Release Date: August 28, 2013
Label: G.O.O.D./Def Jam
Last year, Big Sean was given ample opportunity to flaunt his rapping talent, and he did so: On G.O.O.D. Music’s “Mercy” and “Clique,” surrounded by heavyweights from Kanye to Jay Z to Pusha T to 2 Chainz, he stepped up with goofy, immediately quotable verses that showed a vast improvement from his spotty debut solo album, 2011’s Finally Famous. A technically adept turn on Meek Mill’s “Burn” solidified that evolution, but to truly understand the progress he’s made on his second album, Hall of Fame, know that Sean’s most important verse of 2012 appeared on Justin Bieber’s “As Long as You Love Me”: Though lacking the precision and humor of those other appearances, it was nonetheless a sincere, corny, appealingly love-drunk ode to the most wonderful person in his life.
Throughout his career, the Detroit MC has been considered a lightweight, one-note rapper unable to rap about anything other than himself, and even with that limited scope, he couldn’t sell himself all that well, either. Mixed with his short stature (which he himself mocks here on opener “Nothing Is Stopping You”), nasally voice, and larger-than-his-career ad-libs (“O God!” “Swerve!” “Boy!”), his cheesy punch lines make him a walking punchline for rap fans unexcited by a new generation of Kanye West’s progeny: Detractors dismissed him as just another rapper that ‘Ye liked because he sounded like ‘Ye. Finally Famous didn’t make much of a counterargument, but with each single released in the run-up to Hall of Fame, Sean has shed that baggage and found his own compelling rap persona, his own story to tell his own way.
Even the failed singles. This album was supposed to come out last December, but has suffered delay after delay, starting when the attempted first single, “Guap,” unjustly flopped: Powered by steel drums — and a buoyant beat from Young Chop and Key Wane — the joyously great song barely cracked the radio. (The video tried to pump up Sean’s beleaguered city of Detroit by recreating the pomp of Jay Z’s “Big Pimpin,” but that fell flat, too.) Optimism wasn’t working, and so, he eventually landed on “Beware,” which abandons that glossy resilience to focus on the relationship tensions that preoccupy most of the rest of the album.
But now there’s another problem. “Beware” has risen up the charts and gotten more airplay, but a couple of weeks ago, Hall of Fame was overshadowed by a single B-side — really, a single verse, and not one of Sean’s. Officially sidelined by sample-clearance issues, “Control” set the Internet aflame with its shots-but-not-actually-shots verse from guest star Kendrick Lamar, inspiring a raft of tepid responses from inferior rappers and triggering a regression to diss songs and vain attempts to cram as many words as possible into each bar, heralding a misguided return to “lyricism” that does no one any favors — especially Big Sean. Kendrick can and does outrap him, but that’s not the point; didn’t Kanye West’s defeat of 50 Cent six years ago prove that for this generation of rappers and fans — Sean very much included — unguarded emotion trumps calculated machismo?
Unguarded emotions are all over Hall of Fame, and the result is more affecting than anti-Sean cynics are probably willing to admit. This could have been a callous breakup album, but it isn’t bitter — instead, it’s constantly bargaining with (and apologizing to) this particular ex-lover, with our host constantly knocking himself down for his infidelities and, on the particularly explicit and bracing “Ashley,” running through both the relationship’s highs and lows, and regretting his breaking of her trust. Putting aside the regrettable “Mona Lisa” (“Mona Lisa / Lisa Moaning”) and the self-explanatory “MILF,” Sean stays tied to relational conflict and the struggles of Detroit throughout. There are plenty of clunker lines (Sean doesn’t even pronounce “peripheral” right), but these goofs are less grating when sprinkled amid his genuine self-reflection.
Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an immediate parallel to this album of relationship struggle and soul-searching, and while Sean obviously lacks his mentor’s star power or ambition, he shows more heart than he typically gets credit for. There are quite a few references to the economic troubles plaguing his hometown (see “First Chain” and “It’s Time”), though nothing here approaches Kanye’s messy conflation of Black American history, sex, and modern-day race relations. Hall of Fame never attempts to carry that type of weight, and it shouldn’t.
Sean may never get out from under Kanye’s shadow, but he’s a better fit anyway with Wale, Kid Cudi, and J. Cole — rappers whose tendency to overexpose their own insecurities overshadows their technical ability, often resulting in critical derision. These guys aren’t rapping about #newrules or recording videos in the Chicago projects; they’re average but slyly smart guys who’ve achieved their dreams of a rap career, and critics aren’t sure what to do with this new generation of middle-class rap. Among his peers, Big Sean is a class clown with a fragile heart who uses typical tropes — there’s excessive sex-and-money talk here, of course — not to brag, but to better understand who he’s lost amid all this gain.