Finally Famous: The Essay
“I feel like Sean don’t get enough shine
Is it because he ain’t got the tattoos? He ain’t throwing up signs?
F*** the finish line, just finish your lines
And if getting your point across crosses the line
Some of the time, then cross it with pride
That’s real, my n****, remember that
And it ain’t about if they remember you; they remember rap
So just spit it back, and hope somebody diggin’ that”
— Lil Wayne, “Deep”
The first time I heard Big Sean, I’d just turned 17, heading into my senior year of high school. I was aware of the guy, but I actively tried to avoid his music. In hindsight, I was being a hipster teenager — or a hater, depending on how you view it — convinced he was nothing more than a Kanye West clone despite the fact I had no evidence to support that claim. UKNOWBIGSEAN, the second mixtape from his Finally Famous mixtape trilogy, came out at the top of the summer, and in August, the video for “Getcha Some,” track four from the tape, premiered on 106 & Park.
I hated that song.
Or, I guess I should say I had to pretend to hate that song, because I’d made up my mind Sean wasn’t any good. Objectively, the beat is cool and the bars decent with flashes — “Imma need money, power, respect / Found a little piece of Jesus and I threw him ‘round my neck” — of brilliance. By the middle of the fall, a friend talked me into giving the whole mixtape a chance, and I found enough gems spread throughout that convinced me to soften my stance just a tad. Ultimately, despite whatever reservations I had about the music, I found myself incapable of truly disliking a guy with whom I likely had one degree of separation. Detroit isn’t that big of a city, so in a way, he was like the rapper cousin chasing his dreams and actually succeeding. By my eighteenth birthday, I knew way too many folks chasing rap dreams. Sean actually had a deal and a national audience and videos in rotation on BET and MTV.
But at the same time, it really didn’t feel like he was that famous. He’d built his core fanbase, sure, but I distinctly remember wondering how he’d get people outside that core to care. He’d promised the third installation of his Finally Famous mixtapes early in the summer of 2010, but by the time I’d gotten to Howard in August, all we’d been given were a couple songs from the project. The songs were brilliant too, which made the delays more puzzling. Maybe my second week at Howard, some friends and I started some Big Sean lyrics-related hashtag on Twitter, going back and forth in hopes he’d notice and give us an update on FF3. (Tangential, but I miss 2010 Twitter. Super fun times.) A few days later, the tape dropped to pretty considerable acclaim from the internets. That December, he headlined a show in Detroit aptly titled Hometown Heroes. The undercard was filled with his friends, aspiring rappers hoping to one day find some of the same buzz Sean received outside of the city. But without question, Sean was the main event, and he played the role of returning hero to perfection. It was clear he’d be a star; no doubt the Fillmore sold out because people wanted to see him, the next big thing in rap. And even better, he was one of us.
FF3’s success finally persuaded the powers-that-be to let Sean release his debut album, the commercial culmination of the Finally Famous series. Now fully on the Big Sean bandwagon, I thought the album to be very good, a solid debut and a huge step forward from where he started. But while nobody really hated the album, it didn’t feel like anyone found it to be exceptional either. The album’s three radio singles all performed exceptionally well on the Billboard charts, but critics seemed certain his successes were more based around the folks featured on those songs — Chris Brown on “My Last,” Kanye on “Marvin & Chardonnay,” and Nicki Minaj on “Dance (A$$)" — than anything Sean himself had done. Even more aggravating — certainly to me if not him — was this perception of his contemporaries as clearly better, both among fans and industry folks. Other rappers had been abusing Sean’s cadences, and poorly at that, while the man who’d made the flow popular was just looked at as the funny, punchline guy. The rappers in his draft class who’d found mainstream success were for some reason taken seriously, but that same respect seemed to elude Sean.
"Back before I had the G.O.O.D. imprint
Hit the studio with Kanye, that s*** was intense
And he said, 'Boy, you got it; boy, you is a prophet'
Signed me; got a profit
Few years later, yeah, we on and poppin'"
— Big Sean, “Deserve It”
The first time I saw the “Clique” artwork, I thought I’d been fooled. Big Sean on the same marquee as Jay-Z and Kanye West? Right.
Keep in mind, Jay-Z is my favorite artist of all-time, so naturally I wondered if he’d ever consider making a song with Sean. The connection wouldn’t be hard to make, since Jay’s protégé just happens to be Sean’s boss, but was Sean famous enough yet for Hov’s stamp of approval? Because once Shawn Carter works with you, you’ve officially made the big time.
