Big Sean Is Finally Famous
As it approaches its 50th birthday, rap music, like Visa, is everywhere you want to be.
Because of that near-complete cultural ubiquity, the urban-borne genre is experiencing an unprecedented depth and breadth in the variety of its star-power (see: Kendrick Lamar v. Action Bronson), but over the past 12 months that surplus of variety has actually begun to unnecessarily polarize the genre — Chris Brown and Tyga unsustainably trying to turn the club up on one end and too-real, emotionally heavy bars from Kendrick, Yeezy and Drake on the other. On top of that, because of their extra-ordinary superstardom in today’s society, our hip-hop stars have never seemed less accessible or less relatable; Jay Z can be semi-retired yet still win a Grammy for his wife’s ode to his penis, Kanye West is a fashion designer whose wife has earned nearly $100 million from a mobile phone game, and Drake is consistently letting us mere mortals in his audience know just how uniquely awesome his life is.
Then there’s Big Sean and his album Dark Sky Paradise, an approachable record from (amazingly) rap’s most accessible artist. By tuning out the extremes and doing the important work of simply getting by, this album, and by extension Big Sean, finally meets (and possibly exceeds) the high level of expectations we have for music at this level of the industry.
We may not have ever seen this coming, or even been rooting for it to come to pass, but rap’s biggest punching bag is finally famous.
The first quarter of 2015’s rap media cycle has been dominated by Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly#, Drake dropping a boastful yet morose mixtape-as-album in order to support Lil Wayne’s gripes with Cash Money Records, and Kanye West, well, being Kanye West. But a lesser-regarded highlight that may be more relatable, therefore more populously impactful, is what Big Sean achieved with his recent album and its lead single “I Don’t Fuck With You”: Securing a number one position on Billboard’s album charts.Glee-starring ex-fiance’s memory on a piece of music that will last forever after allegations of cheating were hurdled (across a social media war for the ages). By airing Sean’s dirtiest of laundry, “I Don’t Fuck With You” humanized a rapper previously only known as an animatronic ad-lib spitter whose singular job appeared to be wearing fresh gear and saying “swerve” or “holl’ up.”
In a world where rap’s leading men are all seemingly caught up in being their own best perfect selves, Big Sean learning how to just be his best self (sans the “perfection”) makes him look like the real winner. He even spends much of Dark Sky Paradise showcasing just how much time and effort he’s put into the art of learning how to rap extremely well (and with truly impacting bars) on a consistent basis. Since his 2007 debut, the one knock on Sean has been that he’s lyrically skilled but lacking the knockout blow that could figuratively concuss a rap fan’s expectations. Only now, after years of practice, Sean’s outsmarted the critics and learned to win on points, punchlines, ad libs and appreciably credible talent instead — like a laborious twelve-round split decision.
Though it helps that his guests have signed onto the cause. His lyrical compatriots include his G.O.O.D. Music label boss Kanye West and the aforementioned Drake, plus Lil Wayne, Ty Dolla Sign and E-40 (on “I Don’t Fuck With You”), but nobody here attempts to outshine Sean, the record working largely as a co-sign that he is, indeed, “finally famous.” Sean’s even able to get political too, as maybe the album’s most poignant moment on “Stay Down” comes when he spits, “Tryna get that hotel money/But you know them crackers ain’t gonna let you get the Ritz/They ain’t gonna let you get the fountain in the front with the fist/They gonna give you courtside at the Clips/But never on the sh*t/They ain’t on that gunner sh*t.” Even for rap critics who aren’t necessarily fans of Big Sean, it’s a moment of re-contextualizing his talent and clearly it’s worked.
Big Sean is not perpetually dominating the media headlines of Kanye West, gaining cool-kid plaudits like Drake, adopting a black empowerment stance like Kendrick Lamar, nor a content king like Action Bronson. Rather, in making music that’s ultra approachable and quite relatable, with a higher degree of lyrical skill than ever before, he’s found the space between rap’s many rulers. In doing so, the Detroit emcee may have found a common-man kingdom all his own.
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