Upon entering the Def Jam offices in Santa Monica, California you can’t help but notice your heartbeat shift tempos – perhaps the body’s subconscious attempt at adding a catchy and upbeat rhythm to a locale rooted in boom-bap classics. The three-floor ride up and the subtle push of two nondescript, clear doors leads to an industrial space with exposed beams more reminiscent of a bohemian loft space than a cultural mecca of meta material. Along the periphery were various closed doors and conference rooms on either side of an open space where eager-eyed employees fielded calls for power players and engaged in a dueling piano-type exchange of MP3 files. There was JT playing. There was Frank Ocean pumping out of Mac desktops. And there was the latest record from Big Sean, the 25-year-old emcee from Detroit that we talked to, whose voice seemed strained from the whirlwind that comes not only with a sophomore album titled Hall of Fame, but with the circus created by his unused “Control” track featuring Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica that wasn’t used due to sampling issues. There were several members of the press waiting their turn, so we’d have to be put ice for awhile. I’d have ample time to hone in on questions that everyone hadn’t asked already – forgoing recycled quips about “Control” – for thoughts on rap legacies, progression and Detroit. When it was finally my turn, we settled in a corner office relinquished for press purposes, where a cardboard cover of Big Sean on XXL stared back at me as a reminder that artists are often viewed in two dimensions, but Sean Michael Anderson – dressed in a historically black college hoodie, skinny jeans, and a snapback – was very much a living and breathing entity with the full support of his Def Jam banner.
Did you consciously look to avoid the so-called “sophomore slump”?
I didn’t even focus on a sophomore slump, I just focused on the best quality of work I could make. Nothing’s flawless. There’s definitely flaws in it. It’s not perfect. But that’s the beauty of always progressing and becoming a better artist. My next album is gonna be better than Hall of Fame and Hall of Fame is better than my first album. One of my friends came to me and said “you’re such a spiritual dude, and you’re always telling us about meditating and the law of attraction and was like yo, why don’t you let people know that side of you?” So I kinda let people know that side of me more on this album. I’m definitely a dreamer. I’m definitely someone who wrote down all my goals in my mom’s house. So I wanted to share my thought processes with people. And maybe they can apply that to themselves and help them out. And on top of that, I’m a vessel for Detroit, and there are no young black males that can be heard on a platform I’m on – and it’s not the highest platform - but it’s definitely a platform. How the city is 15 billion dollars in debt and how there are abandoned houses everywhere, and how they cut the hours of the police station down and how there are crack heads raping girls walking to school. And I knew I couldn’t be a popular rapper from Detroit and not talk about those type of things, too.
So it’s therapy of sorts making a new album?
Yeah. It was therapeutic for me. It’s definitely growth for Big Sean. I’ve been saying this a lot, but it’s a piece of a puzzle for me as an artist. People are seeing more dimensions.
What does success mean to you?
Success to me is deeper than financial. Success to me is a personal feeling that you get. I’ve been successful with things, but I’m not successful or satisfied yet. Until I make everyone in my family proud and we’re all living a certain lifestyle and I’ve achieved all of my goals, that’s true success. I’m nowhere near there but I’ve got a long time. It’s only my second album. I’ve got a lot of different ways to change the world. It may even be above music. The reason I called it Hall of Fame was because I am somebody who believes in manifesting your goals and writing a lot of goals down. I wrote down that I’m gonna buy my mom a new house and did it myself. This car… this, this, this. I did it on a larger scale this time and called my album Hall of Fame because when it’s all said and done I want to be in the hall of fame – whether that’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – and hopefully they have a rap hall of fame by then. Whatever I do in my lifetime, I want to be on that “hall of fame” status of doing it. Everyone should want to do their job the best and remembered on that level. By any means I don’t think I’m in the hall of fame yet.
I don’t know how big of a sports fan you are – obviously Detroit is a big sports town – if you had to make the Big Sean hall of fame for musicians – because I know there has been a lot of ranking of rappers in hip-hop lately…
Who is getting into the Big Sean hall of fame and what are some of the traits you’d like to emulate in your career going forward?
Of course, Biggie and Pac would be in there. Rakim, Eminem, Jay Z, Kanye. Lil Wayne, OutKast, NWA, Dre, Snoop, DMX, Nas. Just people who really push the envelope of culture.
Is there a certain trait – because they’re all different artists from different eras doing different styles of hip-hop music – that they all have to get to that “hall of fame” status?
Their traits were doing something that had never been done before. Just doing it in a way that really inspired and changed a lot of people. That’s the best way to deliver music. I think all those guys that I named did that in their own way.
You came up in an era where the blogs were becoming higher profile, while print was dying. So, people can get the record and immediately respond to it. Within hours, they can open the package and review it and the comment section is open whereas with print, you had to wait. Does the idea of “immediacy” and the blogs affect your thought process and artistic direction when crafting the album?
Never. I never let what I see on blogs or what I see in the media influence me as an artist. I still do me and everything I always do is just me. People are so caught up in reality TV and all that bullshit and sometimes people lose a grip on reality. I don’t ever want to get lost in that. I’m always going to keep it authentic and do everything how I want to do it and collab with whoever I want to collab with and won’t with who I don’t want to collab with. I work way too hard to worry about what other people are thinking. I’m gonna keep setting the tone and keep becoming a better artist, better rapper and better person.
Any final words?
Hall of Fame, August 27. At first they weren’t going to let me put “Control” on there because of the sample, but I think they flipped the sample somewhere – maybe replayed it or something – so it’s definitely going to be on the digital version of Hall of Fame. I hope you guys support it because we put a lot of work into it.
Photography: Luis Ruano/Highsnobiety.com
Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based writer who has written for Esquire, Details, Maxim and Playboy in the past. Follow him on Twitter @smart_alec_