It’s the morning after a St. Louis jury decided not to indict officer Darren Wilson for the killing of an unarmed black man named Michael Brown and it’s beginning to snow in River Rouge, Mich. Sean Michael Leonard Anderson, better known as Big Sean, is in town with his mom to distribute Thanksgiving turkeys and canned goods to more than 1,000 families in need.
The temperature hovers near freezing, but Sean’s dressed appropriately in a black hoodie beneath a green flannel shirt, a fur-lined parka, black Timbs, and a gray ushanka, the traditional Russian headwear that looks as warm as it does diverting. He makes his way inside River Rouge High School to prepare for the giveaway. Before he does that, though, he agrees to surprise the students attending a holiday assembly in the auditorium.
“No one knows I’m here?” Sean asks.
“No one,” says a school administrator. “It’s a complete surprise.”
On his way to the stage Sean stops and asks a friend if he should remove the hat. He’s unsure of how his hair looks and takes it off to show everyone. Low cut into a tight fade with a swooping part, it looks fine. His mom pleads with him to keep it off: “Sean, when kids are in school, they are told to take their hats off!”
He decides to keep it on. As expected, the students in attendance lose their shit when Sean hits the stage. When the feverish crowd calms down, he talks about the importance of giving back and following dreams before ending with:
“I got love for y’all. I care for y’all.”
After 90 minutes or so handing out groceries, shaking hands, and posing for photos, Sean says his goodbyes. He has more stops to make. While in the area for the holidays, he plans to participate in Detroit’s Thanksgiving Day parade and watch the Lions play the Chicago Bears at Ford Field. But first, he wants to swing by Hot 102.7 FM, the radio station where he used to spit on Friday nights as part of a segment where unsigned hype could duke it out for airtime. The station is housed in an unassuming one-story building in midtown Detroit, a few blocks from the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. As he walks in, Sean stops and explains the real reason why this place is so important to him. “This was where I rapped for Kanye,” he says. “Nah, it was right…here,” he corrects himself, taking a few steps farther into the building, trying to remember the exact spot where, in 2005, he convinced Kanye West to listen to a quick 16. ’Ye liked the verse enough to take the young MC’s demo. Two years later, Sean was signed to Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint. Sean says hello to the staff and does a quick on-air interview.
Next stop is Sean’s high school. Cass Technical is one of the premier high schools in the Detroit area. Diana Ross is an alumnus. Thanks to the help of his grandmother and mother, who stressed the importance of him seeing a different side of society, Sean attended good schools for most of his life. When he was younger he was sent to the Detroit Waldorf School, an institution he credits with sparking his interest in art.
“We had to deliver a morning poem every day and a goodbye poem at the end of the day,” Sean recalls while driving through his city. “It taught me to be open-minded and creative.”
The school also taught him how to deal with a mélange of people. His friends from school were exponentially wealthier than his friends from back home. Sean says being able to feel comfortable around people from various backgrounds has helped facilitate some of the success he’s achieved. “It was good to see both aspects,” he says. “I take pride in being able to hop on a song with Eminem and Kanye, or Jay Z, and then being able to hop on a Fall Out Boy song.”
Lunchtime is looming and fatigue is beginning to set in. After inciting a student stampede at Cass Tech, Sean decides it’s time to eat. We head to one of his favorite restaurants, Sweetwater Tavern, a place Sean tells me, “has the best wings ever.” As we wait for the food to arrive, attention turns to the TV on the wall playing CNN. Michael Brown’s parents are holding a press conference to discuss the jury’s decision. Al Sharpton is speaking. The mood turns somber, as Sean and his friends all consider the controversial verdict that’s been looming in the background all day. “This is so sad,” says Sean. “How can cops always get away with this? What can we do?”
“We need to stop Al Sharpton!” says one of his friends. Everyone lets out a much-needed laugh.
