Big Sean: is the ‘best rapper of all time’ finally stepping out of Kanye’s shadow?

A self-professed underdog who has gone about things in a decidedly low-key way, now could be the perfect time for the Detroit rapper to make his mark

To mark the release of his latest album, I Decided., Big Sean went to Twitter to get out this little message: I know what it feels like to be the underdog, to know youre full potential and it not be recognized. All I can say is keep going, earn it!

Sean Michael Leonard Anderson, or Big Sean for short, arrived last decade under the tutelage of Kanye West. Often thought to be a lightweight Kanye, and compared to contemporaries like Drake and Kid Cudi, the Detroit native appeared to lack a distinct vision. He did have a worldview, but it was just one that was meeker, and more humbled than is traditionally accepted for top tier rap stars.

Work, imbued with a middle-America working class hustle, drives much of Seans music. His sophomore album, Hall of Fame, stressed that fact on the song 10 2 10 and even one of his early crossover hits was simply titled I Do It. A loud supporter of his hometown of Detroit, even as the city is often the butt of jokes and national shame, the rapper finds pride in offering his own hard grinded success story to those that doubted his city. Hes retold that origin myth across albums a similar narrative arc started his first two album but each retelling adds additional chapters. Thats what pushes him on Deserve It, from his 2015 album, Dark Sky Paradise, to retrace the steps of impressing Kanye to driving across the valleys of California valleys reflecting back on his success.

But success remains the final goal of the endless grinding. Thats the sad irony his best single, 2012s Guap, which opened with the Ive been grinding all goddamn year and I just got my check / Im gonna spend it on me and even featured a Big Pimpin-esque video shot in downtown Detroit didnt connect with audiences like his other songs. Humility seemed to remain a major selling point, even for a rapper who had been predicted to become the best rapper of all-time by Kanye West. Still an eternal optimist, late last year he released Bounce Back, which slowly scraped its way into the Billboard Top 20. The songs message, while not directly about his work ethic, the hook could be the thesis of all his work: Last night took I took an L / But tonight I bounce back.

Kanye West and Big Sean an award at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2015. Photograph: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
I Decided. shows another another step for Big Sean, as with a little bit of age, hes looking towards issues of the world that beyond his luxury hotel suite. My dad from Louisiana, man the smallest town / Where if they know you brown, they might hold you down / And even hose you down, man, Sean raps on Light, an early album cut and one of the many references on the album of the history of tension between the black community and law enforcement. Where Drake, especially on record, is aggressively apolitical, Big Sean is not shrinking from the spotlight that fame places on him, as he rhymes on No Favors, The D to Flint who get sick with lead / Others get the hit with the laugh / From where they need a handout / But they tell you put hands up.

Even though Kanyes own beginnings as a producer-turned-rapper were decidedly humble, once Sean was introduced to West, the old Kanye was long gone. West was known, even expected, to speak his mind whenever presented with the opportunity, but Seans ambitions, musically and politically, looked modest next to his midwestern mentor. Whereas the Chicagoan was and remains politically outspoken, Big Sean operated with smaller gestures. Instead of going on TV and saying that George Bush doesnt care about black people, Sean looked home and raised money for the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Big Sean was fine letting his actions do the talking, but I Decided. shows that his words can also fall in line.

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