Big Sean Feels He Has A Responsibility To Make Good Rap Music
It Don't Stop
With the release of his third album, the personable, stylish and lyrical MC that is Big Sean has truly found his place in hip-hop.
Words Max Bell
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
Big Sean was the first person to rap at the White House. Eazy-E, Diddy, Jay Z and Snoop Dogg have all visited under various presidential administrations, but they never rapped. Common came close in 2011 yet technically his performance was deemed poetry. In the annals of hip-hop history the honor forever goes to the 26-year-old Detroit native born Sean Anderson, who on April 21, 2014 rhymed alongside his new girlfriend, former Nickelodeon actress turned pop singer Ariana Grande, during a performance of their collabo song “Right There” at the White House’s 2014 Easter Egg Roll. “When I was walking in, they were like, ‘You know, you’re the first rapper to perform at the White House.’” Sean says. “I was like, ‘What?’”
Sean’s bemusement might be right on the money. Given the number of more politically-inclined rappers both past and present, he seems an unlikely fit for the honor. However, for anyone who’s followed Sean’s career closely, the White House performance almost seems apt. His career has been marked by one auspicious, fame-fortifying success after another.
In 2006, Sean freestyled for Kanye West and subsequently landed a deal with West’s G.O.O.D. Music record label. Since then he’s been everywhere: Sean’s had multiple records land on the Billboard Hot 100 chart (“My Last,” “Marvin & Chardonnay”) and a chunk of his other tracks have landed atop a few different charts. He received a Grammy nomination in 2013 and won a BET Hip-Hop Award in 2012 and 2013. His music videos have garnered hundreds of millions of views on YouTube; his collaborators span from the biggest and most revered names in hip-hop (Nas, Jay Z, Drake, Lil Wayne) to behemoth pop stars (Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber). Sean’s also performed across the globe, is endorsed by Adidas and this past September he signed a management deal with Jay Z’s Roc Nation.
At this point, Sean’s ubiquity is undeniable. Apart from Eminem, he’s arguably the most famous rapper representing Detroit. At a glance, his career practically reads like the film script for a rap epic. If Sean were a silver screen character, he would probably be Forrest Gump: omnipresent, wildly successful and admittedly thankful for his good fortune.
“That’s a good observation,” Sean says of the comparison to the Tom Hanks character. It’s one of the few grey autumn days punctuating L.A.’s perennial summer and Sean and his publicist lounge on a couch on the bottom floor of his three-story Hollywood Hills home. Though he’s clearly just woken up, Sean is polite and affable; even his moments of ardent arrogance are belied by a seemingly ceaseless congeniality. Plaques from his hit records and framed blow-ups of his magazine cover features line the walls that lead to his in-home studio, where he often watches films like Forrest Gump for inspiration (other favorites include The Wolf Of Wall Street, The Dark Knight trilogy and The Godfather). “What I liked about Forrest Gump was that he never thought about anything but being happy,” Sean explains. “That’s how I’m guiding [my career] now—just following happiness.”
In Sean’s music, happiness is frequently equated with money and sex. For evidence, see his opening lyrics from the Mike WiLL Made It-produced “Paradise”:
“I always wanted to stunt so hard
I always wanted to ride that whip
I always wanted to fuck that bitch
Thank you God, I fucked that bitch”
Yet outside of the studio, Sean’s criterion for happiness appears far less hedonistic and superficial, far more personal. When visiting Michigan, it means spending time with his mother, grandmother and older brother, who live together in a home Sean purchased just outside of Detroit, and doing charity work with his non-profit organization, the Sean Anderson Foundation. In L.A., happiness is tantamount to going to the movies or the beach with his girlfriend. But of course, Sean is everywhere. He works and travels so frequently he hardly has time for any of the above. He appreciates his hillside panorama, but he rarely experiences the city itself. “For me, [L.A. is] pretty boring. All I do is just work and sleep.”
On the afternoon of his XXL interview, Sean’s been in the city less than 24 hours. After recent concerts in Denver and Houston, he flew to Atlanta to work with Rich Homie Quan and a coterie of the city’s prominent producers (808 Mafia, London On The Track, Zaytoven). Last night, after his plane landed on Angelino soil, he hit the studio with Pharrell.
These collaborations may or may not appear on Sean’s ostensibly forthcoming third album. While he claims it’s nearly complete, he remains guarded about the particulars. He says West has given him several beats, but he doesn’t reveal whether or not he’s rapped over them. His publicist politely skirts questions about projected release dates and prospective album titles. He admits that his song with E-40, “IDFWU” (released after his very public breakup with Glee actress Naya Rivera in April), which currently has over 30 million plays on SoundCloud, will probably make the final track list; but he won’t discuss the dark storm cloud graphics on his website (uknowbigsean.com), the same ominous imagery that serves as the artwork for the other two songs he released in conjunction with “IDFWU” and “Paradise.” “It definitely has something to do with the album,” he says.