Since signing to G.O.O.D. Music, Big Sean, 26, has beat the odds, doing what many thought impossible: he’s become a career artist. Despite his first album, 2011’s Finally Famous selling fewer than 400,000 copies, it boasted three Top 40 hits, including “Marvin & Chardonnay,” with Kanye West, and “Dance (A$$),” featuring Nicki Minaj, which went double platinum and peaked at No. 10 on the charts. He then notched two more platinum plaques for his integral part in both “Mercy” and “Clique,” the two singles from G.O.O.D. Music’s 2012 compilation album, Cruel Summer. For someone critics dismissed as Kanye’s tax write-off, Big Sean has made good on an opportunity many would kill for.
But nothing’s all good, all the time. His sophomore album, Hall of Fame, released in August 2013, failed to match his hit-filled debut. Only one single—the Lil Wayne and Jhené Aiko–assisted “Beware”—broke the top 40, and the album moved a paltry 104,000 copies. What’s more, “Control,” a song featuring Kendrick Lamar and Jay Electronica that was supposed to make it onto Hall of Fame but didn’t due to sample clearance issues, became one of the biggest music stories of 2013—but not because of Big Sean. Kendrick’s verse, in which he called out everyone he considered competition and crowned himself the king of rap, became the stuff of legend. Many wondered why Sean released the song at all. “Sean should have kept it locked in a vault,” said a writer for the website Consequence of Sound.
“Looking back on it, it was a different vibe than my album,” says Sean. “There’s a lot of negativity on that song, and I don’t fuck with negative shit. People love drama, people love bullshit. I knew when Kendrick did that name-dropping that it was just gonna set it off, and I could see why people gravitated towards that verse for that reason. I respected him for thinking of that. I never wanna shade anybody. I would’ve been a ho-ass nigga if I cut that out of his verse, or if I didn’t put the song out.”
If the drama surrounding one of the year’s most talked about songs wasn’t enough, Sean’s personal life began to suffer as well. His high-profile relationship with Glee star Naya Rivera, whom he met through Twitter, began dating in 2013, and got engaged to that October, came to an abrupt end last April. There were rumors that he was unfaithful, but he denies them. According to Sean, the relationship dissolved because the two began arguing more than they did anything else. He won’t comment on whether or not the reports that Naya was overly controlling and jealous are true. He will, however, speak about the rumor, started by Naya via Twitter, that after the break-up, Sean stole one of her Rolexes.
“First of all, why would I have to steal a Rolex?” says Sean. “Second of all, every Rolex that I have, I have receipts for, papers for, certificates of authenticity for. I would never steal a Rolex from anybody. You see that tweet got deleted in like 20 seconds.”
When asked if she exhibited behavior like this before, Sean demurs. "You can come to that conclusion yourself if you just look at the facts," he says before pausing and then letting out a laugh. That's probably why he says he wasn't shocked by it. “I felt like it was unnecessary drama ‘cause in my eyes it wasn’t true. I wasn’t surprised by it,” he says with a another long laugh. “Even though I didn’t steal anything, I wasn’t surprised by it.”
Nearly a year ago, Big Sean bought what is currently his biggest investment: a three-story, five-bedroom house with a three-car garage and a studio on the bottom level in the Hollywood Hills. On the Key Wane–produced “4th Quarter,” one of the four songs Sean dropped, seemingly out of nowhere, on September 12, 2014, he boasted of this accomplishment, “’Cause if you ask me how I’m doing, shit, you can do the math, I just bought a five-bedroom, four-bath....” For once, a rapper isn’t exaggerating. It’s an immaculately kept residence with Bape accoutrements and statues, arcade games, large Kaws paintings, and a spacious kitchen Sean uses to cook health food.
