As artists achieve, it’s common for them to lose their edge. Especially in hip-hop. So after stepping out of big brother Kanye West’s shadow last year, dropping a solid debut album, and putting a few solo hit records up on the board, one might assume that Big Sean is too busy shining off one of his several necklaces to worry about what a hater has to say. Wrong. He hears the whispers, and is aware of the critics who clown his beloved ad-libs (“Boi” and recent favorite, “Swerve”) and his colorful, ornate raps. He’s going to change their minds, too.
“I’m going to make people respect it,” Sean said of his grind when Complex pulled him aside at G.O.O.D. Music's cover shoot a few weeks ago. “Everybody who’s not respecting it, they’re going to see. I know they hear me eating up these records. People talk shit like I can’t rap. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”
With hits like “My Last” and “Dance (A$$)” from his 2011 debut, Finally Famous, he’s got proof. The coming months will likely provide even more. He’ll be a key player on Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music compilation album, Cruel Summer. And Sean’s dropping his second album in the fall. While at the shoot, he talked about growing as artist under Kanye’s tutelage, when we can expect the single from his sophomore set, and the Cruel Summer album.
Interview by Brad Wete (@BradWete)
Complex: Let’s talk about the spirit of competition. Where will Cruel Summer rank amongst the great hip-hop compilation albums?
Big Sean: I just feel like we're the best. I’ve heard a lot of the collaborations. I’ve heard what people have been doing. Of course you’re going to listen to it and try to make your music the best, so that’s what we’ve been doing—making our music the best it can be. The best quality, the best raps, the best concepts, and it’s going to be unique.
As a crew, G.O.O.D. Music is taking it to levels that really haven’t been done collectively. Kanye is someone who knows how to make classic albums, a true thinker. He got me in the mindset of being a true thinker and always planning out every move you got going.
Your crew isn’t a conventional rap set.
There are a whole bunch of songs on the album that I wonder what the world is going to think, but it really don’t matter. We like it. That’s all that matters. You do what you want to do and if you like it, you like it. If you don’t, you keep hating. We’re going to keep getting this paper. We’re going to keep getting this money, keep buying my mama new stuff, keep sending her those spas because that’s what life’s about.
A lot of people criticize me because I be making up my own words sometimes in raps to rhyme, but I don’t understand how you can criticize someone trying to bring originality to the game.
What’s it like to be around great talents all the time and not always be the top dog?
It’s cool being around my fam, my crew. Everybody got different personalities. Everybody brings something different to the table. Me being from Detroit, I just bring that player aspect. That Detroit player. I always come up with new words, new ad-libs, that “swerve” or, you know, “Oh, God” or that “SMDTMD” [Suck my through my draws]. It’s all fun. It just makes you a better artist when you’re with people who are great artists themselves. Being around Kanye, soaking up all the knowledge, all the stuff he got. Pusha, Teyana, everybody do their thing. I can’t even complain. It’s a blessing to be a part of a group like that.
Is it true that your "Mercy" verse started out as a random freestyle for Kanye?
Yeah, I was really freestyling with Kanye backstage at the Watch the Throne tour and he was like, “Man, you got to say this on the record.” I was like, “Man, I ain’t about to say that. I just put out ‘A$$.’ I don’t need to be talking about no ‘ass-quake, ass-tate.’” But I just laid it to see how it sounded and then for a while, there were no other verses on “Mercy.”
It was just my verse and we were vibing to it, so it naturally fit on there. I don’t really write any of my raps down. The same, Kanye don’t write any of his raps down. Common. It’s easy that way. For me, personally, I figure I will lose some of the inspiration in the time of me writing it down or I’ll say it a certain way because I wrote it a certain way. When I go in there and do it, it’s easier for me.
It must be hard keeping all the ideas in your head. Do you have an iPhone full of recorded ideas?
Yeah, I record on voice memos. I got like 1000 something memos. If I’m in the middle of something and I can’t get it done, I’ll jot it down, but I never write a rap out, ever.
Where did you “Swerve” ad-lib come from? That’s a fan favorite now.
