It's a month-and-a-half before Big Sean is releasing his sophomore album, Hall of Fame, and the Detroit rapper is in the mood to talk. So much so, the conversation we have with him over the phone lasts over an hour-and-a-half. For Sean, it always seems like the pressure's on. His debut album in 2011 silenced critics, and in 2012 Sean stayed relevant through above-par guest appearances on G.O.O.D Music camp-cuts like "Mercy," and "Clique," and one of 2012's best mixtapes Detroit.
Now, once again, it's time for Sean to show and prove with Hall of Fame, which drops on August 27. The album proves to be Sean's most personal to date, and features everyone from Miguel, Nas, Nicki Minaj, Juicy J, and Kid Cudi. During the conversation with Complex, Sean speaks on the relationship with his new girlfriend, Naya Rivera, as well as tackling the issue of depression and the lack of self-confidence, all topics that fueled the material on the forthcoming HOF album. Oh, and about that "Control" song you may have heard about, it's probably the one thing Sean was tight-lipped about.
Interview by Joe La Puma (@JLaPuma)
What can we expect from Hall of Fame that you haven’t explored in the past?
I think a lot of my fans are anxious for more than just my singles. They know I’m a dreamer. They know I’m someone who is real spiritual. I love to have fun and I always have fun songs—songs you can party to. But I also always have songs you can live to, that when you’re depressed it may lift your spirits up.
This time I wanted to make more of that music the forefront of the album. I wanted to inspire more than anything. I wanted to be looked back on and be remembered for something great, for being a role-model. Of course, you still have a lot of fun Big Sean songs that people are used to, as far as partying and things like that. The number one thing I wanted to get across is you've got to be remembered. Set yourself apart no matter what.
“Beware” is a heartfelt song—it's something that is definitely a story, something that I cultivated from personal stories, some from just other stories in just wanting to make a good song.
"Beware" has you singing a lot, will there be more songs like this on Hall of Fame?
I usually sing a lot on my mixtapes. I sing a lot on songs that just really aren’t singles. Even my first single, “My Last," which I feel like is more pop than anything—I was originally singing the chorus on there. I’m used to that. I’ve always had fresh melodies. And people would definitely see a more melodic side of me on the album, especially on the choruses. I feel like “Beware” is a heartfelt song—it's something that is definitely a story, something that I cultivated from personal stories, some from just other stories in just wanting to make a good song.
Jhene Aiko added to the song. She’s definitely an artist I respect heavily. I can’t wait to see what she does. Originally it was just supposed to be me and her. I was just playing my album for Lil Wayne and he heard the song and was like, “Man, you gotta let me get on it.” I honestly wasn’t going to let him get on it until I heard his verse and I just thought his verse added something that wasn’t already there. That was kind of the process for a lot of the songs on Hall of Fame. There were a lot of good features I had that I took off at the last minute, just solely because they didn’t add anything. If you don’t anything to it, then there’s no point in having a feature.
There were a lot of good features I had on Hall of Fame that I took off at the last minute, just solely because they didn’t add anything. If you don’t anything to it, then there’s no point in having a feature.
You said "Beware" was based off a lot of your own experiences. Is this album more personal?
Yeah, I definitely wanted a personal album, something that tells a story. But I wanted it to be relatable to other people as well. So even though it’s telling my story, I think people will find things to latch onto that will help inspire them, or relate to them, or help them get along with life. I felt like the personal touch didn’t show through all the way on my first album like I wanted to. That was just because I was finding myself as an artist. I wasn’t necessarily all the way comfortable with myself as an artist. I was just getting used to it with a lot of new things. After the first album, and after I did my Detroit mixtape and Cruel Summer, that’s when I really started to be comfortable with my own artistry.
Where was the shift for that? When did you become comfortable in a room with Jay-Z or with Lil Wayne?
After my first album. There was a lot of people telling me, “Man, your album was good.” People were reaching out. Wayne reached out to me to work. Drake and a lot of people that were just already my homies. I just always remember thinking to myself, “Man, I could have done so much better.” It’s hard when you’re in the middle of it, and my mindset was "I could do better than this and I want to show people how much better I can do."
After Finally Famous, I started working on Detroit and Cruel Summer. I got my confidence up. I don’t know, one day it just switched. I remember on the Cruel Summer sessions, Kanye and everybody was just like, “Man, Big Sean is on fire. He’s just like lacing all these songs.” It was “Clique”, it was “Mercy”, it was the whole album and every feature. I feel like it really switched and you were just rapping with confidence. Nobody in 2012 could say shit about “Is this guy going to... He’s on the cusp.” There was a time where it was “He signed to G.O.O.D. Music. You are a legit star now."
