Meet Big Sean
On the heels of his anticipated new CD release, the Detroit-bred rapper reflects on his life, lyrics—and longevity
If rapper Sean Michael Anderson, grandiosely dubbed "Big Sean," is not the hottest export from the Motor City, he certainly could make a case for being the biggest.
With a slew of popular songs from mixtape releases and his debut album "Finally Famous," Sean raps as if stardom could all go away tomorrow. On "My Last" contributes to the you-only-live-once (YOLO) spirit of the times with songs focused on enjoying life and women's derriere on "Dance (A$$)" and "Marvin (Gaye) & Chardonnay."
Now that he really is famous and has freshly released singles from his sophomore project "Hall of Fame," Sean seems like a fish out of water—fresh out of Detroit—when it comes to dealing with his new celebrity. He's in that awkward period of superstardom: Becoming too popular too fast. And, at 25, too young to answer questions about life's lessons he has yet to learn.
But he's getting the hang of being a big shot.
"Sean does not want to talk about 'Control' or Kendrick (Lamar) because he feels he's already addressed it enough, and he does not want to talk about his girlfriend, (Naya Rivera, an actress and singer on FOX's TV show 'Glee')," says his publicist, listing his demands over the loud voices and laughter of what sounds like a party before passing the phone to the rapper.
It's mid-August. Upon the publishing of this article, Sean will have released his sophomore album, "Hall of Fame," on Aug. 27, followed by a performance at the DTE Energy Music Festival on Aug. 31. The web is abuzz about Sean's new single from the album "Control," featuring Lamar, that hears the fellow rapper crown himself "king of New York" in one verse while calling out "worthy" rivals Jermaine (J.) Cole, A$AP Rocky and Drake among others, including Sean.
Lamar's brazen proclamation reminds Sean of the '90s rap rivalries, he says—touching briefly on the topic when pressed—when he would hang at Detroit hip-hop radio station Hot 102.7 (now 107.5 WGPR) every Friday to spit rhymes for emcees, including Kanye West—who discovered Sean in 2007.
Although born in Santa Monica, Calif., Sean says he was made in Detroit. Answering the phone with a laid back "What's up," Sean, like any native Detroiter, has the city's problems on his mind.
"That shit is depressing," Sean says. "You know I gotta make sure I rep for the D in the sense of, on my album 'Hall of Fame,' I am rapping about how the city is $15.8 billion dollars in debt; it's abandoned blocks in Detroit. It's devastating. You can see all those things on CNN, but half the people I know (from Detroit) don't look at CNN. So I have to make sure I mention points like these on my album."
One verse on "Control" touts, "They say Detroit ain't got a chance, we ain't even got a mayor … We on, tryna be better than everybody that's better than everybody; rep Detroit everybody, Detroit versus everybody."
He explains the lyrics in this verse: "We gotta watch our backs and come together to get out of the mess we are in. I am the only young Black male that has a platform in Detroit. It's not the highest platform, but it's at least a platform to be heard. You know what I mean? Of course, there are a lot of elements to the album. Fun songs, nasty songs, inspirational songs. They are all different parts of me and who I am. I am not trying to be a preacher; I am just trying to keep it real. I want to come from the perspective of that I was there, and I relate to you as opposed to preach to you."
Growing up on Detroit's west side in what Sean calls a lower middle-class upbringing, he frequently came back to his childhood home until recently buying his mother a new house in a Detroit suburban community to get away from the city's declining conditions.
"We had our tough times and went through things financially," he says. "I wasn't always able to get what I wanted, but it certainly was not the worst upbringing, that's for sure," says Sean. "So, every time, I would come home to that same crib in the 'hood I grew up in. And kids will be like, 'Oh, my God, it's Big Sean!' And I'd have to hurry up and get in through the side door. You know, right off Northlawn Street and Six Mile Road."
Name-dropping some of his favorite city haunts—such as Bleu Detroit, The Apartment, the Sherwood Forest Coney Island (now Noni's Sherwood Grille) and the Jet's Pizza on Eight Mile Road and Wyoming Street—since spending so much time away from home, Sean has not forgotten what it feels like to have a "Detroit moment."
"Like hubcaps getting taken off your car," says Sean, laughing. "The fact you need a car to go everywhere. There are a lot of beautiful things that's a part of living in Detroit, too, like going to Belle Isle and a lot of pretty girls. I feel Detroit people are hard workers because we always have to fight to make it through tough times."
A graduate of Cass Technical High School, becoming a successful hip-hop artist was always a part of the plan. But having a full-ride scholarship to Michigan State University www.msu.edu couldn't hurt as a plan B.
"I knew what I wanted to do. I knew that there was no school for rap," he explains. "What fuels me most is seeing everything unfold right in front of me. Being able to do songs with most of the people I respected growing up. And I don't take it for granted. I am definitely a son of the city of Detroit."
You'd be hard-pressed to peg Sean's rap style. He collaborates with a bevy of musical artists, and his album reflects a piece of them all. Creating a particular distinct sound is not a big priority for Sean—who is signed to West's GOOD Music label—he is focused on being just that.
Nas, Kid Cudi, West, Lil Wayne, Miguel and techno songstress Ellie Goulding are among featured artists who help Sean pave the way to hall-of-fame status.
"I am a real spiritual dude," Sean says about the album's title. "I live like a hippie. I believe in karma and doing right by people. And one of the things that I did a while ago was write down all of my goals.
"From buying my mom a house to having a band, all these things I accomplished, to selling a million records. I took it to a deeper level by calling my next album 'Hall of Fame.' Because when it's all said and done, 10 albums later, however long and at the end of my career, I want to be in a hall of fame. Whether it's the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame— hopefully by then there's a rap hall of fame. And whatever else I do that may be different from music, I want to be remembered on a hall-of-fame level. And I feel like that's stuff that people can relate to themselves."
Frequently referred to as a rap lyrical genius, Sean is a lyricist with a quick wit comparable to fellow hip-hop artist and Detroiter Eminem—only less self-destructive and with a vocal style he describes as "Detroit player" smooth.
Sean continues to release multiple mixtapes, a tool he uses to stay grounded and keep his lyrical tongue sharp.
"Whenever you record something, you can listen to it forever," he says. "And those mixtapes represent a certain point in time. If people like my mixtapes more than my albums or my albums more than my mixtapes, that's awesome.
"It's all me. It's a different process. My last mixtape, I rapped on a Barry White sample. And you can't just sample White and get it cleared for an album."
Sean is referring to "How It Feel" from his "Detroit" mixtape released in September 2012 that samples from White's "Hung Up in Your Love." The music video—although seemingly low budget—showcases a similar signature White's flashy style and splendor, with Sean in a white fur coat romancing a beauty in a hotel room. He waxes with pomp, "B.I.G. I'm the mayor ... "
But don't mistake his "Big" forename to mean big ego. It's a nickname that stuck at 12 years old to distinguish him from his older mentor, Sean Menifee, and part of his personal goal to always do things on a grand scale.
"Everything I do, I want to make a big impact. And I take pride in that name, (Big Sean). So I feel like whatever I do, I hope to bring a big presence to it. But I always come back to home. That's what it is—home. Not a place I just visit, but it's where I come home to."