Big Sean has a favorite origin story about his hip-hop career. In 2005 a friend called him to tell him that Kanye West was doing an interview to promote his second album, Late Registration, at WHTD 102.7 FM in Detroit. Born Sean Michael Anderson and raised in the Motor City, Big Sean was still in high school at the time, and when he got the call he was waiting in line at a bank to cash a $120 check he’d earned with a part-time gig as a telemarketer. He was already an aspiring MC, though, and he bluffed his way into the building by claiming he’d left his phone there the night before while competing in an on-air rap battle. Once inside, he persuaded West to listen to him rap and left a demo CD as a calling card.
West clearly liked what he heard, and two years later he offered Big Sean a recording contract with his GOOD Music label. Sean set about building up hype with three free mix tapes—Finally Famous: The Mixtape (2007), UKnowBigSean (2009), and Finally Famous Vol 3: Big (2010)—which showcased his impressive self-confidence and his ability to tailor his raps to a wide variety of production styles. On the strength of those mix tapes, Big Sean was awarded a place on the cover of XXL magazine’s 2010 “ten freshmen” issue, an annual roundup of the most promising young talents in hip-hop. Big Sean’s debut album, Finally Famous, was originally scheduled for a September 2010 release, and after nine months of delays—pretty much par for the course for up-and-coming rappers on major labels—it came out last month on GOOD Music/Def Jam.
At a June 7 listening session in New York, West announced, “What Beyonce is to R&B, Big Sean can be to rap.” At first blush it sounds like just another example of West’s braggadocio, applied to somebody else. But it does raise the question of whether Sean is merely an appendage of his larger-than-life label boss—can he be a full-fledged member of the platinum rap club in his own right?
Judging by sales numbers and critics’ reactions, the answer seems to be “not yet.” Despite West’s endorsement and the luxuries that come with it—like padding out Finally Famous with high-profile guests Chris Brown, Pharrell, John Legend, and Rick Ross—the 23-year-old rapper sold just 84,566 copies of the album in its first week. For the debut of a major-label artist in the Mediafire era, that’s far from a disastrous number—Beyonce, who took the top slot that week, sold just 313,420 copies of her brand-new 4, and she’s an established megastar. But Big Sean’s fellow 2010 XXL freshman Wiz Khalifa racked up first-week sales of almost 200,000 when his debut, Rolling Papers, dropped this March; the album was certified gold in June, meaning it’s shipped more than half a million copies.
Finally Famous‘s commercial performance had to be a disappointment for Sean, not just because expectations were running so high—he had Kanye in his corner and Chris Brown on his lead single, after all—but also because he’s presumably deep in the hole to his label and needs to recoup the huge costs of promoting the album. (Big Sean didn’t comment for this article—I got in touch with his publicist in mid-June, but she couldn’t schedule an interview in a month of attempts.) On Twitter the rapper suggested his sales were hurt because the label underestimated demand. “Yup they undershipped the fuck outta my album,” he tweeted on July 1. “It’s so fucked up they under shipped my CD in alot of stores.”
Big Sean may not have Kanye’s commercial clout—The College Dropout sold 441,000 copies in its first week back in 2004—but he nonetheless seems just as cocksure as his boss. In February, when online rap news source SOHH.com asked him to name the top five greatest hip-hop artists dead or alive, he included himself. On MTV’s Rapfix in March he contended that he’d invented the “one word rhyme style” that typifies Drake’s songs. (It’s also called “hashtag rap,” and involves an artist deliberately leaving out the word “like” or “as” in a simile.) And Big Sean is just as immodest in his lyrics: On the Neptunes-produced “Get It (DT)” he raps that he dreams about being the “greatest of all Bigs, greatest of all Seans,” hinting that he has the talent to surpass both the Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z, respectively. On “So Much More,” a bonus song on the deluxe edition of Finally Famous, he boasts about “standing next to Common Sense and Yeezy” and asks, “Tell me that wasn’t the verse of the year?”
West’s self-aggrandizement has become part of his appeal, but Big Sean’s declarations of grandeur haven’t been received with the same enthusiasm. They tend to feel hollow, like boilerplate with nothing to back it up—it can be fun for a rapper to sound arrogant, but if he sounds delusional, it’s almost impossible to play along.