Everybody who is a dreamer, everybody who is on the come-up can relate to being frustrated or feeling like you’re in a box.
You talked about tough situations. Do you address those on the album?
There were things not working out, and that lead to being frustrated and depressed. I definitely cover a lot of that, which I think all of us can relate to. Everybody who is a dreamer, everybody who is on the come-up can relate to being frustrated or feeling like you’re in a box. On top of that, I went through a crazy relationship with my last girlfriend. I talk about her mom getting cancer. I talk about a lot of ailments going on. There’s a song on my album called “World of Blaze.” The title kind of sums it up for people who are going through a lot. With me and the people around me just experiencing death, and experiencing depression, and just feeling like your world is on fire is what “World of Blaze” is all about. That’s probably my favorite song on the album.
You chose to go public about your relationship with Naya Rivera. When did you feel like it was the right time to do that?
We didn’t really talk about what’s the right time, wrong time, or going public. I really liked her and she really liked me, and we were dating. We didn’t want to date anybody else. We would go to concerts. It was that 42 premiere where we went public, but I just kind of feel like we both wanted to just go see the movie and we were like, “Alright, let’s go see it.” We didn’t think about what it was going to be like or anything. We just knew that we were happy.
We didn’t really talk about what’s the right time, wrong time, or going public. I really liked her and she really liked me, and we were dating. We didn’t want to date anybody else.
Does being in love produce better material for you?
Yeah, for sure. I’ve been rapping better than ever. And it’s crazy because I just wrapped up my Hall of Fame album and I’m already working on the next one. The songs I’ve been doing after I’ve been with her have been awesome. It’s just great work. You’re in good spirits when you create and produce great music. All situations inspire music in different ways, man, from good situations, bad situations, depression, falling in love, falling out of love. I’ve been going through all those type of things.
When was the depression?
The depression was more so before my first album. It was something that I never addressed. Even though things were going good, I just never was satisfied. I should have platinum records, gold records, millions. It just wasn’t like all there for me. And I couldn’t explain why. Before my first album, I would lose faith in myself and confidence. As cliche as it sounds, my mom would give me different books to read and lift my spirits up. She was the one who would always change my mindset and reset it to where it was supposed to be. Even though I didn’t address it too much on my first album, I went back on it on my second album, and it felt so good therapeutic.
Even though I wasn’t depressed like that, even though I was getting past that time in my life, it felt so good to talk about. It literally brought me to tears, brought my mom to tears. When I played the album to my Dad and family, we were all up in the studio crying because I was rapping about the times that they knew were tough for me and that they went through; when they spent all their money into my dream, putting all they had, all they believed in me. To see it get to the point where it is now—i’m buying them houses and cars. It’s a really emotional thing to say that transform right in front of your eyes.
When I played the album to my Dad and family, we were all up in the studio crying because I was rapping about the times that they knew were tough for me and that they went through; when they spent all their money into my dream, putting all they had, all they believed in me.
I noticed you brought your mom to Africa. She was your date to meet President Obama, too. It’s safe to say that you’re a bit of a momma’s boy.
I’m definitely a momma’s boy. I’m not ashamed of it because she was the one who was always there for me. She believed in me. She was encouraging me when I was 12 years old to go to the studio and do this rap thing. She one of the only people who had my back when I graduated and didn’t go to college, even though I had a full ride to Michigan State. Her and my brother were the only (family) members who supported that. She took a lot of slack from my grandparents, the whole family in general like, “Are you crazy? You’re not going to let him go to school?” She would be like, “He has to figure this out for himself.” She’s the one who always saw it and believed. I don’t care. People can say whatever. I’m definitely a momma’s boy. I’ll take care of her before I take care of myself.
It’s been a big year in music with Kanye, J. Cole, Wale, and Jay-Z. Which one of those albums is getting the most spins from you?
Kanye is definitely getting a lot of spins because it was one of the first Kanye albums that I wasn’t so involved with the making of it. I heard Yeezus towards the end and got involved then. I’m just proud of it and proud of what it’s doing. It’s innovative. It’s something that probably a lot of people won’t get, and don’t get. He really stays creative. He reinvents himself every single time. That’s definitely one getting a lot of play.
Kanye knows what he likes and what he doesn’t like. I think G.O.O.D. Music is the best and we’re just growing.
How much input on Hall of Fame has Kanye had?
