With each album since 2011’s “Finally Famous,” rapper Big Sean has run from the chipper insolence of youth (and away from being a Kanye protégé) into the arms of ruminative adulthood and all of its blessings and curses. The braggadocio and money behind success in hip-hop is always tempered with practicality for Big Sean. So is he humbled by all that is holy, beholden to the pangs of romantic love, and uplifted by the connection of home and roots.
This week’s “Detroit 2,” like Big Sean’s 2012 journal/mixtape, “Detroit,” represents a great uniting of all of Sean’s wordy, loose strands of thought, prayer, love calls, humble-brags and diary doodles, tied together by the big bow of being Black in the Motor City.
Some appropriate guests help tell the Detroit tale. In the “Stories” section of the new album, Sean gets hometown hero Stevie Wonder to talk about how his mother empowered him through his blindness; that connects him to Detroit. Comedian Dave Chappelle may not be from Detroit, but he tells a story about smoking what-might-not-have-been weed with native son-rapper Danny Brown (“I didn’t know about the whole ‘Adderall, Adderall’ thing,” says the comic), bombing on stage, but winning over the Motor City audience.
When Sean raps “I don’t complain about life. I adapt” within the first 10 minutes of this new album, it ties him to the stick-to-it-ive-ness of Stevie, and proves there is a pragmatism to Sean’s work that’s not always easy to find anywhere else in hip-hop or nu-soul. Can you imagine Drake not complaining, or Migos taking it on the chin and moving onward and upward?
A frank, square-jawed foundation, then, is the rock upon which “Detroit 2” is made.
With the aquatically ambient opening track, “Why Would I Stop?,” Sean immediately answers his own question (“I don’t”) and places himself high above other hip-hop deities. Until he doesn’t. In a direct, clear baritone with a soft, stringed background (an elegant bookend to the track’s sawed violin finale), “Lucky Me” tells an autobiographical tale of being “rich in a world where nothing’s free, to be separated from hell by one degree.” Here, the rapper gets a heart disease by age 19, but is aided by his mom (shades of Stevie), magnesium, Eastern medicine, and buying Slash’s (from Guns N’ Roses) mansion. As the song moves forward, its strings swell as if Sean is surrounded by angels fluffing their wings. His flinty raps grow more breathless and rapier-rushed as “Lucky Me” speeds to a close, and the only person more out of breath than Sean is the listener.
That same muted choir of angels (or a reasonable, sampled facsimile) floats behind “Harder Than My Demons,”with the gentle zeal of confidence that is Sean’s brand of romantic devotion. “The best move I make is when you’re by my side,” he rap-sings. Corny? Probably. But you can’t deny the power of love’s focus. And if he believes it, you believe it — that’s Big Sean’s skill.
Another of tender Sean’s big skills is his way with songs with dramatic pauses and stop-and-start orchestration. “Everything That’s Missing,” with the greatly underappreciated jazz/neo-soul singer Dwele (also from Detroit), follows the duo through clanging percussion, halting piano, and a creamy R&B melody filled with Sean’s clichéd axioms. “It’s not about the trophy, it’s about what it took to grab it” and “There’s no loss without a gain” would come across like the words of a corporate motivational speaker if it wasn’t for the heft Sean and Dwele imbue them with.
Another stop-and-starter, “Time In” with TWENTY88 (which happens to be Sean’s alt-hip hop duo with Jhené Aiko), holds a more monochromatic melody as its base, but finds theatricality in Aiko’s vocal highs, Sean’s flute-y rap, and a story about his worst habit being “playing out things before they happen.” The often overlooked Aiko also gets a crack at another meh song, “Body Language,” but makes the most of its silly, sexist lyrics, such as those referring to “pouring champagne on that ass like I’m Dame Dash.”
A host of other guests make themselves apparent on “Detroit 2″ — maybe a few too many.
While a world-weary Nipsey Hussle appears from the Great Beyond for a stately verse on a sadly lackluster “Deep Reverence” (with Sean addressing his rumored conflict with Kendrick Lamar), a more melodic (albeit heavily AutoTune-d) Post Malone takes the robotic “Wolves” and its “I got loyalty and blood / I’d do everything for love” vibe more seriously than Sean by providing a deeply soulful vocal pivot to the track’s rigidity. If it’s AutoTune you’re looking for, the always-compu-processed Travis Scott presses his voice against a rambling tom-tom’s pulse and chicly strummed guitars for “Lithuania (Baggage Claim),” the results of which are solidly soulful but unspectacular.
After a grand “Guard Your Heart” — the stringed R&B ballad that Thom Bell and Linda Creed forgot to write — and its rules to live by (“You know what they say about not conquering fears? / If you don’t they’ll always be nears”), true “Detroit 2”-style spectacle lives in the last few songs of Sean’s most complete and most charming album.
At first listen, “The Baddest” seems braggy, corny and out of place with its sampled horn riffs borrowing from every ’60s FBI-themed television show. Repeated listens, however, give the track an heroic brassy vibe that, with its echoing dub frippery, make for an exquisite lead-in to the boldly righteous “Don Life.” This twinkly track, an epic featuring Lil Wayne and a synth-string steal from Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” running through it, brings a subdued warmth to Weezy’s usual tin growl, and allows Sean to muse wisely on the rap game and the life game.
Nothing is more epic for Sean – the rapping vocalist, the life coach – than the album’s glorious closer, “Still I Rise.” Featuring gospel-ish rapper Dom Kennedy acting as hype-man, bobbing and weaving in and out of Sean’s rap-sodies, the track is filled with statuesque horn lines, heavenly background voices and ample opportunities for the Big man to turn a vision of youth – its romance, its growth spirts – into a life lesson, then a spiritual session. With “a little pressure and a lot of patience,” Sean gives the apple of his eye “more game than problems,” with the caveat that “some losses teach you how to win.”
Whether it’s God, his girl, or his mom by his side — to say nothing of his featured guests — Big Sean makes “Detroit 2” a real and righteous place, even if he has to use a handful of holy clichés to prove it.