Though Sean was born in Santa Monica—a coastal city just a short drive from his current residence—the particulars of his life begin in Detroit, where he moved as an infant. He spent his childhood shuttling between the respective homes of his separated parents and his grandmother in rough, socioeconomically disenfranchised neighborhoods. While Sean’s mother worked as a middle school teacher to pay the rent, his grandmother paid for him to attend a private grade school in an affluent section of the city. “I think it made me open-minded,” Sean says of the constant back and forth between the decidedly disparate environments. “I never compromised myself in any situation though. It wasn’t like I was trying to fit in when I was in the hood or trying to fit in when I was at school, I was always just me.”
After his stepbrother introduced him to The Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac in the late 1990s, Sean’s affinity for hip-hop became an inextricable aspect of his identity. Today, he claims he was rapping “professionally” by the age of 12. “I always treated it like a job ever since then. It was always something I had to do. I always had to keep product.”
Upon transferring to a public high school, Sean began freestyling and recording regularly. Before long, he and several friends battled rap crews from rival high schools. Soon, these battles prompted Sean and his crew to rap on Friday Night Cypher, a weekly radio program on Detroit’s chief hip-hop station, 102.7 (now Hot 107.5). Not even life-threatening winter storms prevented Sean’s attendance.
When Kanye West visited the station to promote his 2005 album Late Registration, Sean’s relationship with the staff enabled him to talk his way past security. At the behest of a friend, Sean convinced West to listen to him freestyle in the hallway. Though West initially granted Sean 16 bars, he wound up listening for 10 minutes. “He didn’t have a lot of time, so he wasn’t trying to hear it at first,” Sean says. “But he opened his ears and he opened his heart and listened.”
After Sean finished rapping, he gave West a copy of the CD he sold to high school classmates. When they lost touch with one another, Sean enrolled at Michigan State, hoping to pursue a degree and a rap career simultaneously. However, before he attended his first class, West called with the promise of a record deal. Despite his family’s reservations, Sean accepted.
Still, West didn’t hand Sean a contract for another year. The rhymes on Sean’s first official G.O.O.D. Music-sponsored mixtape, Finally Famous: The Mixtape (2007), may have been loaded with lyrics of luxury, but he was broke. He lived at home and his grandmother financed his studio sessions. “I didn’t have anything,” he says. “It was just straight fronting. I [was] faking until I made it.”
“Making it” began after Sean signed with Def Jam and released the second mixtape in his Finally Famous triptych. West was busy elsewhere, but Chicago producer/current Def Jam Head of A&R No I.D., then G.O.O.D. Music president, took notice of Sean’s potential. After No I.D. convinced Sean to leave Detroit for L.A., they began collaborating. With no car, Sean was initially forced to bum rides from friends in order to get to the studio. Then, after releasing Finally Famous Vol. 3: BIG, Sean recorded the No I.D.-produced single “My Last” with Chris Brown.
At the time, Sean was nervous that his fans would reject a song with such a marked pop bent. Until that point in his career, he’d only made mixtapes filled with tracks that appealed to more traditional rap fans. Naturally, fears were allayed when “My Last” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Rap Songs chart.
Since “My Last,” Sean has made the transition from mixtapes to albums. While No I.D.’s tutelage proved invaluable, he says the jump was far from easy. Really, he may not have been ready. On his 2011 debut, Finally Famous, Sean’s verses often split the difference between Drake and Kanye West, tempering the cadences, half-hearted croons, and quasi-vulnerability of the former with the unabashed braggadocio and vocal intonation of the latter. In his best moments, Sean distinguished himself with his battle rap penchant for punch lines and wordplay, as well as his ability to ride the beat.
Sean displayed growth as a songwriter on his second album, 2013’s Hall Of Fame, but regularly suffered from the same sort of identity crisis. And though the album fared well critically, it was ultimately overshadowed by the hype surrounding Kendrick Lamar’s now infamous verse on Sean’s song “Control,” the one song that didn’t make the album.
In the past, Sean publicly expressed dissatisfaction with his first effort. However, he’s now accepted whatever he sees as the imperfections on Finally Famous and Hall Of Fame. “I feel like there are flaws on the first album [and] flaws on the second album. I don’t know if I’ll ever drop an album that doesn’t have any flaws.”
On the four songs Sean released this past September, he finally appears to be coming into his own. He’s rapping over more diverse, challenging production, experimenting with his delivery and vocal intonation and his punch lines and wordplay are sharper than they’ve ever been. And while many of his lyrics still revolve around the same tropes, there are moments where he shirks the superficial and banal in favor of the personal and poignant.
Of course, flashes of introspection haven’t wholly replaced Sean’s hubris. Seconds after conceding that a flawless record may forever elude him, he changes his mind and says with a confident smirk: “You know what? I probably will drop a perfect album one day. I’m going to master that.”
In fact, by the end of Sean’s interview he becomes increasingly confident. “There’s not a lot of good rap music out there,” he says. “So I really feel like there’s big responsibility for me to make good rap music, because there are only a few people that make it. I’m a beast out here. I’m not going to front. When it comes to this rap shit, you really got to be on a high level to fuck with me.”
Spoken like a true rap star.