He definitely gives his input and tips, man. I try and listen as much I can. We disagree on a lot of things. Sometimes I’ll take his lead on certain advice and sometimes I learn that he’s not a perfect person. Sometimes I gotta follow my own heart and my own fate, you know what I’m saying? I take his advice and he’s definitely been very involved as far as he’s been hearing it from the beginning to the middle through the end. As far as timelines and me working on it, he always wants to hear the music and tell me what songs he think should go, and what songs shouldn’t, and what songs should be singles.
I know it was a while ago, but what was it like to be ranked above him on the MTV list?
It was an honor to be on any list. But that was just really opinionated. If I’m not mistaken, it’s not even by the people. I think it was like eight or nine people at MTV. It’s an honor. But, also, I understand it’s opinionated. Even though I’m above Kanye, I don’t think people should take it so serious. It just all depends on who’s in that room who decides. It’s not like the whole world was on that panel. It’s crazy, though, just to see my name on MTV above his, but, like I said, that’s just a list. I put out a lot more music than Kanye that year, too, so maybe that had something to do with it.
The last big show I did in Detroit was at a big arena and Danny Brown was there, Royce was there, a lot of Detroit people were there, all the Burn Rubber guys, Eminem’s people. We made sure to make the tickets affordable for everybody. When the city comes together, it’s beautiful.
Do you still think G.O.O.D. is the best label in the game?
Yeah or else I wouldn’t be a part of it. I think G.O.O.D. Music is stronger than ever. Especially after Cruel Summer, we showed we could come together and make the best collaboration album. Kanye knows what he likes and what he doesn’t like. I think we’re the best and we’re just growing.
How proud are you of the Detroit movement? You’ve been a big part factor of that, but even people like Danny Brown are coming up.
I’m definitely proud seeing that and I want to help introduce that movement even more and help move it along, help evolve it. It’s a lot people in Detroit that still don’t have a lot of light shone on them. But I am proud of the progression. It’s a lot of great artist. Like you said, people like Danny Brown and other artists are getting shine from Detroit. It’s just beautiful to see. It’s great to see the city come together for like events. There’s not too much that goes on in Detroit. It’s a very depressing place. The economy is very depressed there. The last big show I did in Detroit was at a big arena and Danny Brown was there, Royce was there, a lot of Detroit people were there, all the Burn Rubber guys, Eminem’s people. We made sure to make the tickets affordable for everybody. When the city comes together, it’s beautiful.
Speaking of Detroit, you and Eminem worked together. How crazy is it to still see Eminem live in Detroit?
It’s just incredible to see. Like I said, it’s just mind-blowing. He’s like a ghost. When I met him, it was like seeing a ghost. I was like, “Goddamn.” I just remember buying his first album. I think I bought it form like Costco or something way back when I was a little boy. I remember when my mom was like, “Who’s Eminem?” It’s just crazy to idolize somebody like that and then to be in the studio working with him, playing him my album, and him giving me the feedback he gave me: saying how surprised he was and just how good of a body of work my new album is.
Kanye will tell anybody to rewrite their verse, not just me. He’ll tell Jay-Z. He’ll tell Rick Ross. He’ll tell Nicki Minaj. I’ve seen it.
What’s the biggest difference between Eminem and Kanye in the studio?
Kanye has such high standards. Not saying that everybody else doesn’t. Not saying that Jay-Z, or Eminem, or anybody doesn’t. What I’m saying is he’s such a tastemaker. And he’s so particular. He knows exactly what he wants. He’ll tell anybody to rewrite their verse, not just me. He’ll tell Jay-Z. He’ll tell Rick Ross. He’ll tell Nicki Minaj. I’ve seen it.
I’ve seen these people in the studio rewriting verses and it’s just crazy. I think that’s just the difference. When I’m in the studio with other people, I don’t make people rewrite their verses or anything like that. And that’s not bad or good, it’s just the difference. You gotta respect Kanye for that, for sure.
You gave Justin Bieber a pinky ring and it made the news Have you talked to him and given him advice since it seems he's been having a tougher time, lately?
I’ve really been thinking about it a lot lately. I talk to him a lot. I probably talked to him a month ago and I respect Bieber just for the sense of being a kid—I don’t think people understand how hard it is to be young and so successful, so in control, and in demand. He does a lot of wild things, but I haven’t talked to him recently since all this stuff has gone on. I’ve definitely thought about hitting him up. I probably will get around to it. He’s my homie, man. He’s just a kid out here living it up.
Finally, can we put to rest the Cruel Winter thing?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I can’t even speak on it. I know Hall of Fame is coming out, though. That’s for sure.