It's been almost four years since Big Sean's debut album, Finally Famous, first hit the streets and in that time it has seemed like the G.O.O.D. Music MC has enjoyed an unending string of success. The 26-year-old rapper from Detroit has shared stages with Drake and Kid Cudi, appeared on tracks with Jay Z, Nas, Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj and has learned the game from his mentor and label boss Kanye West. But a closer look at Sean's career reveals cracks in the facade, opportunities missed and potential that has seemed tantalizingly just beyond reach.

Sean's sophomore album, 2013's Hall Of Fame, was a hit critically but slightly less well-received commercially, failing to outdo the chart performance of Finally Famous. (Both albums debuted and peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200.) The album served to advance the idea that Big Sean was a good rapper with clear flaws, too often falling back on punch lines and easy slam dunks instead of pushing himself as a lyricist and MC. There was obvious potential there, but there remained a distinct feeling that something was missing, that he was capable of ascending to the next level but couldn't quite get there.

The 18 months since have been a roller coaster ride, personally, for Sean, as he endured a high-profile breakup with Glee actress Naya Rivera, began dating singer Ariana Grande last October and lost his beloved grandmother in December. In the process, the rapper caught an unexpected hit in September with the breakout success of "I Don't Fuck With You," the E-40-assisted single that became the lead single off his third album and secured Platinum status in fewer than five months. And his new album, Dark Sky Paradise, is already being hailed as that creative and artistic breakthrough that fans have been waiting for since his Finally Famous mixtape triptych turned him from a young rapper trying to make a breakthrough to an artist on the cusp of superstardom.

Dark Sky Paradise is a darker, more personal album than any Big Sean has offered so far, and his singles to this point have offered a glimpse into a new MC, one with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. With his third LP officially out tomorrow, XXL sat down with Big Sean to talk about the changes he's made since Hall Of Fame, the ups and downs of the past two years and why he's finally ready to take control of his own career. The pursuit of fame has finally given way to the embrace of excellence. —Dan Rys 

XXL: Hall Of Fame came out in August 2013. How did you feel about the reaction to that album?
Big Sean: It wasn't probably as great as I wanted it to be, but I understood it was something different for me. It was something different than my first album or mixtapes and stuff like that. But I feel like it's important to try these things as an artist, you know what I mean? I feel like I want longevity and I want to keep changing it up, I want to do something different. And I guess that takes whatever comes with it, going through ups and downs. But I can honestly say that I love that album and I appreciate it, and this new album is completely different from that one. And my next one will probably be different from Dark Sky Paradise, but right now this is where we at.

Was there anything you learned in making and releasing that album that you're applying to the new one?
I learned a lot just as a person, not necessarily musically. I'm just hungry and focused. I don't really focus too much on the past, I just focus on what's in front of me and what's at hand. The things that I learn along the way are incorporated into me, I don't have to think too about it much or analyze it. I just take what I learn and it's embedded in me, you know what I mean? And just go for it.

You know, I'm from Detroit, I'm from a city where we bounce back from anything. Any type of depression, any type of ups and downs, we put our mind to it and get through it and do our thing. And I feel like, regardless, I'ma do my thing, I'ma stand out and hold my own on everything I do.

When did you start working on Dark Sky Paradise?
I started working on it probably February of last year. I wasn't working on it the whole time, but that's when I built the studio in my house and obviously I had to do a bunch of touring and stuff. I couldn't work on it the whole time, it was one and off. I couldn't work on it for a couple months at a time.

When you first started did you have in mind that it was going to have a darker feel, or was that something that developed as you started putting songs together?
I mean, that's just how I was feeling. I was going through a lot of crazy points in my life, you know, you can imagine just in and out of relationships, wanting to just do better. It was just a dark place for me, man, and that kinda fits the title of Dark Sky Paradise. But throughout it all when I look at my life there's a lot of people who have come and gone since I've been in the game, just since 2010 when stuff started picking up for me. And you know, when you analyze it like that, this is still paradise, no matter what. Dark Sky Paradise; it fits the album and just my lifestyle perfectly.

