BIG SEAN’s ascension to fame could easily be the script to an inspirational John Singleton film that would rashly convince you to quit everything and chase your dreams. The 25-year-old is a New York Times Best Seller waiting to happen, having steered his under the radar radio fame to a pedestal where G.O.O.D. Music, decorated mixtapes, and Twitter-raiding tracks exist. But believe it or not, even with a respectable year, Sean isn’t ready to leave the grind.
Speaking to him in a hotel in the heart of Toronto’s Entertainment District, it became clear that he really is “trying to be better than everybody that’s better than everybody”. It seems illogical for a young MC to be five steps in front on their own terms but it’s what separates them from those who prefer to take one step ahead and wait for everyone to follow. Even as Sean opened up to us about the mindset behind Hall Of Fame, his focus on melody, and what it’s like for him to wear Detroit on his back, it became clear: Big Sean isn’t a next-gen trendsetter. He’s an innovator.
You’ve said that “inspiration is priceless” and have found yourself traveling to places far beyond the studio to create. Do experiences inspire you more than self-examination?
Both can be inspiring, you know? You can get inspiration from so many different things. Sometimes you need to go to places, sometimes you need to be in one place. It all stems from what you want to talk about, there’s no formula to it. It’s not like “A equals BC squared”, you know (laughs). It’s however you feel. For me, when I feel like I need to get away, I have to get away, and if I need to be in one place for months, I’ll be there trying to figure it out.
This was a big year for hip hop with albums from Kanye, Jay-Z, Drake, Pusha T, and so forth. Has 2013 as a whole been intimidating at all?
No it’s been great. It feels great to be a part of it. I feel like rap is strong right now and it was great to be a part of so many projects too. I’m glad I’m on Drake’s album and it feels good to be a part of hip hop and that forefront of rap.
Do you think artists have started to rely on experimentation to remain competitive because that era of the “diss track” has become nonexistent?
Well, I don’t know (laughs). Me personally, I rely on making good music and being creative. I don’t necessarily like calling people out unless I feel like I need to, you know? I think what Kendrick did on “Control” was great though. I think it energized rap and was important to the culture, and that’s why I dropped it. I knew it was urgent… I knew it was exciting, and Jay Electronica’s verse was great and my verse was great. I actually like my verse the most (laughs). But I think Kendrick’s name-dropping – which he obviously killed – brought something different to it.
“I listen to myself and follow my heart, and I’m learning as I go. I’m still young and ten albums from now, I’ll probably have it down (laughs), but for now I’m just figuring it out and coming into my own… I’m not scared of doing anything, ever.”
A lot of artists are very selective with the features on their albums. Even before your debut, you collaborated with names like J. Cole, French Montana and Snoop. How has that affected your development as an artist and recording your sophomore?
I don’t try to get features on my albums for the name. I get them on there for the sake of what they add to the actual song. Like, I got Miguel on “Ashley” because Miguel really sang it so beautifully, and he wrote the chorus too. I didn’t get Lil Wayne on that song because it’s Lil Wayne. I got him on another song because when I was in the studio, I played him one and his connection to that track made him feel like he had to rap on it. When he put his verse to it, he added a perspective I couldn’t add, and I liked it. Same with Nas and Kid Cudi; they each added their own perspectives and there was no way I could have added them myself.
There’s a lot of features I didn’t use and a lot of things that were brought to the table that I didn’t use on this album. I guess that was my process… I wanted something that meant something, and I wanted every feature to feel like it made an addition, as opposed to being there just for namesake.
“First Chain” seems metaphoric for your persistent drive and achievements. Do you write with the intention to pass that ambition on to your listeners?
For sure, even with the intro to the album – “Nothing Is Stopping You” – I rap about how I rapped for Kanye and then a kid rapped for me in the second verse. Like, “Tell me what you know about dreams/ What do you know about having faith in something you can’t see?/ Tell me how do you believe?”. It’s just people need inspiration. People need to be inspired. My album isn’t the most turnt-up record at all and it’s really something I wanted people to feel like they could be motivated by. People going through some real shit can feel like they can confide and relate to it.
