Real life will tell you different, but to let rap lists tell it an artist peaks in his late teens or early 20s. Most MC's debut albums are praised as their classics, even retroactively, while fans spend the rest of their careers pleading for them to return to their glory days. Nas has had a phenomenal career, but he still hasn't topped Illmatic. Jay Z wasn't popular until 1998, but his 1996 debut Reasonable Doubt is seen as his undisputed best. And no matter how much he pushes the boundaries of hip-hop, many fans want "the old Kanye."
But on a Tuesday afternoon, more than five years after Big Sean's major label debut, it seems like his best days are ahead of him. He's in New York City, where he's playing his new album, I Decided., at a listening party for friends, family and industry folks. A few days before, Sean threw a similar party in his hometown of Detroit; a day or two later, he hosted one in Los Angeles. And the next weekend, he'll open up a series of pop-up shops around the country to sell merchandise for the record. A crowd of a couple hundred has already been drinking and socializing for an hour or two before Sean emerges, wearing a hoodie and t-shirt from his new collection of merch, a navy Detroit Tigers fitted cap (a signature for most Detroiters and Michiganders), multiple chains and shiny rings on most of his fingers. He lingers for a bit, gives longtime radio personality Sway Calloway an embrace and shares a few words with him before heading to the front of the stage to address his supporters. Throughout the next hour, Sean will stand on a bench to see the audience while mouthing along to all the lyrics — his own and those of his guests, Eminem and Migos — in a makeshift performance. Celebrities like Kelly Rowland and actress Lala Anthony will make their way to the front to congratulate Sean between songs.
"N**** from Detroit, like myself — a black boy from Detroit — to make it this far, man, it's truly unheard of. I can't wait to share this album," he says. "This is my most meaningful album. This album means the most to me right now."
It's not just the standard lip service for a new record. Nearly a decade ago, Big Sean was seen as a novelty sidekick act at best, a weak artist at worst. Now he wants to be seen as a thinker. Not just as a talented rapper, or even as someone with a personal story to share, but someone who can come up with creative ideas, offer insight that listeners can use in their lives and provide commentary on the real world. And after years of hard work, people are beginning to value what he has to say: I Decided. sold and streamed 151,000 album-equivalent units in its first week, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. The album's "Bounce Back" peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard 100, his highest-charting single to date. And Jay Z, the head of Roc Nation, which manages Sean, gave him the ultimate rap honors: a Roc-A-Fella chain, from Jay's storied rap dynasty during the late-1990s and 2000s.
It sounds like a good deal, but Sean has dealt with a lot to get here. For every hit song or memorable moment he's had since signing with Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam imprint in 2007, there's been another loss: delays of his debut album's release date; failed attempts at following others' hit-making formulas; dropping an album that he admittedly wasn't confident in; bashing from critics and naysayers who credited his successes to more popular guests, or claimed that he'll never live up to the likes of Drake, Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. But for each L, Sean has bounced back. It took him nearly ten years, a lot of mistakes and incremental improvements, but he finally "cracked the code," as he told Apple Music's Zane Lowe last January. After placing so much trust in industry folks, everything began to come together when he learned to trust himself.
"I had to forgive myself, creatively, and forgive myself for not following my heart and following my instincts," Sean says during an interview over the phone. "Once I was able to forgive, I was able to move past and really boss up. I knew my full potential. Once you know your full potential and you realize it's not being executed, then that's what gave me so much drive to be better and do better."
The progression is a long way from where Sean stood in 2004, when he met Kanye West while 'Ye was in Detroit to promote his then-upcoming album Late Registration. In what's essentially a rap fairy tale, Sean rapped for Kanye on the spot after swindling his way into the radio station where he had rapped on-air for months. Sean, then a member of a rap duo called Sons of the Street, pitched himself for a record deal. After West signed him as a solo act, Sean spent time behind the scenes, meekly contributing to West's album Graduation while waiting his turn and aspiring to greatness himself.
"When I first got around [Kanye West and G.O.O.D. Music] I felt like I wasn't ready, honestly. I contributed what I could," he says. "Being around such talented people like that early on really gave me something to look up to and to shoot for.... I was lucky to have had the best rappers in the world and the best beat makers [around me], and it pushed me to be just as good as them."
