Big Sean surprises with Hall of Fame

Of all the things Sean Anderson  — a.k.a. “Big Sean” — was known for as a rapper, it certainly wasn’t his skills as an emcee. After all, this was the man whose most successful single has a hook that repeats the word “a–” 15 times  and calls it a day, and the same man who could be held at least 33 percent liable for “Marvin & Chardonnay” and 100 percent responsible for the word “swerve.”

Mixed messages · Big Sean performs at USC Springfest last spring. The artist’s latest album shows his range, but also his shortcomings. The albums’ highlights are strong, but the lesser tracks prove unlistenable. - Ralf Cheung| Daily Trojan

Mixed messages · Big Sean performs at USC Springfest last spring. The artist’s latest album shows his range, but also his shortcomings. The albums’ highlights are strong, but the lesser tracks prove unlistenable. – Ralf Cheung| Daily Trojan

So it comes as a surprise that one of rap’s guiltiest pleasures has recently been producing work that could surprise even the most purist — and judgmental — rap fan. Earlier this month, Big Sean outshone 2 Chainz and Drake on the latter’s track “All Me,” and was then responsible for releasing the seismic Kendrick Lamar-carried track “Control.” Between his myriad of guest appearances, his relationship with Glee star Naya Rivera and the constant grind of being on tour, Big Sean seems to have drastically improved his mic skills since Finally Famous — and these skills are put to the test in his sophomore effort Hall of Fame.

Hall of Fame is a far more artistically credible effort than Sean’s solo debut, and while Sean risks alienating fans of Finally Famous, his willingness to stay true to his personal vision for the album results in a flawed but inspirational work.

The album begins on a high note with “Nothing is Stopping You,”  where Sean recounts his humble beginnings, including the time he famously rapped for mentor and boss Kanye West outside a Detroit radio station in an effort to secure a record deal.  The track then jumps to when Sean finds himself on the other side of the encounter at an airport as a young emcee begs Sean’s ear for an opportunity to rap a verse. The track reveals Sean’s uncanny gift for storytelling — it’s an incredible story that’s only made more impressive by Sean’s knack for peeling away the plot with his trademark laidback delivery.

The single “Fire” received attention for its music video, which starred Miley Cyrus. What might get lost behind the legs of an uncomfortably grown-up Cyrus, however, is an exuberant beat consisting of looped tribal shouts punctuated by stomping bass kicks and soulful piano chord melodies. Producer DJ Camper manages to unify these elements into a warm, genuinely uplifting track. Sean is no slouch on the mic, either, employing some slick wordplay: “Not everybody got a dad but they got an Uncle Sam/ and he ain’t come around ‘til I made a hundred grand.” His verses are a marked departure from his former asinine fascination with female posteriors.

Unfortunately, the album then starts to go downhill from its (admittedly high) peak. Much of Big Sean’s lyrical content in the middle tracks like “10 2 10” and “Beware” consist of espousing the virtues of his work ethic or angsty treatises on women and unhealthy relationships.

The flagging quality of the middle tracks reveals Hall of Fame’s biggest weakness: it’s too damn long. Hall of Fame runs 14 full-length tracks  with completely useless skits  fused at the end of a handful of them.

The downward progression of the album’s quality bottoms out with the track “MILF,” a woozy, unlistenable plate of garbage that invokes Sean’s old demons of hypersexual lyrics as they pertain to — you guessed it — the daytime soap demographic. Nicki Minaj makes an especially annoying cameo and Juicy J sounds extremely uninspired as he masterfully rhymes the words “mind,” “nine” and “mine.”

One thing that could be salvaged from the guest appearances on the album is how much Sean’s verses stand out on these tracks this time around. On songs like last year’s “Clique,” Sean’s lyrically amateurish verses paled in comparison to the likes of Jay-Z and Kanye West. The result of that ill-fated appearance was the hip-hop equivalent of hammering a four year-old’s finger paintings on the walls of the Louvre. On Hall of Fame, though, Sean comfortably holds his own against veteran Nas on “First Chain”  and completely outclasses Lil Wayne on “Beware.”

Sean shines brightest as an emcee when the subject matter tends towards more sensitive topics. Against a somber wave of pianos and boom-bap drums on “World Ablaze,” Sean encapsulates the emotional aporia of reassuring the people he cares about in times of tragedy despite his personal belief that things won’t get better. Speaking about a friend whose mother is dying of breast cancer, he raps “what’s a girl to do, a girl to do, / when her world’s a pool? / and she comes up for air, and it’s walls of flame / and all the stress is all propane.” The poignant, slice-of-life verses practically run into the arms of a chorus sung by Sean and James Fauntleroy.

Despite the emotional richness of tracks like “World Ablaze” and “Ashley” (a song dedicated to his ex-girlfriend), Sean manages to sidestep the schmaltz by the self-assured quality of his lyrics paired with deep, relaxed vocal deliveries. Hall of Fame is at its best when Sean broaches topics of emotional depth, which give him an opportunity to showcase wisdom beyond his years while not sounding overtly dramatic or preachy.  And while the album certainly has its weak spots, Hall of Fame is a dramatic improvement in subject matter and execution over his debut album Finally Famous.


Follow Euno Lee on Twitter @eunowhat