Los Angeles-based producer Flying Lotus, who creates glitchy, progressive instrumental hip-hop and runs the Brainfeeder label, listened to Finally Famous and was moved to call it “not sweet” on Twitter: “same wack ass post drake cadence, talking about the same shit i heard in the last rap album i bought (nothing). more autotune. more snare repeat.” The rant prompted someone behind GOOD Music’s official Twitter account to respond, “You are not a hip-hop fan, & thats fine, but focus on improving your own craft rather than hating on a different young artist.” (Flying Lotus shot back, “I am hip hop! I just care too much, that’s all. Don’t worry I paid for the shitty album, so the joke is really on me anyway.”)
Though there’s something almost arbitrary about Flying Lotus’s outburst—he and Big Sean occupy very different parts of the hip-hop spectrum—it’s nonetheless rare to hear a hip-hop artist criticize another’s work so openly. Formal reviews of Finally Famous haven’t been entirely positive either: the online magazine Prefix gave it a 3.5 out of 10, Spin a 5 on the same scale. Metacritic, which attempts to aggregate scores from multiple outlets, figures the album has an average score of 69 percent. Critical opinion may not hold as much sway as it once did—now that it’s all but an inevitable for a high-profile hip-hop album to leak before its release date, fans tend to judge it themselves after illegally downloading it, rather than waiting for reviews—but no matter how you slice it, there hasn’t been a unanimous swell of support for Finally Famous. The record positioned itself as triumphantly heralding a new rap superstar, but the reaction announces Sean’s grand entrance for what it is: the ordinary, workaday debut of an artist still attempting to find his musical identity.
Listening to Finally Famous, you get the impression that Big Sean hasn’t benefited from West’s full attention. In the past, West has proved able to propel an artist’s career. He produced all but two songs on Common’s 2005 album Be, which turned the critic’s darling into a mainstream name. He helped R&B singer John Legend score three Grammy wins with his 2004 debut, Get Lifted. But though West has an executive-producer credit on Finally Famous, his creative contribution to the album is a scant one and a half verses on “Marvin & Chardonnay.” West’s own mentor, No ID, handles the bulk of the production.
This isn’t necessarily evidence that West is simply done with shepherding his signings. Pusha T, best known as half of Clipse, is also on GOOD Music (and preparing his own solo debut), and he tells me that West’s approach to working with him in the studio is “completely hands-on.” He describes the specific way West will tailor a production to an artist’s needs: “He’ll play a beat, then ask you which part of the beat you like. Then he’ll go off and do his magic and make that part into the whole song.”
West put in an appearance at Big Sean’s album-release show June 21 at New York City’s Irving Plaza, but his personal alchemical touch seems to be missing from Finally Famous. This leaves the album lacking the strong direction West has often provided for other artists’ projects, so that Big Sean’s tendency to shift from rapping to Auto-Tune-assisted singing just makes him sound like he’s trying to imitate Drake. It’s hard not to imagine that deeper involvement from West would’ve curbed that tendency.
West’s apparent hands-off approach to Big Sean’s debut is further evidence that rappers aren’t always the greatest talent scouts—and that signing to your idol’s label doesn’t always work out, especially if you’re continually in his shadow. Sean is hardly alone in that predicament. As West famously recounted in the song “Big Brother,” he endured years of Jay-Z denying him the chance to move up from behind-the-scenes producer to stand-alone artist in his own right. And GOOD Music has at least one disgruntled ex-signing: rapper Consequence parted ways with the label because he felt he wasn’t being given enough credit for his contributions to West’s albums. Sean is lyrically nimble and still young enough that he can expect to get a fair shot at fulfilling his ambitions. But he might come to realize that at GOOD Music he’s not just less of a priority than higher-profile labelmates like Common and Pusha T—he’s very likely less of a priority than West’s own ego.
Big Sean arguably would’ve fared better in his attempt to pitch himself to the world as a ready-made celebrity if West had simply given him one glorious career-defining production to rap over. But he hasn’t had a breakout moment like that yet, and until it comes, Finally Famous remains just an aspirational slogan.