Sophomore slump? Maybe not, says the D-town native
“Hoe, shut the f-ck, up!”
That’s how the argument between Big Sean and his critics ended, very early—2 a.m. to be exact—on the morning of Thursday, August 1st. It was a contentious conversation that lasted quite a few months, after “Guap”—which most chalked up to be a lazy follow-up to his last rap hit of the same concept–was released late last year, and his guest verses on a couple noteworthy mainstream cuts (Pusha T‘s “Who I Am,” The-Dream‘s “Pu**y”) couldn’t hold a half-lit candle to his previous contributory work from just one year prior. It was an up-and-down time, professionally, for Big Sean, who, in the midst of holding his own on a compilation album jam-packed with stardom (Cruel Summer), and dropping one of the year’s most critically acclaimed mixtapes (Detroit),couldn’t seem to get his sophomore album off the ground. So, after cutting Drake‘s “All Me” chorus short on August 1st, and screaming the aforementioned phrase with conviction in a tone dripping with ironic comic relief, it appeared Big Sean had grown tired of the bad rap (no pun intended) he’d garnered over the past 8 or so months of being the ‘talented guy who never applied himself.’ He waltzed onto that Key Wane instrumental with the air of an artist who’d just received his umpteenth platinum plaque, or Grammy Award (or whatever hyperbole of an acknowledgment will make this analogy work for you), and walked off of it so confident in his performance that at his public Hall Of Fame listening party he joked (though he may not have been joking at all), “I can get on a song and out-rap Drake.” The question August 27th will pose to Big Sean, is not can he out-rap the next man–for this is the second time in his career he can boast of out-rapping Drake in any capacity, twice, and he’s the only artist I can think of who can comfortably claim such–but can he out-rap himself. We knew this kid could spit, from the first time we heard him damn near over a half-decade ago. We knew he could craft catchy hooks, and great songs, but can he make an impact with his pen, or would he be remembered as the dude who could do everything well, but had the potential to do these things that much better?
Key Wane throws the first pitch on Hall Of Fame, Big Sean’s sophomore—and by all indications, career defining—album, and right away, as Sean steps up to the plate, you can hear the difference. Not in the rapping style, which does seem more refined, polished and focused, but in the delivery and purpose. Rather than attempt to rap circles around an opponent invisible to everyone but himself, Big Sean takes a more deliberate route, delivering each bar, and subsequently, each verse with significantly more conviction. “Nothing Is Stopping You” serves as the album’s intro, complete with back-up screwed Pharrell vocals, and fans of Detroit’s intro, “Higher,” will find themselves in a similar position: beside the effervescent character of Big Sean who in turn finds himself in the strangely familiar company of self-reflection. Sean paints a picture of his earliest memories of becoming a rapper, even re-enacting the moment he rapped for Kanye without interrupting the verse. It’s a rather flawless effort, to say the least, and the transition into “Fire” sounds like a scene from Kanye’s Graduation album, with the moody but confident bass line Key Wane laid giving way to the triumphant and celebratory piano keys of “Fire.”
However, before taking a walk down memory lane, “10 2 10” will bring you back to your senses, which is more than just a concept it’s the recurring theme throughout the entire album. While success, fame, and even a new relationship seem to have Big Sean on a fast track to a Utopian sense of self-satisfaction, the chip on his shoulder is present, and vivid, as he literally screams at the top of his lungs, “I woke up working like I’m Mexican/Which means I worked from ten to ten/then ten to ten/then ten again/nightmares of losing everything boost my adrenaline!” on the album’s 3rd song. Its a deft illustration not just of where Sean is musically, but in relation to his efforts to spiritually revive his city, this entire album plays into that sentiment.
Still, while the LP was holistically executed in a superb manner, in isolated incidents, there are pitfalls. While “Toyota Music” and “You Don’t Know”; the latter features a deal-making contribution from British songstress Elle Goulding; serve as pop-inspired alternatives to the album’s first three songs, while still remaining in the vein of hip-hop, “Beware,” despite sounding better in the flow of the album, still plays as a firework not launched quite right. Despite having Def Jam’s best kept secret Jhene Aiko, a surprisingly good Lil’ Wayne contribution and Key Wane in tow, it just doesn’t hit right. The introspective “First Chain,” which directly follows “Beware,” picks up right where “10 2 10” left off, screaming of thoroughbred hip-hop vibes, which explains the Nas sighting. A Nas sighting that, for the record, huddles in its foxhole compared to the efforts of the song’s proprietor. Confusion ensues when “Mona Lisa” leads straight into “M.I.L.F.”, which sound as if they were conceived in the same studio session, and from the same notepad. While both songs are enjoyable, “Mona Lisa” is probably the less necessary of the two, as “M.I.L.F.” seems to satisfy every un-married man’s wet dreams just fine, and we’ll take Nicki Minaj’s sexually explicit and descriptive sex-capade tales over “Mona Lisa, Lisa moanin'” more often than not.
Too often this year, on some of the industry’s landmark LP’s, the second half of the album doesn’t nearly match up to the sound or potential of the first. From Jay’s disappointing finish at the MCHG marathon, to Wale’s fall from “Heaven’s Afternoon” grace on the latter half of The Gifted, it seems as if the engines that carry 2013’s mainstream hip-hop vessels were built for sprints, and not Daytona. Hall Of Fame was built to last, and while you’ll hardly be calling for Sean’s induction after the conclusion of his sophomore effort, you’ll sure as hell put him on your ballot. “Sierra Leone” sounds so effortless—on the part of both Sean and No I.D.—its a wonder this record hasn’t graced a previous part of the former’s catalog. A rather cliche but formidable Young Jeezy and Payroll collab, which makes even more sense after you listen to the song’s outro—which is a news monologue about the city of Detroit filing for bankruptcy—is an interesting angle. Sean always spoke about the state of Detroit. Its the name of his best work for crying out loud, but this was different. Rather than speak about the issues from a distance it was the first time we heard him directly admit that for once, its all on him. In a recent photo surfacing on blogs nationwide, Sean was seen with Eminem, who admitted that he loved the album from start to finish.
Which is to say, I don’t see that as a passing of the torch. But rather, as Em moving his hand further towards the flame so Sean can hold it with him. Its been a long time coming, Big Sean.
-Khari Nixon (@KingVanGogh)