Seeking (and Finding) Big Sean


He released I Decided., his best album yet, has his highest charting single to date, and notched his first headlining SNL performance, but all Big Sean wants to talk about is his grandma. She lives in Atlanta. She’s turning 87 in April, and like him, she’s an Aries.

Big Sean, real name Sean Anderson, is -not shockingly- a living, breathing human. He loves his mom and family. He likes Star Wars and Dragon Ball Z. He thinks if he wasn’t rapping he’d be a food critic. Smashing his professional Plan B culinary cruise is his distaste for seafood. Shame.

He carries himself with considerably less roar than one would expect from a 29 year-old rapper who was signed to Kanye West’s label before his 21st birthday. The fortitude is there, sure; you don’t get to be one of the biggest rappers in the world without a pointed self-assuredness. But in person, Big Sean is gentle, thoughtful and restrained.

It hasn’t always been that way. Big Sean’s early output was characterized by a kind of impudence. He had a formative penchant for oversaturating his songs with pop-culture kitsch, and we could tell the traditional trappings of rap stardom fit him awkwardly. Now, however, this dated description proves counterfeit.

The change has been coming for a while now. Dark Sky Paradise, his previous album released in 2015, was a foray into growth. It was a noticeable step forward; the charts and critics agreed. The album, from its artwork, to its title, to the sonic manipulation, was his most somber work to date, trafficking at times in the kind of bulldozed confessionalism that some of his peers are best known for.

But the model didn’t quite fit. Big Sean isn’t about musings in resistive head space. An artist like Big Sean forges best when centralized on the constructive. What’s made him special throughout his career is the unbridled ardor that comes through on his most inspired tracks. There’s something unique about a Big Sean verse, something singular about its adaptability to our moods, surroundings and circumstances.

With I Decided., he’s created something wholeheartedly his own. This album finds him taking a more complete and measured approach while managing to maintain the accessibility and candor that made him popular. There’s introspection, even some melancholy laments at lost love and shots at those who never believed in him (suckers). But what sets this work apart is that negativity is not something that currently preoccupies him, but rather, it’s something he has ultimately overcome and gained from.

What outlines this album is a convex disbelief at just how far he’s come and how happy he is to have made the choices he did. And what’s delightfully striking is how genuine this all is for him. It’s that earnest self-awareness that has managed to make him an artist of cursive, and largely unheralded, consistency. Big Sean did used to dream of this. One man can change the world. He really believes that. So we really believe that.

Repeatedly he’s circled back to the idea that he has a responsibility as an artist to provide something meaningful for his fans. What motivates him these days (other than love for the music he’s making and the people he works with) is the authentic hope that he can somehow shift a faulty axis and silence the fire that makes our world burn.

A product of that is his Mogul Prep program, which helps to inspire and educate young students. He started the initiative with his mother, Myra, a school teacher in Detroit, and he’ll be hosting educational workshops throughout stops on his tour. This is an offset of the pilot program he launched in 2015 in part with the Sean Anderson Foundation. These are the anecdotes and stories he thrives on, not canned answers about what makes an artist interesting.

At the end of it all, Sean Anderson can only be Sean Anderson. And after all these years of fame, he’s finally circled back to being what he always wanted to be: himself.

My deepest congratulations on the release and tour. How’s it going?

„It’s been good. Honestly, I’ve just been working, preparing, and also trying to get some other projects lined up. But it’s been cool. I took some time to see my grandma in Atlanta. It’s great getting to see them, it goes a long way with family.“

How’s your family dealing with this? I saw the photo of you and your mom in front of the billboard in Los Angeles. She looks charmed.

„Yeah, it’s cool. My mom was the first person I rapped for, and she tells me that she’s proud; it’s the best feeling. We randomly saw that billboard too, it wasn’t planned at all. We were riding in Hollywood together and busted a U-turn to take a picture. It was a real moment for the both of us. Also my song popped on the radio too, it was cool.“

Have you approached the aftermath of release any differently than you have with releases in the past? This one has deeper ripple effects it seems.