Turns out I hadn't been bamboozled after all. Hearing that song made me smile real big, Sean’s infectious chorus leading into Jay’s ridiculous second verse. It felt like another step toward actual stardom. And it was; Sean’s efforts on “Clique” bolstered a slight shift in his public perception that began with Detroit, his most critically acclaimed project — and my personal favorite. My opinion: Detroit is perfect. The rollout was super creative (although I still want to see the full videos for “How It Feel” and “24K of Gold”) and the music was exceptional, sonically and lyrically. Almost everyone with whom I discussed Detroit agreed Sean shouldn’t have given that one away for free. He’d grown so much since that first Finally Famous mixtape, and even though folks still weren’t mentioning him with Drake and Kendrick and Cole, it felt like he’d figured something out.
So it sucked when Hall of Fame didn’t meet the lofty expectations set by Detroit. I like Hall of Fame, but despite my biases, I’m aware it had a couple low points and some stilted moments. “Guap,” intended to be the album’s lead single, was a summer song that came out three months too late, stunting his momentum and likely forcing him to reconsider the route he wanted Hall of Fame to take. “Beware,” released during the reboot of the album’s rollout, performed decently on the charts, but never seemed to stick. And then, once the album was nearing its release, Sean leaked “Control,” seemingly unaware that that Kendrick Lamar feature would overshadow the rest of the product. And the song didn't even make the final cut! To his credit, Sean admits in his recent interview with Beats 1's Zane Lowe that Hall of Fame isn’t his best effort: “When that album came out, I was really distracted. … That was the first time I experienced not being 100 percent satisfied with myself. It was the worst feeling ever. I had to read and get my mind straight mentally. I had to upgrade my mind, myself as a person.”
Promotion for Hall of Fame lasted barely 5 months, with a video for “Ashley” coming at the end of the following January. A few days before, Sean gave away “1st Quarter Freestyle,” a song more focused than 75% of Hall of Fame, almost as if he felt the need to prove he could still spit. Clearly rededicated to the craft — and fresh off a bizarre breakup — he released four phenomenal songs in the fall of 2014, including “I Don’t F*** With You,” helping prove he’d moved past whatever issues plagued him during Hall of Fame. Unquestionably at his creative apex, 2015’s Dark Sky Paradise brought Big Sean his first #1 album on the Billboard 200. Accolades flew in from everywhere. For the first time, it felt like Sean had substance.
“If you want the crown, b**** you gotta take it. Straight up.”
— Big Sean, “All Your Fault”
Hot take: as of midnight on January 25, 2017, Sean Michael Leonard Anderson is better than your favorite rapper, and I really don’t think it’s close.
You hear Sean rap “hit after hit / check the batting average” on “Moves,” track six on his forthcoming I Decided., and you’re forced to recognize that, no, those aren't alternative facts. He’s on an incredible winning streak. TWENTY88, his joint project with his buddy Jhené Aiko, very nearly made my 2016 list of favorite albums, and “Bounce Back” is one of the five best things he’s ever done, hands down. It’s so much fun watching him right now; he’s in a zone, more confident than he’s ever been, and definitely aware that all he can do is be the best version of himself. I do believe Sean was always cognizant of the lack of respect he’d be given in comparison with his contemporaries, but it’s clear now that he doesn’t care. He beat the odds: he’s made it to his fourth album while a ton of his peers have been one-and-done, if they even get that far.
And now, he’s getting mainstream looks he could only dream of while toiling through his senior year at Cass Technical High School, aware that Kanye West (!) might give him a record deal soon. In the last week alone, Sean’s been interviewed by Jimmy Fallon, Zane Lowe, and Trevor Noah, and he performed on the post-inauguration episode of Saturday Night Live. That’s crazy to me. 6 years ago, he was a punchline rapper who rapped about marijuana and sex and not much else. As I watched him perform “Sunday Morning Jetpack” on SNL, I couldn’t stop beaming. I’ve seen him perform live 4 different times in 3 cities and on 2 different continents, and yet the two songs he did this past Saturday made me proudest. He’s represented our city well, without a doubt.
It might sound crazy, but Big Sean is officially a superstar. He’s finally famous, for real.