Getting under the skin of the Detroit native...

No matter where life finds us, there are always things we could be doing better and things we could be doing worse. Our minds become so consumed by what happened yesterday and what appointments we have in the diary next week, that it’s easy to lose sight of the moment. We look at those that we believe are successful, thinking ‘One day…’

For many Big Sean is in an enviable position; the Detroit native has gone from accosting Kanye West outside of a radio station to becoming the most successful artist on his G.O.O.D Music imprint. Now he lives the high life; celebrity girlfriend, designer brands, international flights, stadium shows. And yet, while the stakes are higher, human condition remains the same, and he suffers from the same intrusive thoughts and anxieties as the rest of us.

His fourth studio album, ‘I Decided.’, is a promise to himself to live in the moment. Its narrative finds Sean as an old man, having failed at everything, given a second chance to get life right. “I don’t even look at it as a concept album, because that’s actually how I feel,” says Sean, as he takes a break from shooting. “That’s what was so bizarre about it.”

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The legend goes that after a late night studio session Sean turned to his best friend and manager, Zeno Jones and asked: “Yo, have you ever felt like this was your second chance in life, and the only thing you’ve got to do is get it right?” Understandably Zeno looked at him like he was crazy, but the next day when the pair met up to go to the studio the idea had remained with them, and began to weave its way into the four acts that would form his latest record. “The first act is about realising your potential; the underdog turning into the big dog,” he explains. “The second is going after your one true love. Then it goes into a darker place, where you’re overwhelmed. It ends with the realisation that I did neglect my family, and I need to upgrade myself as a person.”

Throughout ‘I Decided.’, Sean thrives in his ability to wrap complex thought processes and self-improvement mantras into accessible and enjoyable rap music; hiding the pill in the pudding. Lead single ‘Bounce Back’ is a Metro Boomin-produced club banger, which on further inspection is all about accepting loses in order to win and the realisation that Sean’s career is consuming his life. “People may look at ‘Bounce Back’ in a certain way,” he concedes. “But 2016 wasn’t great in a lot of ways - politically, personally - and we needed to bounce back from it all. It still goes off in the clubs, but at the same time there’s something meaningful in there. That’s what I’m happy to incorporate into my music.”

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It’s so easy to fall into the cracks, or to fall off and not remain committed to ourselves.

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The intense ‘Voices In My Head/ Stick To The Plan’ explores the way that Sean’s inner voice can contradict his thoughts and cause anxiety. While Sean raps over a sombre instrumental, a voice at the back of the mix calls him out for being a disappointment and he becomes distracted by thoughts of failure. The beat deconstructs, twisting into the more forceful ‘Stick To The Plan’, as Sean chants his way forward, asserting his focus on progress as he increases in speed. “Voices in my head attacking what I’m thinking / Bullet to the head might be the way to free it,” he spits, with rapid pace, before expressing nostalgia for simpler times.

“Every time I go to the studio I meditate for 30 minutes and then just let it flow,” he reveals. “‘Voices In My Head’ came out so naturally. I always have inner struggles in my head, me talking to myself. I feel like everybody has the Kermit with the hood on!” It’s an intense listen, but one that Sean believes is as an essential part of the story: “I’m proud of myself for sticking to the plan. It’s so easy to fall into the cracks, or to fall off and not remain committed to ourselves.”

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‘I Decided.’ closer, ‘Bigger Than Me’, expresses the realisation that Sean’s example serves a larger purpose than fulfilling his own dreams; he observes the young people in his hometown like mirrors, endeavouring to inspire them to pursue their own paths to success. More than just lyrics, Sean dedicates a lot of his time outside of music to develop programmes to help these youngsters via his philanthropic organisation, the Sean Anderson Foundation. The non-profit was founded in 2012 and aims to improve the quality of life for young people and their families in his hometown.

The foundation’s work is reflected in ‘Bigger Than Me’ through an appearance from the Flint Chozen Choir. Located 70 miles north of Detroit, Sean considers Flint home, and has raised $100,000 to support victims of the ongoing crisis that has exposed residents to dangerous levels of lead in their drinking water.

His most recent focus has been on a scheme called Mogul Prep, which introduces young people to music industry roles that they might be less aware of. “I grew up wanting to be a rapper, but maybe that’s just because of what I always saw [in the media],” he says. “I didn’t realise that there was 50 other people that have [professions] to do with a rapper[’s career].” Mogul Prep opens up these possibilities through a curriculum based around the interests of individual students. “I think there’s something missing from the school systems,” Sean adds. “And it’s needed. As a kid, knowing that there’s jobs for any passion that you have can be the difference between life or death; especially in a city like Detroit.”

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Motown and the iPhone might be the two things that changed the world.

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At the beginning of the year, Sean and his mother, Myra Anderson, accepted an invitation to join the Motown Museum National Legacy Council alongside the likes of Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and Reverend Jesse Jackson. “It was great to meet Berry Gordy. While I was shaking his hand all I was thinking was, ‘Man, you’re responsible for everything. You’re responsible for the greatest music moment in history,’” he recalls. “Motown and the iPhone might be the two things that changed the world. All of that is running through my head, and he’s just talking about how proud of me he was. I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, right! You’re Berry Gordy!’”

While he remains humbled, Big Sean has made fans of some of the greatest artists and industry figures, of our generation and beyond. André 3000 visited Sean for a private playback of ‘I Decided.’ praising its economic approach to writing. “It sounds like you took advantage of every bar,” he told Sean, who admits “It’s tight to hear that from someone like him! I’m proud of every single lyric.” While recording ‘No Favors’, hometown hero Eminem asked him to sign some CDs, and on release day he received a coveted Roc-A-Fella chain from Jay Z. “It energise me,” admits Sean of the attention. “I don’t allow it to redirect me in any way, but I do appreciate it. All of the positivity and love from them keeps me hungry.”

Big Sean is on a relentless mission to become the best he can be, both as an artist and a human being. Over the past decade Sean has delivered nine full-length projects and a boatload of features. And yet still, one wonders what drives him to constantly recreate himself.

“I think it’s just my potential,” he considers. “As a writer, musician, artist, rapper, all of that. I just feel like I haven’t reached it yet, so I’m trying to get to that point where I feel satisfied.” Ultimately it falls back to his ‘Stick To The Plan’ mantra.

“It’s not even a deep process, you’ve just got to trust it,” he advises. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ If you’re not, you’re going to feel it. If you are, you’re going to feel good. It’s as simple as that.”

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Words: Grant Brydon
Photography: Anna Victoria Best

For tickets to the latest Big Sean shows click HERE.

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