I just feel like that’s what I’m doing. I’m swerving around. Especially in the D-Town with whips everywhere in the city. That’s something my crew was saying a long time ago. I guess it’s something I brought to the forefront to where everybody can hear it. That’s what it’s all about, making new stuff up, making this elevated.
A lot of people criticize me because I be making up my own words sometimes in raps to rhyme, but I don’t understand how you can criticize someone trying to bring originality to the game. I think that’s really bitch-made to hate on somebody who rose up out their city and had a dream and made it happen and made their parents proud and supporting their family off of it too. You can hate, but I’m going to keep making this paper, though.
As a fan, I want Kanye to make music from scratch. I’m missing that like everybody else. Make more beats, Kanye!
When artists get signed by huge talent like Kanye, they sometimes get stuck in that dilemma of always being the little brother. Were you happy that your biggest hit, “A$$,” wasn’t one that Kanye jumped on produced?
Coming up, I used to always want Kanye to be more involved. I can’t even say I did it by myself, because I had people like No I.D. that was there. I had other producers who were really there, too. It’s all about finding your sound and finding your producers, finding someone to produce you and then just take it there yourself artistically. I’m glad that Kanye didn’t have to hold my hand through the entire process and I’m just under him.
I feel like I stand on my own. I go, I shut down stuff myself. I shut down your Summer Jam, whatever shows around the world and it’s tight that I can do that on my own and I think that he respects that even more. It’s a tight thing when you sit back and look at it and to think, a few years ago stuff was looking grim. Not knowing where to go with it. Not too many people believed. So to see how everything turned. It’s a true blessing. I got my plaques on my wall at the crib and I look at them every morning. It’s great.
Was that a conversation that you guys ever had to have where you as an artist were like, “Kanye, for real, I need this help”?
I used to be frustrated with Kanye all the time until I realized that he didn’t sign me for me to be up under him. He signed me for me to be my own artist. I learned that in a way of putting out my own music, putting out my own mixtapes, which I still believe in, which I got plugged.
That’s when I figured I was moving on my own. I had my own movement. Everything I was doing was real. It was authentic. It’s not like I was trying to come up with no gimmick. It was everything I believed in. It was all the music that was real to me, all the stuff I’ve been through. I think that’s the best way to do it. Like I said, he respects it.
Which rapper from G.O.O.D. is killing the raps on Cruel Summer the most?
I’m giving them bars for sure. Pusha is like that beast that you let off the leash and he just tear everything up. CyHi. Common. Of course ‘Ye always bring that fresh, new stuff to the game. The whole fam. True albums should be the soundtrack to your life and fit different moods.
When I was playing [my new album] for Common, he was losing his mind. J. Cole was blown away. It really is elevating, taking it to a different level.
What can we expect from Cruel Summer, topically?
I could tell you the topics we’re going to be hitting on, but I feel like that’s going to be spoiling the album too much. What I’m telling you is it’s going to be the freshest music out there. It’s going to be topics we live to. I can’t wait for y’all to hear it. For real.
What’s the atmosphere like in the studio with all you guys? Pusha T said you all are night owls.
When I’m in the studio, I’m in there from like 3 p.m. until 5 a.m. That’s just how I work. Some people get in there, do their stuff, and get out. I like to get in there and even if I’m not working on music, I like to listen to stuff, vibe, look at TV, in case I catch some inspiration. I know the Cruel Summer sessions—especially the ones in London and the ones in NY and the ones in L.A.—are probably the hardest I’ve ever worked, and probably because I have a point to prove. A lot of the songs we did, I don’t think even made the album.
Those are just extra songs you might hear on my album, maybe G.O.O.D. Fridays. I don’t know what’s going on, but I know I always work hard in the studio. Give it 110 percent. It’s do or die. I was talking to one of my homies I grew up with, Ralph, and he called me. He’s in Tennessee now and has been one of my best friends since I was four year old. He was like, “Yeah man, I’m grinding. I got two jobs. It’s do or die.” He was like, “I’m just calling you remind you, you’re doing well, but remember, it’s do or die.” I’m like, “Man, you’re super right. It’s do or die everyday.”
When you first started with Kanye, your skills were constantly being tested. Can you think of a time when he may have put you on the spot to perform or rap?
