Mixed Emotions Bolster “Detroit”

Urban Poetics

Detroit rapper Big Sean began his rise to stardom the old-fashioned way, stalking Kanye West’s 2007 “Graduation” publicity stop at a local radio station. An auspicious hallway rendez-vous turned into Big (government name: Sean Anderson) rabidly freestyling for 10 minutes as he accompanied Mr. West from the studio to his idling limo. Two years later, Sean’s run-in with Mr.West landed him a deal with the mogul’s Def Jam-affiliated G.O.O.D. Music label. In the meantime, Sean built his name on a series of viral mixtapes and a rigorous string of tours across college campuses. In many circles, he’s credited with inventing the “Supa Dupa flow,” a stripped-down simile/metaphor construction in which the poetic “like” and “as” are replaced by two juxtaposed images, their similarities inferred by a single pause. In the aptly titled “Supa Dupa,” Sean raps: “Used to be bottom—scuba/So I’m on the grind—skateboard or scooter.” Never reticent, Sean even filed faux-beefs with several more popular artists who supposedly borrowed his technique: Drake, T.I., and Ludacris, among others.

Fast forward to 2012, and after a strong feature on Kanye West’s smash single “Mercy” and the release of his stellar mixtape “Detroit,” Sean has arrived in a unique position. He has built a cult following on the strength of his innuendo-smothered witticisms, but also parlayed it into a strong crossover buzz—recently collaborating with Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown and Justin Bieber—with little compromise on style or delivery. And while his latest work draws on the same themes of his past tapes, “Detroit” showcases Sean’s artistry that was largely dormant in his earlier work.

“Detroit” reaches the zenith of swag-rap atop the ruins of America’s former black music capital. The tone of the tape is set by three wistful Detroit vignettes from rap heavyweights Common, Young Jeezy, and the freshly-monikered Snoop Lion (the artist formerly known as Snoop Dogg, the artist formerly known as Snoop Doggy Dogg). Jeezy gravels off a tale of late-night carousing at “Sting,” a 24-hour strip club on Detroit’s West Side, and Snoop playfully recalls his teen years working the breakfast shift at a McDonald’s, where he was dubbed “Young Eggs” for his one-handed egg-cracking technique. These vignettes set the tone for Sean’s starkly contrasted sonic portraits of his hometown, which find him wistfully recalling cold nights in the “D” just as often as extravagant binges at local strip clubs.

Big, as his fans affectionately call him, wears many different Detroits on his sleeve in this latest offering. Roughly half the tracks lend themselves to late-night recreational car rides, while the rest speak better to a stack of one’s and a stiff drink at the aforementioned “Sting.” The mixtape leads off with “Higher,” where a dark, slowed-down Al Green sample and swelling strings accompany Sean as he contemplates—boastfully and pensively—his newfound fame. “24 Karats of Gold” features Sean and J. Cole waxing poetic over a sentimental piano loop, cleverly working through the what-ifs of his rise to superherodom: “Seems life’s never at a standstill, even in a photo / Thinkin’ ’bout the ex girl I hold though / Like would we have won it all, or would I have lost it all like Ocho? / The things I think about the most are things I never know though.”

Perhaps the high point of the tape is “I’m Gonna Be,” when Sean recalls his brutally stubborn approach to getting famous atop a lush piano arrangement, sitting somewhere between gospel and early Kanye West. This track hits gold as Sean’s off-kilter flow and often intentionally out of tune singing are buttressed by recent Def Jam signee Jhene Aiko’s ethereal voice. Another standout on the tape is “100,” featuring Kendrick Lamar and Royce da 5’9”. And while such lyrical heavyweights like Kendrick and Royce might take Sean’s punch lines to task, he stands firmly on his own two feet alongside his more verbally dexterous peers.

The mixtape takes a left turn with club bangers like “Mula,” “Woke Up,” beat God Lex Luger-produced “FFOE,” and up-tempo “Do What I Gotta Do,” featuring mainstream darling Tyga. On “Mula,” Sean aggressively chews up a slow-burning, vicious Young Chop beat alongside the swaggering, stuttering French Montana, who boasts of his availability to sell drugs with a racially insensitive comparison to Harvard’s own Jeremy Lin ’10: “Got that China White, call it Jeremy Lin.” The addictive chorus, “Ain’t nothin’ more important than the Mula, the Mula!” has made the song arguably the biggest potential hit on “Detroit.”

While there may not be a Top 40 hit in the recesses of this .zip file, “Detroit” is a remarkably clever and digestible tape. Sean’s strength lies in his ability to straddle divergent sonic landscapes—introspective and melancholic, bombastic and stark—without losing his peculiar flow or his cutting-edge lyrical delivery.

—Columnist Edward L. Monahan can be reached at emonahan@fas.harvard.edu.

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