Aug. 25--Part one was a bona fide blockbuster. Can Big Sean's sequel recapture the magic?
The Detroit-raised rapper certainly hopes so, as he heads to next Saturday's show at DTE Energy Music Theatre, follow-up to his widely lauded concert at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
That December show -- the first arena headlining date of his career -- was a celebratory, emotional evening that Big Sean says was probably "the most perfect night of my life," when "everybody was just connected by the heart." After two years as one of the most prevalent voices on the radio, a go-to rap guest for everyone from Justin Bieber to Chris Brown, the 25-year-old emcee was primed for a victorious homecoming, and he got it.
This week's hometown excitement -- including several other activities around the city -- accompanies the Tuesday release of his long-awaited sophomore album, "Hall of Fame," which seems a strong bet for a No. 1 national debut. That's despite last week's Internet leak, described as "a tragedy" by a disgruntled if realistic Big Sean.
Now a Los Angeles resident, the rapper born Sean Anderson says he's approaching his career with a growing sense of maturity, "excited to expand myself as an artist and document my work as an artist and becoming a man." Eight years after his fabled discovery by Kanye West during an impromptu freestyle session at Detroit's WHTD-FM (then Hot 102.7), Big Sean thinks he's nailed the right blend of serious and loose.
"I do want to be a role model -- I want to be an artist that my family can be proud of, and that the city can be proud of," he says. "I started thinking different, and I think you can hear it in the music. It's a lot more mature. But I'm still a silly person. I'm somebody who knows how to party and have fun, too, so I wanted to make sure I didn't lose that aspect of myself."
The album has been met with positive early reviews, following a summer of headline-grabbing buzz that included the spicy video for "Fire" -- featuring Miley Cyrus -- and the non-album track "Control," with its memorable Kendrick Lamar guest spot.
After a 2011 debut album ("Finally Famous") that portrayed him as a striving rapper breaking into the public eye, "Hall of Fame" is the picture of a star soaking in his success: "Mona Lisa" delights in a menage-a-trois, "First Chain" (with Nas and Kid Cudi) revels in the big payday, "Switch Up" finds Sean watching his back for sketchy hangers-on.
But there's also a contemplative air, found most prominently in tracks such as "World Ablaze," which confronts terminal cancer, and "Ashley" -- an extended apology to his ex, to whom he rhymes, "Sorry for when you had to cry yourself to sleep / Tried to count on me / And I made you count sheep." (Sean split earlier this year with his longtime Cass Tech sweetheart, and began dating "Glee" star Naya Rivera in the spring.)
"It's definitely a new type of project for me. It's very insightful and personal," he says. "Of course there's still some raunchy, fun tracks on there, all different aspects of me. But I've definitely opened up as an artist, making what I feel are more actual songs on this one. Songs like 'Fire,' 'World Ablaze,' 'All Figured Out' -- songs that tell my story and that will probably relate to a lot of stories for a lot of different people."
For many artists, that sort of introspection can be a scary step, especially when you've made your bank with party fare like "Dance (A$$)." Soul-baring, after all, amounts to getting emotionally naked in public. For Sean, it felt like a responsibility.
"You've just got to accept it, come to peace with yourself and know that people get inspired by your story," he says. He pauses for a moment. "Honestly, man? I just wanted to make songs that were more than just being in the club, turning up, all that type of (thing), which I appreciate and I love. But I honestly just want to be remembered for more than that."
Part of that was a new reckoning with what you might call art versus entertainment, the value of a meaningful statement over a clever quip.
"When you make songs that are hot and in the club, they last a year or two, maybe three," says Sean. "But when you make a song that relates to you, or relates to your family, and really helps you get through times emotionally -- that song can relate to somebody forever. That was the whole goal with this project. 'Hall of Fame' is a piece to my puzzle as an artist."
None of it happens without some personal angst. In a moment of candor, Big Sean describes himself as prone to compulsive overthinking -- being "hard on myself and adding unnecessary stress," he says. That tendency has only ramped up as his success has grown.
"It's not easy at all. Things aren't easy," he says. "I feel like life is as hard as you make it, but I always make things harder, man, because I care about what I do. I care about the clothes I wear and the music I make and the verses I spit. I take my time with my craft. I make things harder sometimes than they should be. It's just how I operate."
Living in the limelight
Big Sean, who grew up in a small house "in the hood" near 6 Mile and Northlawn, is clearly a family guy, and last year he bought his mom a new Cadillac and Detroit home. For all the fixation on his pet theme -- fame -- Sean concedes the limelight comes with tradeoffs.
"I miss out on a lot of things, a lot of places I don't go," he says. "I miss out on a lot of family affairs, what my friends got going on. I've been in a relationship where the other person didn't understand or didn't know how to accept this lifestyle. I've been through a lot of tough times where I just felt like giving up, but you've always got to remember what you do it for: the adrenaline rush of creating what you want, being a role model, looking back and saying you made it happen doing what you love with the people who love you."
He's working to keep his Detroit connection alive via his Sean Anderson Foundation, which last month launched its first big project: a donation contest to fund a music program for underprivileged Detroit students. (The winner, a female fan from New Jersey, will join Sean tonight at the "MTV Video Music Awards.")
At 3 p.m. Thursday, he'll be at Eastern Market to hand out school supplies in a project with his foundation, University of Michigan's business school, Office Depot, General Motors and Quicken Loans.
But it's Saturday at DTE where the hometown emotional connection will get big and loud.
Adam Schneider, senior vice president of booking at Palace Sports & Entertainment, says the magic of December's concert prompted the return invite to DTE.
"That was one of the best shows I've ever seen. At one point he broke down in tears onstage. It was super genuine and artistic, yet just classic hip-hop, pop culture, of the moment," says Schneider. "It's just very rare where you have that combination of authenticity, originality and mainstream crossover at the same moment. And I think it was a palpable sense in every quarter of the room -- whether backstage or in the rafters or right up front. There was a feedback loop of energy."
Big Sean, who says Saturday's set will include a couple of special guests, is aiming to make the show an annual tradition.
"I definitely have a certain level of excellence I'm trying to maintain," he says. "But that being said, I'm just going to let it happen. The city knows I care for them, and they care for me, and we're going to go out there and have an awesome night."
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