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How Big Sean became rap's most emotional bard

Trey Alston

 // Jan 7, 2019

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.


Punchline rap just doesn't hit like it used to. The days of Cassidy's flashy lines and the spectacle of Lil Wayne's freestyle bars are long gone. At most, eyes roll when a hard-hitting money metaphor is the centerpiece of a verse. The mid to late 2000s were the last years that the style really captivated the pre-streaming masses. Now, emotional bars hold prevalence. Save for Blueface who's making a name for himself with offbeat flows that happen to include some unusually hilarious rhymes, rap has shifted to making what's going on inside the brain its fascination. There's the usual tales of struggle, lust, and success that have been given new meaning by going deeper than ever before inside the mind of the spitter. We're learning the coping mechanisms and the perpetual struggle that comes with making it at the next level. Guys like Lil Uzi Vert and Juice WRLD would be spit on in the hip hop culture of yesteryear. But, to this generation, they are bards telling large emotional tales.

Big Sean is the modern face of punchline rap. There are those who equate punchlines with corniness, and, yes, Big Sean can be corny -- in a purposeful, tongue-in-cheek way. The attempt to write him off as just punchlines is petty because, if anything, he's shown to be much more capable of explaining his emotions realistically than not only artists of his generation, but the new wave who've have made this style a mainstay. Sean's December 2018 announcement of new music sent a collective eye-roll through much of social media because of his last release, Double or Nothing with Metro Boomin. But, if one takes just a glimpse at the themes that run through Big Sean's expansive catalogue, the growth lives beneath the obvious punchlines. There's real honest, vulnerable, and emotional weight to his work that stretches back to his debut. But, that's not the story that has been sought to tell. It's the one where he's just spitting stinkers.

The story starts with the 2010 release Finally Famous Vol. 3. It was the third installment of his early career-defining series Finally Famous, a celebration of making it to that next level after rapping to Kanye West (who later signed him) at a radio station. The mixtape's sound was diverse, but the subject matter was shockingly thin. Something along the lines of Big Sean's future being predestined for success and how much he got around through nearly all of its twenty songs, but glimpses of deeper meaning, lurked near the end in the form of songs "Almost Wrote You a Love Song" and "Memories." The former attempted to make sense of infidelity by explaining the thought process of men who are tempted with flesh on a daily basis have to deal with and then, have the rebuttal of the spouse destroy this flawed manner of thinking. It's an intense listen that can draw the listener to tears when Sean's female counterpart (also voiced by Sean) begins talking over the rapper as he attempts to further explain himself. "Memories" digs deep into the recesses of Big Sean's consciousness to explore the darker side of being finally famous: The loneliness and how stored memories of life's simplicity can make success a depressing affair. The song would later be remade and expanded for his debut studio album Finally Famous in 2011. Both "Almost Wrote You A Love Song" and "Memories" were uncharacteristically Big Sean because the rapper was concerned with exploring the psyche instead of wordplay.

Big Sean struck gold with "My Last," the smooth party collaboration with Chris Brown in 2011. His debut album Finally Famous came out that year and received mix reviews. The general consensus was that it wasn't that adventurous, felt formulated to hit every corner of popular rap tropes to a tee, and that there just wasn't that much under the hood. Similar to Finally Famous Vol. 3, Sean jammed the serious stuff at the end. "Live This Life" and "So Much More" did some heavy lifting to offset the weightlessness of "Wait for Me," Dance (Ass)," and "Marvin & Chardonnay." It only sold 87,000 copies in its first week. But, it established Big Sean as one of the more technically capable rappers in the industry. His punchlines were corny. But, they were fresh in the age when artists weren't using them right.

Big Sean knew that was his shtick, so he stuck with it. Hall of Fame came two years later and was a gargantuan step forward for his emotional side. He had a few years to get accustomed to the fame that he rapped about on his earlier projects. Sean seemed detached from the happy-go-lucky aesthetic he cultivated earlier, as he tried to convince the world that he was far better off than he actually was. The rapper had more money than ever. But, mentally, he just wasn't there all the way. "Guap" was an attempt at remaking that carelessness that existed previously. But, it ultimately fell short, peaking at No. 21 on the US Billboard Hot 100. It was stuffed with the kind of silly punchlines that were his calling card. But "Beware," the album's third single after the misfire of "Switch Up," proved to be a welcome change of pace. For the first time, the introspection was out in the forefront to be the project's main attraction. Sean proved himself to be fascinated with the workings of women's hearts with the track's warning to avoid wronging them. The personal track was something that felt out of his comfort zone and later proved to be a running theme with the album. The LP opens with "Nothing is Stopping You," an inspirational track designed to make listeners relate to his struggle. Then, it goes into "Fire," an equally galvanic tune. Third comes "10 2 10," which goes in-depth about Sean's work ethic and what it takes to maintain such a high level of input. Over the course of the album, the punchlines crop up like dandruff. But, underneath them lies quick emotional jabs that show a man much more vulnerable than ever.

Two years between projects became a thing for Big Sean. Dark Sky Paradise came out in 2015 and immediately captivated critics with its more emotional lyricism. The slow transition over the course of two albums -- from punchlines to emotional revelations as cannon fodder -- had finally been completed. This time, the lead singles were all about emotions: "Blessings" concerned itself with pious obsession; "I Don't Fuck with You," a song about the anger that exists within love, and "Play No Games," a tale about love throughout. Being only 12 tracks, there wasn't much room for meaningless shrivel. The same goes for the similarly light (14 tracks) album I Decided that he released in 2017. Much darker topics exist on the LP such as suicide ("Halfway Off the Balcony"), despair ("Sacrifices"), and dimming hope ("Light"). Sean covered them all with a similar level of energy that he used when coming up with previous metaphors that stung. When looking at the LP in comparison with his debut six years before, the emotional evolution is immediately apparent. Punchlines will never not be a part of Big Sean's whole ordeal. But, they're no longer a mainstay, and haven't been since his debut.

When Big Sean released Double or Nothing with Metro Boomin shortly after I Decided came out, he was banking on the producer's elite status to allow him a freebie. After years of becoming a more emotional bard, Sean was anxious to let loose his pent-up corniness. The project was loaded front to back with the kind of cringe-worthy lines. For example, Sean rapped: "I had a dream I rode with Rosa Parks in back of the 'Bach/And we was blowing a blunt and she was packing a strap/Like damn, it do feel good to be black in the back." These lines seemingly reinforced the idea that Big Sean was all flash and no substance. But, even though the project was a creative misfire that captured the rapper in his worst light, it shouldn't be all that he's judged for. It's as memorable as Finally Famous because it's much more than its punchline triteness. Not every project can be obsessed with emotion. Sometimes, it's enough to just rap... like in the old days where punchlines ruled supreme.

New Big Sean music should be approached with an understandable amount of caution. But, if history is anything to go by, it'll probably be much more emotionally centric than expected. If the trend continues, he will further submerge his art in introspective waters to the point of drowning it, instead of going deeper and deeper with each outing. From going in-depth about the death of his grandmother and the psychological impact it had on him to exploring the anger he feels after high profile breakups to attempting to make sense of the emotions of women after dealing with problematic men, Big Sean has worked harder over the course of each album to become a more vulnerable artist than he was yesterday. It's a process, so there's no reason to believe that it won't continue. Double or Nothing was a relief cigarette for someone three months clean. Now, Big Sean's back to the heavy lifting, and it looks like the next outing will be his most honest yet. Even if it does include a surplus of cringe-worthy lines, the growth will be apparent. It always has.


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