I Do F--- With You? Learning to Like Big SeanDef Jam
I think I like Big Sean. This has been difficult to bear, so hear me out.
Who is Big Sean? Big Sean is a rapper from Detroit who is also a buffoon. Or, at least, was. The 26-year-old MC is a member of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music family, has been signed to Def Jam Records since 2008, and is a recent addition to Jay Z’s growing Roc Nation Management. When Kanye and Jay Z reteamed for a song for G.O.O.D.’s 2012 Cruel Summer compilation, they recorded the exclusionary anthem “Clique” — Big Sean was the only person invited to their party. This happens all the time. As far as modern rap bona fides, he is the most cosigned young person this side of Blue Ivy. Big Sean has recorded with Nicki Minaj, Drake, Miley Cyrus, Lil Wayne, Justin Bieber, Rick Ross, Jessie J, Diddy, Chris Brown, John Legend, Nas, and Fall Out Boy. He’s a networker — a friendly, unthreatening face, always available with 16 meaningless bars and a rap signifier to buff your urban credibility or your youthful credibility or your playful credibility. He’s a verified Twitter account. A license plate that reads “RAP4LYFE.” A tight smile and a clammy handshake.
This year Big Sean’s profile grew when he began dating Ariana Grande, perhaps the fastest-rising American pop star since Katy Perry. Before that he’d been engaged to the Glee actress Naya Rivera. He gets around. Since 2007, he has released two albums and four mixtapes, all of which are largely terrible. His origin story — that he rapped for Kanye outside of a Detroit radio station and impressed him so thoroughly that he was signed on the spot — is the kind of bootstraps meritocratic myth that keeps thousands of aspiring rappers aggressively tweeting mixtape links at strangers. Big Sean is the patient zero of thirst.
Big Sean is also getting better.
For years, Sean Anderson was the most fast-forwardable rapper alive. He would crop up in the vicinity of beauty and ruin the moment, like a photo-bomber on a mad spree at a wedding. We need to wade through 83 seconds of Big Sean before Nicki Minaj arrives ablaze on “A$$ (Remix).” It’s 87 seconds of B.S. on “Clique” before Jay shows up. He gets 29 seconds right in the heart of Wayne’s “My Homies Still.” He squandered appearances on four of Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Friday songs in 2010. He closes out Drake’s otherwise immaculate “All Me,” and his first words on that song are, “Ho. Shut. The. Fuck Up.” And here’s the problem: Big Sean is a lout.1 He’s unlikable: a braggart and a dullard coasting on style and tone. And — here we break to acknowledge some formal strengths — Big Sean has a great tone, a lilting versatility that is rare and intriguing. He can bend his phrasing like a Fosse dancer, and rhyme hard on the one; he helped popularize the dumb-smart idiom-pun phrasing technique that both Drake and Kanye exploited for a few years; his voice is imbued with a kind of casual arrogance that on more authoritative talents — Jay, Big Daddy Kane, Method Man — has made for legendary careers. He’s as comfortable rhyming on Lite-Brite pop as he is on sludgy, stormy rap. He shows up; Big Sean is present. But he’s always been fairly obnoxious about the whole thing, always hanging at the party far past the appropriate time — he’s the friend who’s a little too comfortable in your house.
In April, he and Naya Rivera called off their engagement.2 In September, he recorded a borderline hateful anthem, and the trajectory of his career changed.
This has been coming, an irritation itching just below the surface for years. The stars can align for even the most distant moon. And so Big Sean, who has been close to talent and exceptionalism and ambition for what now amounts to his entire adult life, may have finally locked into something compelling. In conversation last week, I called his Rivera breakup anthem “I Don’t Fuck With You” the “Idiot Wind” of 2014, and I think I’m sticking with that assessment. It’s a nasty, bratty, extravagantly flagrant screed. Half the battle is won in the production,3 a collaboration between Kanye4 and DJ Mustard, the sonic architect of approximately 73 percent of popular contemporary rap; it’s a perfect blend of the former’s soul-sampling whine and the latter’s glittering bounce. But there’s a kind of certitude in Sean — is that scorn? — that feels more earned than anything that’s come before. Big Sean has always been a brat, but now something has actually happened to him, and he’s processing it in public. He even built an #IDFWU Photo Editor app. Enjoy blurring the faces of all your exes on Facebook. I have blurred Big Sean’s past.
Three days after “I Don’t Fuck With You” appeared, Big Sean’s The 4 Song EP was released for free. Its cover depicts a psychotropic electric storm draped in purple cloud cover. Gone were the prototypical rap visualizations: the hungry kid, the cool guy, the penitent star. This is a new Big Sean. The 4 Song isn’t exactly a breakthrough, but it’s a break of some kind — tempestuous and unusually explosive. This is a rapper who has said that LL Cool J’s butter-soft Mr. Smith is the first Def Jam album he can remember buying, and so until this point he has proceeded as a more privileged mid-’90s LL Cool J. Now he seems more like his mentor, Kanye — preening and flailing and unleashing emotional insecurity. I like The 4 Song. It’s a version of commercial rap that I want. I never expected it from this person.
Why do we hate the things that we hate?5 These things that we associate with our taste and our identity, they sometimes seem like all we have. Point of view is power, and applying it to the wrong thing can make someone sound crazy or like a troll, or in search of an idea that isn’t quite there. Big Sean is not a fundamentally valuable artist, but it’s OK to like what triggers viscerally. In the past, Big Sean was a trigger for so much of what’s wrong — rank masculinity, corniness, misapplied talent — and maybe not much has changed. But it sounds different to me now.
There is momentum behind this moment — Big Sean made the radio station rounds last week, lazily freestyling, gossiping, and promoting. He’s dodging implications that Naya Rivera is the target of his ire. (Actual quote from this interview: “I don’t fuck with lobster.”) Already, he risks frittering away this transgressive moment with play-nice politics. I hope he averts, and continues to unravel. Anything less would be uncivilized.