With songs like “World Ablaze” – that talked about dealing with a person who has cancer or is going through some crazy shit like that, and it may sound generic but when I went through that situation, that shit tore me up on the inside. I realized people may need some music like that to help get them through tough times.
Hall Of Fame is a lot more emotionally raw and revealing than Finally Famous or your mixtapes. Do you attribute that to your personal and artistic growth?
Well, I just always kind of focus on the lyrics on my mixtapes and albums, but with this I tried to focus on getting a point across through songwriting, musicianship, and melody. I probably concentrated more on melody more than I did trying to write the best verse of the year, you know? It was definitely different. Some of my fans like it and some of them don’t. Most were like, “Man you were spitting harder on the Detroit mixtape”, but it’s a different project.
You might find me rapping better on the Detroit II mixtape rather than Detroit, but Hall Of Fame was something that was different for Big Sean. It was something that had some concepts to it and music that wasn’t trendy and will stand the test of time. Songs like “Fire” feel like songs I’m going to probably perform forever, man. Even though it’s a song that wasn’t on the radio, it’s just something that means so much and is never going to be played out.
Do you think you’ll be headed into a different direction for your third record?
Yeah, we have it planned out already. It’s definitely going to be way different than Hall Of Fame. I mean, I’m proud of Hall Of Fame, but you gotta’ do something new every time. It’s going to be entertaining and it’s going to be great.
Outside of your new record, what’s been your biggest personal accomplishment this year?
I bought a house – my first house. That was a big accomplishment. I had bought my Mom one already this year too, so those were two big accomplishments for me. Launching my Sean Anderson Foundation and giving back to the city was definitely one, because man – Detroit needs that. I wrote Hall Of Fame out of inspiration for a place that needs inspiration. On top of that, our foundation started out by paying for Thanksgiving dinners for kids and families who couldn’t afford to celebrate Christmas and I was paying out of my pocket for that. This year we hooked up with the right people and decided to focus on youths in school. We hooked up with Detroit public schools and gave away 3,000 backpacks and school supplies because a lot of kids can’t afford it, as crazy as that sounds.
I was there for hours just shaking hands and hugging every kid. Recently we just contributed a lot to homeless kids and families who couldn’t afford uniforms. They make the kids at public schools wear uniforms so they don’t get made fun of for not having proper clothes, and a lot of kids don’t go to school because they can’t afford the uniform itself. So we made sure we took care of that… I’ve just been trying to give back to the city in every way I can.
How important is it for you to be so deeply associated with such a specific location, especially in comparison to the things Eminem or Danny Brown are doing for it?
I think we all do it in our own separate ways. We all rep Detroit and are proud of Detroit, just like anybody from any city are proud of where they’re from. Just like Kendrick from Los Angeles and Drake being from here. I’m proud of being from my hometown and repping it the way I do, you know? It’s an honour. I rep Detroit like I owe them something, and I really don’t owe anybody anything, but in turn, they’re very loyal to me. I do arena shows there just by myself with me as the only bill on the show and 15,000 to 20,000 deep, it’ll be sold out. I remember performing downtown at 100 capacity club and people remember that too. Truthfully, that was only a couple years ago.
The past five years have been a whirlwind for you. Amidst every hip hop artist today, what characteristics will always define you and your music as Big Sean?
Just being unique. I’m an artist that does a lot of things that I want to do; I’m not scared to push any boundaries. I write songs that I like that and everybody else may not enjoy them. Songs like “MILF” or “Guap” are likely to have others saying “I don’t know about that shit”, but at least I’m trying to do something different as opposed to following any type of trend. I listen to myself and follow my heart, and I’m learning as I go. I’m still young and ten albums from now, I’ll probably have it down (laughs), but for now I’m just figuring it out and coming into my own. People are seeing me grow as an artist, so we just have to wait and see. I’m not scared of doing anything, ever.