughtful gifts like scrapbooks and mix CDs. He admits to being in love “two or three times” and he still believes in soul mates. He emphasizes that the next girl who wants to be on his arm needs to understand his hectic schedule, especially as he’s still recording his fourth studio album. “There’s been times where, you know, girls have gotten mad at me because I’ll be literally working in the studio,” he admits. “They’ll be getting mad at me like I’m cheating with another female. I want someone who respects [my] dedication. Respects that grind.”
Break ups ain’t all that bad. Sean has fueled his emo into a recently collaborative EP with Jhene Aiko called Out Of Love. “That’s one of my best friends in the world,” Sean gushes of Aiko. “She’s real special.” Their chemistry on previous tracks “Beware” and “I Know”
is palpable. “It feels like I’m making music with one of my friends,” he continues. “It’s on the same level as just how making music with Kanye. It feels comfortable with her in the studio.” The album has opened up Sean’s songwriting side. “I wrote a lot of this project myself. There were times I got to write my singing verses for her.” “It was new to me because I’m used to writing all my stuff,” Jhene says. She describes the process as wholly collaborative. “He did a really good job. He’s a really good songwriter.”
"Dear God and Universe, thank you for bringing us together again today to do what we love to do. To live the life people don’t get the chance to live in 10 lifetimes,” Big Sean ministers to his team before he goes onstage. A group of 20 or so, including his creative directors, DJ, publicist and assistant stand in a circle with heads bowed. This is Sean’s inner sanctum, the crew that keeps his machine well-oiled. “You give us everything we ask for,” he says, his eyes still closed. “We could be anywhere in the universe but we’re here. Thank you God. Thank you Universe. Amen.”
It’s maybe 9 p.m. in a back room at The Forum in Inglewood. It’s late February but the air is warm enough for shorts. Sean wears a flannel shirt over white jeans with grey Timbs and fittingly, a L.A. Dodgers baseball cap. After the prayer, Sean heads to the stage for 92.3’s Birthday Bash. Like most radio shows, the set is short and focused on the hits. He performs abridged versions of tracks like “Blessings” (featuring Drake and Kanye West), “Dance (A$$)” (featuring Nicki Minaj) and “Mercy” (with Kanye West, Pusha T and 2 Chainz). The show gives Sean the chance to mingle with other headliners. He stops by Wiz Khalifa’s dressing room and the two decide on the fly to perform “Gang Bang” from Wiz’s Cabin Fever mixtape. Busta Rhymes gives his regards in the hallway while Travi$ Scott and YG come through to hang out in the dressing room. Sean tells them about his new album and both are down to preview some tracks. It’s a congenial vibe, stripped of ego and bullshit.
It's reflective of Sean’s headspace and the creative direction for his next album. “I’m grown,” he says about maturing over the past year. “My whole perspective has changed.” Part of that stems from his social activism in Michigan. Through his Sean Anderson Foundation, he’s working to provide the children of Flint with medical support following the water crisis. He’s also doing outreach in Detroit to revitalize the city, including building a recording studio in his old high school. “Making it out of a city like Detroit, it’s bigger than [me] making it,” Sean says. “It can change the whole city too.”
Evolution also hits closer to home. Once he realized that fame was turning him into an absentee son, much to the chagrin of his parents, Sean knew he had to change. “One of the things I talk about on the album is being a better son,” he says. “I would talk to my mom and she’d say, ‘I haven’t talked to you in weeks.’ I realized you gotta embrace your business and your work but you can’t let it take over you.”
Sean is “thinking bigger” on what he says will be a concept album. He’s knee-deep in recording -- aiming for an early summer release -- but reveals that Pharrell Williams and Rick Rubin are possible collaborators alongside Key Wayne and in-house producers. Sean’s famous mentors -- Kanye and Jay Z -- are ostensible contributors too.
“Big Sean has been extremely impressive in regards to maturing in the G.O.O.D Music system,” says label head Pusha T. “When he comes to the table, he basically comes with his whole album. He brings so much to build with. He gives you so much of a canvas to play with.”
Following up a hit album is not easy. Sean knows he has to push himself to move the needle this go- around. “When I first started making my album, I was just making music off feeling, not thinking about it,” Sean says. “Then I started thinking, ‘What the fuck do I want to say? What do I want to do now’? I came up with something that struck a chord with me.” Following his banner year, hip-hop waits to see what Big Sean has in store. After all, big blessings come with bigger responsibility. “I’ve been thankful for this whole year. It’s been a major, major breakout year for me and I’ve been hungrier than ever.”
Check out more from XXL’s Spring 2016 issue, on newsstands now, including the Letter from the Editor.