big sean rapper by jake michaels

Big Sean Knows He’s Better Now, Too

Photographer JAKE MICHAELS
February 24, 2015

In a candid interview, the rapper charts his own evolution.

The first time I realized I was enjoying Big Sean was on Drake's "All Me." He announces himself in the most aggressive way possible: Ho. Shut the fuck. Up! and proceeds to spit a rapid, methodical verse that is both self-aggrandizing and paranoid to the extreme. He signs off: Niggas still hatin' but it ain't workin'/ Lil BITCH. There isn't a trace of likability in the Big Sean who appears on this song, but his willingness to push his bratty persona to its extreme felt undeniable, and even invigorating. He made his weaknesses sound like strengths, and beyond that, he helped make the song great.

Before, I'd thought of the rapper born Sean Anderson as someone to endure, not to enjoy. Thanks to Kanye West's early support, he was always surrounded by greatness, to a degree that was sometimes perplexing. He was constantly devaluing the otherwise excellent songs he was featured on: "A$," "Clique," "Mercy," "Control," to name a few. His presence among the most innovative names in rap felt unearned, and his downsides—his petulance, his try-hardness—were magnified by contrast.

But on "All Me," he used his abrasiveness to his advantage—a strategy that he's only improved upon in the lead-up to his third studio album, the moody and confessional Dark Sky Paradise. The lead single, the exuberant and gnatty "I Don't Fuck With You," is a joyous tantrum, so simple and identifiable that it's achieved anthem status, going platinum and topping U.S. rap charts. The second single, the claustrophobic "Blessings," finds him holding his own alongside Kanye and Drake, offering a window into his complicated relationship with his own success: This that late night working after three, man/ This why my old girl was mad at me. Whether by brute force, or by the power of the company he keeps, or simply because he's making better music, Big Sean is having a moment. At 26, the excellence that has long surrounded him is rubbing off.

We recently spoke on the phone about his relationships with Kanye, Ariana Grande, his parents, and himself. Like Big Sean's music, I almost wanted to dislike him, but I couldn't; he was too easy to talk to.

Are you disappointed Dark Sky Paradise leaked? I was disappointed, but obviously albums leak. It's not that big of a deal. I'm happy it didn't happen earlier. I remember my first album leaked three weeks ahead. It seems to be getting a good response, so I just tell people who like it: go out and cop.

Do you think you can beat the Drake tape in sales? I don't know about that. The most important thing about this album is that I'm proud of how it sounds. As a person, I've been growing up more and becoming better all around. I see the progression in myself—not just as an artist. I hope other people can see that, too. I feel like this is the album where, even people who may not be Big Sean fans, the tide might turn for them.

Is Dark Sky Paradise your version of "Mo' Money Mo' Problems"—the more famous or successful you get, the more stressful your life is? Yeah. It's about what I've been going through the past year and a half—ups and downs, in and out of relationships. All sorts of relationships. Romantic. Friends flipping on you. Losing people. But on top of that, this life is paradise for me regardless. I came a long way from North Lawn in Detroit, and I'll never forget it. No matter how dark things get, I put things into perspective.

There's also a sense that you enjoy the stress of your life, with lines like fuck a vacay, I feel better at work. It's hard for me to vacay. I recently took one—three days in Tahoe. It was the first vacation I'd taken in a long time. As soon as I got back, I wrote that verse for "Blessings." I had a ball in Tahoe, actually. But for some reason I'm always ready to get back to work.

