In 2004, I was invited to my first music industry event: a listening session for Kanye West’s second album, Late Registration. I drove to the Universal Music office in Troy, Michigan, and sat a few seats from the head of a long table in a listening room, a few feet away from where Kanye would play the album for a room of journalists, DJs, radio personalities, and label employees. After wowing the audience with songs like “We Major” and “Roses,” Kanye held a Q&A session with attendees. A voice from near the back of the room asked him if he was signing any new artists to G.O.O.D. Music, and Kanye took time to explain the situation.
“Earlier today, I was at the radio station, and this kid rapped for me,” he said. “I thought it was really brave to do, and he was actually really good.” Kanye explained that he wasn’t looking to sign any new acts, but he wanted to keep in touch because he may be able to lend him some production in the future. Of course, he would end up doing much more than that. The Detroit artist who had rapped and asked the question was Big Sean, and years later, he did indeed sign that deal with G.O.O.D. Music.
Detroit is known for having some of the most talented lyricists in the world, but it’s not a self-sustaining, star-turning ecosystem in the way that Atlanta, Los Angeles, or even New York City is. Usually, when it comes to becoming a rap star from Detroit, you have to get discovered by an established artist from somewhere else, or move away from the city and return once you’ve made it. Eminem was discovered by Dr. Dre; Danny Brown flirted with deals with Roc-A-Fella and G-Unit before taking an indie alternative route with DJ A-Trak’s Fool’s Gold Records; Doughboyz Cashout was signed by Young Jeezy, who had personal inroads to Detroit. Big Sean continued that tradition, signing with Kanye West before he had established a name for himself outside of Detroit, and tirelessly grinding through mixtapes before landing a release date for his 2011 debut album, Finally Famous.
Detroit 2 is Big Sean’s most definitive ode to his home yet, and fittingly his most inspiring record in years.
But besides that, Big Sean didn’t strike me as a distinctly Detroit artist early on. The city’s rap community is split into various factions, and Sean wasn’t a member of any of those crews, nor did he emulate their respective sounds. He wasn’t a part of the musical lineage from production luminary J Dilla, which included the likes of Slum Village, Black Milk, Guilty Simpson, and Elzhi. He didn’t have the street pedigree of acts like Eastside Chedda Boyz, Street Lordz, or Doughboyz Cashout. And of course, he wasn’t from the Shady Records tree, which produced Eminem, Royce Da 5’9”, and D12. Sean wasn’t telling many Detroit-specific stories early in his career in the way that Danny Brown did on XXX highlights “Scrap Or Die” and “Fields,” or the loosie “Cartiers.” He was always proud of his hometown, and he would display it most through his fashion choices (a signature Detroit Tigers cap or Cartier glasses on 106 & Park). He also made investments in the city through his Sean Anderson Foundation with his mother, which installed a recording studio at his alma mater high school as well as countless other community projects and initiatives. Plus, he would put on big concerts in Detroit where he’d deliver elaborate, heartfelt performances while bringing the stars he had collaborated with—Nicki Minaj, Drake, Lil Wayne—for surprise appearances to give his city a treat that no other artist at the time could offer. But musically, Sean didn’t seem to be telling unique Detroit stories or have a distinctly Detroit sound. And that was perfectly okay. We didn’t get very many rappers from Detroit (or from Michigan, for that matter) who hit it big, so for him to do so and give back to the city, still made plenty of his hometown fans proud of him all the same.
As the years progressed, though, that slowly changed. His seminal 2012 mixtape Detroit repped the crib by name, and had stars Common, Snoop Dogg, and Jeezy share their personal stories about their relationships with the city. Through his long-term musical relationship with Key Wane, who had been producing for him as early as 2011, he established a sound that young Detroit rappers began to emulate. He appeared on the anthem “Detroit vs. Everybody” with fellow hometown heavyweights Eminem, Royce, Danny Brown, and Dej Loaf, and delivered the best verse on the song. And “Platinum and Wood,” a bonus track from his opus Dark Sky Paradise, sampled the Street Lordz’s “Come Roll With A Nigga.” But musically, none of those hold a candle to Detroit 2, his most definitive ode to his home yet, and fittingly his most inspiring record in years.
While Detroit had skits, namedrops, and a few cameos from hometown rappers, it didn’t feel like a full Detroit-centric experience as much as a very good Big Sean project. Sean is much more intentional with bringing the city to life this time around. One of the album’s best cuts is “Body Language,” a seductive number with Jhene Aiko and Ty Dolla $ign that samples Dale 1’s “Soulful Moaning,” a mid-90s slow jam that’s been on R&B radio for decades and known as a staple at high school dances (at least when Sean was in school). “The Baddest” samples the “Godzilla” remix by DJ Godfather, a Detroit jitting anthem that has been around for what feels like forever. The Detroit feeling comes from more than just the fact Big Sean sampled songs from the city, though. After all, he sampled the Street Lordz’s “Come Roll With A Nigga” for “Platinum and Wood” from Dark Sky Paradise. But “Platinum and Wood” was only on bonus editions of Dark Sky, essentially making the song an afterthought. On Detroit 2, these songs are placed prominently on the album (at least as prominently as can be expected with such a long tracklist), and both samples are used as part of his experience with Detroit’s modern music history. Skits by Dave Chappelle and Erykah Badu only strengthen the narrative: Chappelle speaks about his experience bombing a concert in Detroit after smoking with Danny Brown and getting a pep talk from Big Sean’s father, and Badu shares a poetic ode to the Detroit musicians she has collaborated or become friends with.
The main Detroit attraction is “Friday Night Cypher,” a ten-minute long track that features nearly a dozen other rappers from the D. The song is ambitious, with many beat changes and rappers to fit in, but it still has standout verses from Royce, Em, Kash Doll, Payroll, and more, putting them over sounds we aren’t always used to hearing them over. More than its execution, though, the existence of “Friday Night Cypher” itself is an achievement: besides Eminem and Royce, most of the song’s guests emerged after Sean started his career, and they have found varying levels of success, with multiple styles, and varying career paths. Sean is a new Detroit OG to this generation, and that so many rappers have prospered after him may be one of his greatest musical accomplishments. Detroit rappers always plan to rep the city once they get on, and many of them do; but who else has attracted the best from Detroit on a major label album that has appearances by Travis Scott, Diddy, and Post Malone?
In the years leading up to the release of Detroit 2, Big Sean has spoken frequently about his journey to getting a hold of his mental health. And on this album, he shares personal trials about a miscarriage with his girlfriend and suicidal thoughts on the Nipsey Hussle-assisted “Deep Reverence,” but “Everything That’s Missing” offers additional perspective. He enlists Detroit soul man (and longtime Kanye collaborator) Dwele for background vocals as he revisits the early days of his career, questioning why he feels so empty despite finding the success he worked so hard for. He eventually realizes that despite achieving riches and women, he misses the joys he had before. This journey home—or one’s idea of home—for self-discovery has been taken by other new age rap greats, as well. “Momma,” from To Pimp A Butterfly, has Kendrick reflecting after going to the motherland of Africa, repeating “until I came home” after each lesson throughout the song. J. Cole revisited his childhood home for 2014 Forest Hills Drive, and created the song “Love Yourz,” in which he peacefully settles in after realizing so many of life’s artificial trappings didn't measure up to what truly matters.
Sometimes a trip home to recenter yourself is just what you need.