It used to be real nerve wracking to have Q-Tip around or Common and Kanye. I remember when we were in Japan and when Kanye first put me under his wing, he called Pharrell, he called the Teriyaki Boyz, and had a whole bunch of people over and was like, “Alright, rap.” It was one of the most nerve wracking things of my life. You don’t get used to it but you step up to the plate and you got to remember why you’re there.
Kanye’s known for constantly critiquing and editing songs. Is it tough for you as a confident artist to take all his suggestions?
I’m a confident artist. I won’t say I’m cocky. After I do a rap, and if it needs to be worked on, I’ll listen to feedback. I’m not the type to be tunnel visioning and not listen or look around to hear what anybody has to say. I always want to make it the best so I’ll take any suggestions, even the people who aren’t even really into music or do music. Sometimes those are the people that have the best opinions. It’s just like random girls or random people. I love valuing other people’s opinions but I do what I want to do when it’s all said and done.
You hit on an interesting point. Kanye has some interesting friends that fall through the studio sometimes. Who are some of the people you’ve bumped into while working with him?
You might see Kobe Bryant. I walked in the studio and saw Kobe Bryant in the corner just chilling. I’ll be like, "Okay.”
What’s your role in the Cruel Summer movie?
I’m a young Denzel, so I could have had the lead role. [Laughs.] But we were just stealing cars, having fun. Cudi was the lead role in this one and he did a great job, too. It’s fun and entertaining. Kanye’s definitely going to be doing a lot more films, I’m sure. I’m glad he’s pushing the society, to making movies to making music to showing what can be done. He’s expanding my imagination. He’s got me talking to producers in Hollywood like, “Man, I’m trying to make movies.” He showed me it was possible and when I go back to the hood in the D, a lot of my old friends, my homies, they’ll be like, “You showed us it was all possible.” That’s the most important part.
What can people expect from your upcoming sophomore album?
Well, we just got the first single. I’m not going to tell you who’s all on it. Dope ass artists on it, though, for sure. It’s great. It’s something that connects. When I was playing it for Common, he was losing his mind. J. Cole was blown away. It really is elevating, taking it to a different level. I don’t even want to hype it up or talk too much like, “Yeah, my album is the shit!” I just can’t wait for everyone to hear what I’ve been doing, what I’ve been cooking up. We’re figuring it all out. I don’t know the title of the album. I know it’s coming out this year.
Is No I.D. playing a big role on this album like he did on your debut?
No I.D. is playing a role but the person who is playing one of the biggest roles is my new producer I signed myself, KeY Wane. He also did the “Amen” track for Meek Mill. He got stuff with ‘Ye coming. He produced my first single that’s about to come out of my album. KeY Wane is definitely an instrumental part. He kind of has like a vintage sound with a new spin on it, so I’m excited to have him on the album. Of course, No I.D. is playing a big ass role in it with his beats, his input.
That’s the main thing I get from No I.D. It’s not always just production, it’s his input a lot of times and that’s a true producer. That’s the difference between a beat-maker and a producer. Young Chop is definitely on the album. Shout out to Young Chop from Chi-Town, bringing that new sound. We’re just young guys with that new sound.
Over the years, Kanye has transitioned from being the producer who does the beat to more so an expert editor. Does anybody ever say we miss Kanye doing beats front to back?
As a fan, I want Kanye to make music from scratch. I’m missing that like everybody else. Make more beats, Kanye! He’s doing what he do, though. He makes beats, though. He’s got a lot of tracks. To the world, it may look like he’s been editing or co-producing a lot, but I feel like everything he does is elevated to another level whether it’s a co-production or whatever. I wish he would make more beats.
You give the best 'hood interview outros. Here’s your chance for another.
It’s Finally Famous over everything. G.O.O.D. Music! Act like you know. Shout out to my city one time. D-Town. West side. 6 Mile. 7 Mile. East side. I rep the D harder than anybody. Every day. Shout out to everybody holding it down. Shout out to everybody living their dreams, getting that paper. Anybody who turns their dreams into gold and everybody finally getting it. Shout out to your girlfriend, too. She’s a great one.