After signing with G.O.O.D. Music, his career became an uphill battle of mixtapes, decent singles, and a decent 2011 debut called Finally Famous — far from the classic that legends are known for. He built a reputation as one of rap's better cameo artists, finding a way to make consistently memorable guest spots on songs like West's "Mercy" and "Clique," Drake's "All Me" and Meek Mill's "Burn." But to critics, he embodied everything they hated about new rap: too much goofing around, not enough substance; a nasal voice and facepalm-inducing punchlines. Just another glitzy, materialistic rapper with nothing to say. His 2012 mixtape Detroit showed substantial growth and landed on year-end lists, but his sophomore retail effort, Hall of Fame, failed to capitalize with scattered highlights, ambitious ideas that were poorly executed, and formulaic attempts to cash in on trap sounds that were bubbling at the time.
In hindsight, Sean says that Detroit focused on his own ideas while Hall of Fame gave too much credence to the advice of industry folks. He took a couple of months in 2014 to "work on getting my mind together," he says. He heeded book recommendations from his mother, built a home studio, and began meditating before recording sessions.
Dark Sky Paradise, which came out in February 2015, completed Sean's star transformation. The album's first portion takes off with an urgent string of radio hits and lyrical workouts, while the latter half showcases his introspective, personal side with odes to family and learning through trial and error.
"My perception changed of myself," he admits. "My whole career I felt like I put a lot of work in and it wasn't paying off the way I wanted it to. That was the first time I felt like, 'Finally man, something has to pay off.' I don't know if you should look at things like that, but it just was."
Sean has repeatedly referred to Dark Sky as the possible "blueprint" for his future albums, and I Decided. follows in the lineage. Aspiration, romance, hard work and family are still in the playbook. "Bounce Back" and "Moves" are the two lively, motivational singles, with the stellar Migos-assisted "Sacrifices" as a clear winner later in the album cycle. He squares up with Eminem's nonstop rhymes on "No Favors." His appreciation for family continues on "Inspire Me," which tenderly thanks his mother for her faith and support of him.
But for all the bases Big Sean returns to, he also takes on new challenges. I Decided. is his first concept album. The cover, as he has explained, depicts a current version of him next door to a younger version. Old Sean gives Young Sean bits of advice on skits throughout the album: "You going to let it ring forever? Answer that," he says when Sean is about to continue ignoring his mother's calls. "I don't think she's the one," he says about a previous girlfriend. On the refrain of the opening song, "Light," Sean muses on how black people have stayed resilient and beautiful despite slavery, opposition from police and systemic violence. On "Sunday Morning Jetpack," which sounds like it was inspired by Jay Z's "Momma Loves Me," Sean nostalgically recounts memories with friends and family growing up.
His DJ, Mo Beatz, is proud of the work Sean has done; it's been a long time coming. During the promo run for I Decided., Sean has appeared on Ellen and Saturday Night Live, two of the largest television platforms an artist can get these days. In March, he begins a nationwide tour. It's a big improvement from just a few years ago, Mo Beatz says.
"We would be on other people's tours, as opposed to having our own, which is long overdue," he says. It's true. Big Sean referred to himself as a co-headliner, but he was essentially a supporting act on J. Cole's Forest Hills Drive tour in 2015.
"It wasn't necessarily a low point, but it was more of a 'we could be more bossed up right now' situation," Mo Beatz says. "We weren't super new in the game at that point. We had been paying our dues; we'd been putting in work. We need to be on this path right here. Now, everything is as it should be. I feel like it's just been going up and up.... It's good to finally see he's getting a lot of the recognition he deserves."
As Sean rapped on "Detroit Vs. Everybody": "We've been laboring for years. I know it took much longer than nine months, but f*** it it's all in due time." Sean knows that other rappers have had their storied classic debuts, but he's fine with his shine coming later instead of earlier.
"With rap, you usually come out with your first album and that sets the tone. Usually it goes downhill for a lot of people. It's only a select few that keep progressing and keep upgrading, so it's cool to be a part of this low statistic," Sean says. "Honestly, I still don't feel like my full potential has been reached, and that is something I'm going to keep working towards."
It's the difference between claiming you're bound for the hall of fame, and taking the time to work your way there. Thankfully, it sounds like he's ready for the long haul.