"My mom is super spiritual, and she's into manifesting goals. She always taught me that you create everything you want." —Big Sean

Your origin story is pretty well known: You rapped for Kanye outside of a Detroit radio station and really impressed him, but he didn't sign you for a couple years. What was happening for you in that time period? That was my time period of going from trying to find myself in the world. All my friends were going off to college, and I was still at home in the same room I grew up in in my mom's house. I had rapped for Kanye, but that's where it was left for a while. I had a little contact with him, so I knew there was an outlet there, but everybody seemed to be busy. During that time, I did a lot of reading. My mom is super spiritual, and she's into manifesting goals. She always taught me that you create everything you want. She gave me a bunch of books on it. I was so frustrated with how things were going—I was at a standstill. I would wake up every day; I didn't have money. This wasn't my favorite thing, and I knew it had to change. As soon as I changed my way of thinking, things started turning around. I was recording a lot, sharpening my blades, trying to get better and better because I knew the opportunity was going to come around. I almost registered for school—I graduated high school with a 3.7 GPA and was headed to Michigan State. But there were a lot of omens and signs saying I was on the right track [with the music]. I had that feeling, so I kept going with it.

Was there a single book your mom gave you that stands out in your mind? Ask and It Is Given, by Esther and Jerry Hicks. I read that book a few times. They gave you practices to do daily, and it really got me out of my habitual way of thinking. That and The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. Those were two books that really changed me. They were more entertaining than any movie. And I'm not into reading and shit like that. Reading books wasn't my thing. But I got to the point where I was like, "Yo, let me try it out." And it was great.

What do you think has kept Kanye so involved and hands-on with your career for so long? Um… I don't know. I'm always with him, and we hear other people rap, but he's never signed anyone the way he's signed me. He just saw the potential, and he followed through with it. He taught me to see the potential in people, and that's something that you really have to be talented to do—to see the best in people even if it's not at the forefront. That's not an easy thing to do.

Does he ever give you tough love? Hell yeah. Especially when I was first getting into it. He would tell me to rewrite stuff. In Hawaii, I'd see him tell everybody to rewrite raps. He would rewrite his own raps, too. But it's not like he was hating on people; he was really trying to get people to a level of excellence. It's gotta be better, it's gotta be on this level, and that helped me get better. I, personally, have seen the progression in my work. I don't know if anybody else has. I remember one thing Kanye said, he pointed that out: "Yeah, the progression is real. That just goes to show that you're still at the beginning of your career." He said that about this album. A lot of people progress. Some people de-gress, though—they start off hot and they can't match that.

Big Sean with his mother, Myra Anderson.

You've always rapped with a bit of a chip on your shoulder. What do you feel like you have left to prove? I'm not trying to prove shit anymore. What I really want to do is just do what I want to do. I think that's the wrong perspective. When you're trying to prove something as opposed to trying to have fun with it and inspire and change stuff. I'm just trying to push the envelope forward, and make music that's therapeutic and real to me. I didn't let nobody dictate or tell me anything this album. I didn't listen to the label saying, "We need a radio song" or no shit like that, I just did me. I kept it real, even down to the first single.

I feel like the people made "IDFWU" the single—I put out four songs at once. And clearly "IDFWU" had… just listen to the chorus, man. "I don't fuck with you, you little stupid ass bitch. I ain't fucking with you, you little dumb-ass bitch. I ain't fuckin' with you, I got a million trillion things I'd rather fuckin' do than be fucking with you." Clearly I wasn't going for anything. The people made it that way. So when I saw the reaction, I was like, man, this is what I need to do every single time is just keep it real and do it my way. And this album I did my way and I'm proud of myself for it, for sticking to my guns and putting my personal life out there and making it work.

People talk about "IDFWU" as an anti-woman song, but women have seized on it, too. Come on. I got love for women, period. It's an anthem for everybody. Women might like it the most.

What's your relationship with Def Jam like? Are they giving input on what direction you should take? They have before, but I've lived and I've learned. I've realized that when I do my own thing, it's the best for me. And they've realized that, too. Everybody who's invested in you is going to give you their opinions and tell you what they think is best. But I've realized that I know what's best for me creatively.

You went to a Waldorf School—were there other kids there who wanted to be a rapper? I wasn't an outsider, but I was the only one who wanted to be a rapper. I had some core best friends there, of all races. Some Jewish, some white, some black. We all became a family, because there were only 30 in a class. They were all supportive. I remember in our eighth grade yearbook, we all got titles. My title was Most Likely to Be a Rapper Actually From Detroit. Sometimes my friends would talk shit or make fun of me, but it was all from a friendly place. When you start out, you obviously aren't as good. I'd be like, "Yo I got a new rap," and sometimes they'd start laughing. But they'd also be like, "Man, keep going."