Of all the rooms in the house, however, Sean spends the most time in the studio. It’s a cozy space with an enormous bean bag and a chair that looks big enough to comfortably seat Shaquille O’Neal. It’s where he’s been crafting his new album, Dark Sky Paradise. Sean feels his third album, about his recent highs and lows, is his most personal yet, but admits that he’s still trying to find his sound. “I feel like there is a sound,” he says. “Key Wane is instrumental to that. You know, those songs like ‘Higher’ off the Detroit mixtape, or ‘Nothing Is Stopping You’ or ‘4th Quarter.’” If all goes according to plan, after he does find that sound, he’ll start his own label. He’s already signed Key Wane to his publishing company, Sean Michael Anderson Music, and is currently scoping new talent. “Seeing how you can help people by being around and inspiring, I wanna do that,” he says. “I’m actively looking for artists and people I believe in and giving them opportunity.” Today, Metro Boomin, the producer out of ATL who blessed Future with “Karate Chop,” Travi$ Scott with “Mamacita,” and YG with “1 AM,” is scheduled to come by. Not to sign to his company, but to record tracks.
Though most of Dark Sky Paradise was recorded here, at his crib, Sean’s biggest recent hit, “IDFWU,” was made elsewhere. Produced by DJ Mustard and Kanye, and featuring a verse by E-40, the song, on the surface, reads like the corrosive letter of a scorned lover. Sean says that’s not the case. Sort of.
While sitting at the studio’s console, he explains that the song was made while he was still in a relationship with the woman most people assume the song is about: Rivera. Sean says it happened like this: DJ Mustard was playing a bunch of beats at his studio and they came across the production that became “IDFWU.” As soon as it began to play, the memorable chorus popped into Sean’s head. He laid out a skeleton of the song with mumbles in place of the verses, sent it off to E-40, and played it for Kanye, who added the D.J. Rogers “Say You Love Me, One More Time” sample heard at the beginning and end. The song was nearly complete, but Sean wasn’t satisfied with his verses. Despite stressing that the song was not about his ex, he later admits that he "wrote the last verse and [the line] 'and everyday I wake up celebrating shit, why? ‘Cause I just dodged a bullet from a crazy bitch,'” about the breakup with Rivera, before reiterating that the song “did not come from a bitter place at all.”
And that’s all he wants to say about his past relationship, out of respect for his current situation. Sean’s got a “new chick that [he’s] gotta thank God for” and her name is Ariana Grande, the 21-year-old former Nickelodeon-star-turned-pop-music-superstar who has released two consecutive No. 1 albums, five top 10 singles, and has performed everywhere from the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show to Saturday Night Live. They first met at Jingle Ball in 2011 and struck up a conversation. Grande told him that she was a fan of his music. He asked her which song of his she liked the most, and she said “Gang Bang,” his collaboration with Wiz Khalifa. It may seem like an odd pairing, but Sean says Ariana is his best friend. Their relationship was confirmed when the couple was seen walking hand-in-hand backstage at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards.
“We started as friends,” he says. “I’d never done that. Usually you meet a girl and then start dating. We always saw each other in the studio, and we’d talk about songs we were working on. It was cool to have a girl that I could talk to about my problems. I did that with her. It’s not some fake-ass, inauthentic shit when I say we were friends. This is something special and I appreciate every moment of it.” But what about the pressures that come from dating another celebrity? Finding time to see each other? Having your love life in the news? “I don’t think about it like that,” Sean says. “You can’t be afraid, because when you’re afraid you don’t give it your all.”
Another relationship Sean entered into last year was with his new management company, Roc Nation. (He remains on the G.O.O.D. Music label.) Home to Rihanna, Kanye West, and Calvin Harris, Roc Nation fulfilled Sean’s desire to be repped by people who “are hungry and business minded, and have the relationships to make things happen that I wanted to happen.”
“I wanted more campaigns, more endorsements, more commercials, more respect from my management,” he says. “Since I’ve been with [Roc Nation], my career and my business have been on the upswing.”
“Not only is Sean an amazing performer and gifted lyricist, he’s also a savvy businessman who is aware of exactly what direction he would like to take his career and brand-building,” says Roc Nation co-founder Jay Brown. “Combine that focus with a love for the fans and artistry, you get a rare and unique individual.”