I heard the album today and it seems like your rapping has gotten a lot quicker in a way, like you're fitting more into your verses. Was that a conscious thing, or just how it came out?
Yeah, I mean, it's just a different vibe. You know, whatever the vibe is I'm gonna fit it, I'm gonna try and execute it the best I can. This album is a little bit more intense rapping. When it comes to rap I have a pretty good range; I can rap fast, I can rap slow, I have different flows, different cadences. I just wanted to showcase that on this album. But at the same time I just wanted to rap about the things I go through, the shit I go through, my personal situations.

One thing that's changed majorly is that I didn't give a fuck about what no labels told me. Man, I used to care about like, "Yo, you need a radio song, this or that." I don't give a fuck about none of that shit, man. "I Don't Fuck With You" wasn't supposed to be a radio song, they made it a radio song. It was just a song I was vibing to; I mean, if you think about it, I say [Raps], "I don't fuck with you/You little stupid-ass bitch/I ain't fuckin' with you/I got a million, trillion things I'd rather fuckin' do/You little stupid-ass/I don't give a fuck, I don't give a fuck, I don't I don't/I don't give a fuck/Bitch, I don't give a fuck." So I was just surprised that really worked on radio.

It doesn't seem like a song, objectively, that radio would want to fuck with.
But I think it was the people who put it on radio. And I feel like it's so tight that it's getting back to the point where, if people are really feeling the song radio just has to accept it. And that was an example of that, and a lot of songs, that's how a lot of songs are. From "Try Me," Dej Loaf, a lot of songs, man, the list goes on and on. That was the case. But I don't give a fuck about a radio song or nothin', I just give a fuck about what I like, and that's what we on right now. So I think that's a difference, too, that people will see on this album.

I love E-40 on that track, too; you were saying you have a lot of different flows and cadences, and 40 has like 17 on that one track alone.
Yeah, yeah, of course, man. He's one of the illest, that's why I got him on there. And we was on there rapping like, 30-bar verses, it's a five minute song. That's what I wanna do. Same with "Blessings," man; I'm on that bitch rapping 30 bars, Drake come in and then I rap another 30 bars and then 'Ye come in. So it's just like, I'm off all that format shit; I'ma do what I wanna do.

Did you approach the recording in a different way?
Of course. Yeah, I recorded this album in my house, man. I built a studio in my house. I didn't go buy a Phantom or a Lamborghini or none of that, I just took that money and built a proper studio with proper equipment. It was the best investment I ever made, and this is the best music I've ever made. I feel that way. And I think, you know, as I keep making music I keep striving to be better.

The fact that I got to make this music in my living situation is cool; I got to live it out, and that's really important. I think you can tell for this album. I didn't have to worry about being uncomfortable in another studio and shit, I had people at my house. I had Kanye at my house, I would have Mike WiLL up in there. Anybody; Ty Dolla $ign, Ariana, obviously. John Legend; these people were at my crib, in my studio.

One of the tracks I thought was the best, and really illustrated that vibe, was "All Your Fault" where you and Kanye are trading lines and rapping back and forth. You don't hear that anymore with people emailing verses back and forth.
Mmhmm. And I think the only other person whose rapped back and forth with Kanye might be Jay Z. Right? I think so. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but that was one of my dreams come true, rapping back and forth with 'Ye. And it's just hard, and I hope people enjoy it.

Is there a measure of success for you for this album in your head?
I just hope people, if they like it and they love it that they support it, 'cause it's all we got. I wanted it to be all about the music, I didn't want to have an album where I had to hide behind some skits and make it a big Broadway production. I wanted it to be strictly about the raps, about the music, and that's what it is. And that's what the fuck it's gon' be. And I hope people can recognize that. I didn't want to do anything I didn't want to do, and this was what I wanted to do.

A lot of people who have heard the music are saying that this is your big step forward that everyone has always wanted from you. Does that make you nervous, or put any pressure on you?
Well nah, it's too fuckin' late now. [Laughs] You can't change it so you just gotta go with it. But I just feel like as an artist, you can work on something forever and you can always make it better. But I'm happy with this as a body of work. It's 12-15 songs, this is what it is, you know, and I'ma keep going and don't stop here no matter what. And I hope people at least give it a listen.