"I remember one thing Kanye said, he pointed that out: 'Yeah, the progression is real. That just goes to show that you're still at the beginning of your career.'" —Big Sean

There's an interlude on the new album where you're having a heart to heart with your dad. Where did that come from? I was in Detroit kicking it with my grandmother and family a couple months ago. Wiz Khalifa had a show out there, and he hit me up to come out to the show. So I went with my dad and my brother. We had a good time; I came out as a special guest. And then on the way back, we'd been having a good time, and my dad might have had a couple drinks. He was just feeling the vibe. He wouldn't stop talking, and he was saying some really heartfelt stuff. My brother started recording it without me knowing. When I listened back to the recording, I heard him say, "You talk to them from your mind, but people hear you from your heart. There's a reason you're where you're at." It made me really emotional. All the stuff he was saying—talking about, "Man, I just want to take a trip where it's just me and you and Brett." When I listened back to it, it almost broke my heart. I do need to do stuff like that with my dad.

What was your relationship with him like as a child? It was great. My mom and my dad were split up, but they were friends and they got along in honor of me and my brother. He took us to school a lot, spent time with us. Always made an effort. Everybody doesn't have a dad, you know? Especially where I'm from. I'm lucky to have a great mom and a great dad, even though they're not together. It's funny, because my dad always felt like he could talk to me, even when I was a little kid. When he'd take me to school, he'd be telling me about his life. I thought that was cool.

Are you a mama's boy? I'm for sure a mama's boy. Straight up.

How often do you talk to her? Probably every other day. She just spent a couple weeks visiting. I bought my family a crib in Detroit. My grandma passed in December. They'd been helping take care of her, so now the way we spend our time is a little different. My mom works for me, too—she's my operational manager, as she would call it.

"Ariana Grande is an artist, and she tries new things. I appreciate her coming into my world." —Big Sean

You and Ariana Grande have a new song together on this album called "Research" about a paranoid woman. What was the process of working together for that like? It was very easy. I like this collab because even though it's not about our situation directly, she stepped in. She put our situation aside and just really stuck to the concept of the song and was down with it. It's a real concept—it just doesn't apply to us. So I appreciate her being an artist about it.

Ariana has a very clean image and a lot of young fans. Do you keep her image and her fans in mind now when you set about your work? Not really. She came into my world, more so. I respect her fans, and I think they respect her, too. She's an artist, and she tries new things. I appreciate her coming into my world.

Do you get a ton of her fans on your timeline? Yeah, of course. Everything's great, though, so they should be happy.

What would you tell people who say that your relationship is a publicity stunt? What would I say? I'd say, you sound dumb as fuck, clearly. I don't see how they could say that, because me and her were friends for years before this. It doesn't really get more authentic than that. We met at Wango Tango a long time ago. We met there, stayed in contact, hung out and stuff.

On the album outro you say, "The bigger I get, the more I need shrinks." Do you believe in therapy? I've been to therapy before, but I don't really go. Times get crazy. What I do is I meditate for about 15 minutes every day. Because life just gets so crazy sometimes. I just get quiet with myself and concentrate on my breathing. Just distance myself from everything, and put myself above all the stuff that's going on. It's one of the best parts of my day—it changes my whole vibe.

Do you have a mantra? No, but sometimes I listen to guided meditation. Deepak Chopra, and Esther and Jerry Hicks. You should try it out. My life is just so turnt, man. There's so much stuff going on that I need to make sure that I prepare myself for it. Turnt in the sense of having to handle things—business, people calling you, people wanting to talk about things you might not want to talk about. Like I said, I don't really take vacations, so that's my way of relaxing.

Big Sean Knows He’s Better Now, Too