The alliance makes sense for someone like Sean, who, though he won’t openly admit it, is a writer for himself and others. This is the guy who, in 2009, fathered the “hashtag flow” that took over rap. He’s also the guy who’s been responsible for a number of hit songs for his G.O.O.D. Music family and even those considered his competition. Drake’s “All Me,” which appeared on his 2013 album Nothing Was the Same and reached No. 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100, features a Key Wane beat Sean graciously ceded to him. “Clique” was originally Sean’s track but he gave it up to the crew. The chorus to “Sanctified,” the best track from Rick Ross’ Mastermind album? Also Sean.
“I’ve played the big guy and the little guy before, and I put my ego aside,” he says. “I believe in karma, in giving and never being stingy. I believe in spreading love and being positive.” He’s talking reflectively about his career, but you get the sense he’s also talking about his life.
Big Sean’s bedroom is big, but not ridiculously so. There’s more than enough room for, among other things, his king-sized bed, two closets full of clothes from all the designers rappers love to name-drop, and a long dresser with a small TV showing a feed from all of the house’s security cameras. Look out the room’s large windows and off in the distance you can see the apartment Sean first lived in when he moved to L.A. You can also see, much more clearly, the Sheraton hotel he had to stay in when he was low on funds while recording his first album.
“You can’t be afraid because when you’re afraid you don’t give it your all.”
It’s a beautiful autumn day, but a familiar sadness hangs in the air: Another police officer has walked away without an indictment for killing an unarmed black man, this time in the Eric Garner case on New York’s Staten Island. The tragedy isn’t lost on Sean. “It don’t even surprise me,” he says. “It’s sad. It is a racial thing, but the fact that the law can get away with this is sad. That you can kill somebody on camera. It’s been happening. It’s so wrong, on an ethics level, on a racial level, on so many levels. It brought my spirits down yesterday when I heard about Eric Garner. I didn’t even tweet about it. I didn’t do anything. I couldn’t.”
Despite claims to the contrary, 2014 was a year in which a number of rappers used their platforms to speak on the various injustices happening around the country. Kendrick released his ode to self love, “i.” J. Cole released a sorrowful one-off called “Be Free,” and he performed a heart-wrenching rendition of it on Letterman. Big Sean spoke briefly on the events taking place in Ferguson on “4th Quarter.” Over a haunting gospel sample, Sean gives the audience a 360-degree panoramic view of his world. Police brutality looms large in your life if you’re a black male living in the United States, no matter how big a house you can afford.
In the middle of recordin’ we got caught up in the news
About what happened in St. Louis
We Midwest kids that shit coulda happened to us
I looked up the flight tonight
Then I realized man I got a grandma now that’s half alive
And honestly what happened in St. Louis
probably happened in Detroit like twenty times
I hope we finally see the signs
That part of the last verse was culled directly from Sean’s life. While the G.O.O.D Music crew was making music in Mexico, a news report on the murder of Michael Brown came on the television. Work immediately came to a halt as Kanye, Pusha T, CyHi, Mike Dean, Plain Pat, and Ibn Jasper stopped to take in the news. “We couldn’t believe it,” says Sean. “’Ye was like, ‘Man, this is insane.’” After attempting to process the situation, Sean stepped away to call his mom. “She told me, ‘You need to show that you care, but your grandma isn’t doing good, you need to be here.’ I’ve been getting better at capturing those moments and putting them in my music.”
He’s gotten better at infusing his music with not just slivers, but full slabs of his real life; he’s become a better all-around artist, too. His song craft improves each year. His raps, as evidenced by the various show-stealing guest verses he dropped in 2014, as well as his own tracks, show that his best days may lie ahead. And considering the year he’s had—a failed engagement, an underperforming album, loss of his management team, and a grandmother whose health is failing, those sunny days are well-deserved. “That title—Dark Sky Paradise—fits it so perfect for me,” Sean says as the day wraps up. “There were a lot of thunderstorms in my life. A lot of rumbling, a lot of lightning. Then sunshine came.”