Because this is definitely an album where, if you were not a Big Sean fan, the tides may turn after you listen to this. Which is understandable, man, I can see why people are fans and I can see why people, you know, some of my music can be a little offensive, some of those songs were a little weird, you know what I mean? But at least I stuck to myself and did whatever the fuck I wanted to and didn't try to just fit in. I just did what I felt. And I respect myself for that. So yeah. And I hope people would just give it a chance and check it out. Like I said, we put our hearts into it, I had a lot of great thinkers and a lot of great musicians.

I feel like, as a fan, you always look for growth out of an artist.
Yeah, just growth, growing up. I'm 26 years old, but I'm still growing up, you know what I mean? I think you grow up until you die, I guess, you just keep learning. But I guess I am one of the most improved players if this is the NBA.

One of the lines that stuck out when listening to it was when Lil Wayne rapped, "I feel like Sean/Don't get enough shine" on "Deep." What went through your head when you heard that?
I was just like, Damn, it's crazy that he thought that. He was bigging me up like I was his artist or something, you know? And I remember after he recorded the verse I talked to him on the phone and he was like, "I meant every word of that." And not just that part, the whole verse. When he was like [Raps], "If getting your point across crosses the line/Some of the time then cross it with pride/That's real, my nigga, remember that/If don't nobody remember you, they gon' remember rap/So just spit it back and hope somebody diggin' that/'Cause this shit is deep."

That "Diggin' that/Deep" shit is something I just caught myself. He's clever as hell, but he was like, "I really meant that whole thing, man." He always just told me, I remember since way back, he was always hitting me like, "You know, you're special." I guess he saw something. But he was really adamant about that verse, and I hope people really listen to that and hear that. You know, I got love for Wayne, and no matter what anybody says or what he's going through, he's one of the greats, he changed the game. He did his thing and does his thing.

When you create something, you know it better than anyone else, and there are parts that you pick up on that nobody else does. Are there any parts of the album that are special to you, that stick out like that?
There's so many different moments. Going back and forth with 'Ye on "All Your Fault" was one of my favorites. I don't know; I like the intro. That song "Play No Games" with Chris Brown and Ty Dolla $ign, that sample really does something to me, you know what I mean? The outro is great, the PartyNextDoor song ["Deserve It"] is awesome. Even "Research" with Ariana is such real situations, you know.

I just kept it real with this album, real situations. "Stay Down," you know, "My whole squad in this bitch," that's real emotions. I'm just really proud of it. Even though this is my third album, I feel like this is the first time I executed something and just was like, feeling 100 percent great about it and just happy. And I wanna clarify I was happy about all my albums, they all did great things for me. But you know, this is the newest one, I'm most proud of this.

Was there any moment when you realized, "This is done, I can't do any more on this"?
It was just getting to the point where it was like, Okay. [Laughs] I haven't put an album out in a minute, it's time to go. The music was there; like I said, I could have tweaked it more and more, but fuck all that, it's time to go. So I'll just take all that energy and put it into the next one, you know?

So what do you have coming up after the album?
We're touring. We're gonna announce all that tour stuff soon. You know, collabing with people for the summer, and then more touring in the fall. Definitely gotta go overseas, gotta go to Japan. Just going different places. You know, I gotta touch the people now that I made this music, you know? Face to face, get new fans, have people pick it up from a live perspective. And you know, we've been really working on perfecting our live show. I'm excited to get back out there and for people to see it.

I feel like people either hate or love the road. Do you fall on one side of that?
I'm one of those guys where I'm like, Man, we gotta go on tour, and then we're out on tour and I'm like, Man I don't wanna go to this city, I wanna be in the studio. [Laughs] I'm definitely one of those guys. I just be flipping, flip-flopping. I'll be like, Man, we gotta get on the bus, and then we get on the bus and I'm like, Man, I hate this shit, I'm tired, I wanna be in the studio, I don't feel like doing this.

But that's just that side of touring. Being on stage is priceless. Seeing the people who got love for you, or may not have love for you but have way more love for you after they see you, that's the best feeling. That's why you're in the studio going so hard, to get out there, show them the music, you know?