„I think that I was inspired to incorporate that narrative because I feel like it was necessary. With all this crazy shit going on, especially with last year’s election, you saw how divided we are. The urgency to improve yourself, to get yourself together, is at an all-time high. It’s not just second chances and all that, but it was also having to live and center yourself on an individual level. That’s when you can really progress and do something to change things.“

A lot of people have been talking about the power-wielding stars that can use their content as a platform, like Lady Gaga at the Super Bowl. You’ve never shied away from that. Do you have any thoughts on this for others? There seems to be an ever thinning line between life imitating art, then imitating life.

„I’m a firm believer of that in that lately I’ve been trying to make something of my music, not just a single song. There are different songs for different means and different points in time. Using your voice is the whole point. The opportunity that you’re given to be on a platform, you have to say something that means something or inspires so we can get things done. If you don’t, then you’re not taking advantage of your voice. Marvin Gaye used it. Stevie Wonder used it. Kanye [West], Jay-Z, Eminem—they’re all saying it. That’s something to look back on and be proud of.“

This was a real separation from your older work, you’ve obviously grown and matured in what can be a really polarizing environment. How do you find the inspiration to continuously evolve?

„I’m deep into the process of creating. I like to meditate a lot before I go into the studio to really get my mind right. I feel like that’s what drugs do for some people; it gets their mind “right” to be creative. I try to do it in a way where I rely on spiritual vibe to get me in that mood where I can go in there and knock something out while retaining creative flow. That’s kind of my creative process. I get on the mic and spit some ideas out. Sometimes it’s a good idea, sometimes it’s bad, and sometimes these are things you can build off of.

On this album, some songs got done in a day and some took months. I’ve had to leave and come back to a few to change them, then not like them, only to change again. “Voices in my Head/Stick to the Plan” took months for me to finish. It was the hardest song to executive creatively. On the other hand, a song like “Sacrifice” with Migos got knocked out in a day. I was feeling that vibe and going through it. Creativity isn’t like a factory. You don’t press a button and something comes out. You’ve really got to feel it out.

The process itself has been similar for the past couple of years. My point of view has changed, and I’m conscious of what I want to get across to an audience. I intend to keep the momentum going and don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.“

I know Mogul Prep is a real point of pride for you and your family, tell me about giving back where you can.

„Mogul Prep is a curriculum to put into schools, because my mom was a school teacher. It’s about bringing kids who are interested in any aspect of entertainment to learn how to execute. I didn’t know there are so many different types of jobs; all I know is how to be a rapper. Once I got into it, I learned what a manager, publisher, publicist, lighting designer, tour manager, stage manager, sound guy—all these different jobs and careers that go so far. Half the time their careers last longer than the artist’s [career] does. We’re having kids who signed up for Mogul Prep come to shows and see how certain things are done so they can figure out what career path relates to them.“

How’s your mom involved while you’re making music and touring?

„She’s the brains behind the operation when it comes to the foundation. I put a lot of time and effort in, but she does it on a daily basis, and she puts a lot of thought into it. That’s her role, and she’s working along with me. We’re trying to make a real change. She’s been doing some phenomenal things. She’s super tight, I’m for sure lucky to have a good mom.“

It seems that with a strong foundation like family, it’s easier to remain grounded. How do you maintain that amidst a lot of the recent solo success?

„I’m from Detroit. People from here keep it real. When you’re trying to be something you’re not, it never works out. I’ve been in those shoes, and I wasn’t necessarily comfortable being myself. When I embrace myself and realize that my imperfection is what makes me different and unique—it feels good to be just who I am. When I got the confidence to do that, everything started going great. I keep good people around. I keep God and a spiritual connection. You can always figure life out if you stay grounded—in good times, hard times, or whenever.“

Photographs Eric Chakeen
Fashion Ron Hartleben


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