Amid dark skies, Big Sean finds 'Paradise'

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Big Sean pulls up to Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, and as he ducks out of a black SUV and into the building, he is spotted by a couple of nearby fans. "Big Sean!" one voice yells out through the cold. "I don't (mess) with youuuu!"

To most people, that would be an insult. But for Big Sean, it's a term of endearment.

The phrase is the chorus of "IDFWU," the first single from the Detroit rapper's third album "Dark Sky Paradise," which hits stores today. The song, improbably, has become Sean's biggest hit to date, racking up 55 million Spotify plays and 40 million YouTube hits while peaking at No. 11 on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart.

"It was truly a breakthrough for me," said Sean, who was in Ann Arbor on Sunday to introduce the University of Michigan's men's basketball team before their game against Ohio State. (Sean's mother, Myra Anderson, and his grandparents are UM alums.) "It showed me it doesn't even matter about trying to have a radio song; it's just about being authentic and real and showing people why you're an artist."

The song came at the end of a rocky time for the rapper, born Sean Anderson and raised on Detroit's west side. It follows the under-performance of his 2013 album "Hall of Fame," the breakup of his engagement to "Glee" actress Naya Rivera, and declining health of his grandmother, Mildred V. Leonard, who passed away in December.

Now, however, Big Sean's "Paradise" is looking pretty good. He's dating pop superstar Ariana Grande, whom he met several years ago and with whom he's collaborated on several songs. He's living in Los Angeles in a 4,500-square-foot, $1.7 million home, several worlds away from the family home on Northlawn. And his career is taking off, thanks to "IDFWU," which has reignited his career fire.

Getting to this point wasn't easy.

"I went through a lot of craziness in the last year a half, a lot of dark times," said Sean, who turns 27 next month. "I feel like creatively I was trying to figure things out, and I was trying to figure things out on a lot of levels, with different relationships in my life.

"But when I analyzed and stepped back from everything, regardless of what I'm going through, I recognize my life is paradise, no matter what. As soon as I came up with that title ("Dark Sky Paradise"), it fit everything: The mood of the music, my whole mentality. It just fit my life."

Sean's fire began as a spark when he signed a record deal with Kanye West after rapping for him in the lobby of Radio One Detroit's hip-hop station in 2007. He has evolved into a central figure in mainstream hip-hop, and his fingerprints have been all over some of the biggest songs and movements of the last few years.

He's appeared on songs with Eminem, Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber, Drake and Miley Cyrus; his "swerve" catchphrase, from "Mercy," drove the hottest song of summer 2012; and when Kendrick Lamar lit up the Internet with his ferocious "Control" verse in 2013, he did it as a guest artist on a track by Big Sean.

But there was a sense with Sean that he was a guest at the party, never the host. He excelled in feature roles and on songs with others, but his own material didn't have the same luster. After his 2011 debut album "Finally Famous" launched three Top 40 singles, the follow-up couldn't match its success; "Hall of Fame" sold just 157,000 copies, less than half of its predecessor, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

This time around, things are different. Big Sean is no longer just hanging out with the top dogs in rap, but becoming one himself.

"Sean is in a position where he's risen to the occasion," said Ernest Baker, a writer for several publications, including Billboard, Pitchfork and Complex. "He has actively assumed this position of power that he has now. He basically realized, 'I am with Kanye, I am next to superstars all the time, I have to be one.' It's kind of like Peter Parker being like, 'I am just a normal dude,' but he hits a point where he's like, 'I can jump from building to building, so I have to conduct myself this way.' "

Sean aims to impress with raps

Sean's wordplay has never been in doubt, and he takes pride in thrilling listeners with his use of the language. There's a line in "IDFWU" where he compares his three-story house in L.A. to a trilogy.

"Every time I'm on a song, I try to write raps that will impress people or will impress myself," said Sean, who graduated from Cass Tech High School with a 3.7 grade point average. "Ever since I was in high school, that's all I ever wanted to do was write raps that people would be like, 'Aww man, that's crazy!' Just like how Eminem does, just like how Kanye and Jay Z and Lil Wayne do."

Sean admitted he didn't put his best foot forward on "Hall of Fame."

"It was very focused, it was a vibe, but it wasn't necessarily a current vibe, and I can see why people might not have thought of me as one of the very, very top rappers," he said. "But I was like, 'I am for sure one of the best rappers out,' I know this for a fact. And I'm not saying that in a cocky way, I'm just saying that's how I felt. I really needed to re-evaluate what I was doing and just listen to me. I had a lot of people, a lot of producers, who I was following their leads when it came to making music. And I was like, 'let me do it my way, let me do my thing.' "

For "Dark Sky Paradise," he constructed a studio in his home that allowed him to record whenever the mood struck. He said he recorded the majority of the album at night, looking up at the stars. And he felt free in a way he hadn't before while recording, which led him to open up about himself and his personal life in his music in a way he never had before.

"IDFWU" is a jilted breakup song dressed up as a club banger, and its chorus has become a shorthand dismissal for exes, friends, anything one wants out of one's life. The song was released as part of a four-song EP Sean released in September and it took off almost immediately, thanks in large part to people sharing it — and appropriating its profane, remarkably-to-the-point chorus — on the micro-video app Vine.

The video for the song, directed by Detroiter Lawrence Lamont, casts Sean as the quarterback of a football team — Kanye plays his coach — looking to stage an improbable fourth-quarter comeback. In many ways, it mirrored his career.

"I didn't realize it until we were halfway done with the video, but I was like, 'This is like my life!' " Sean said. "We were all laughing about it, but it's true, man. I am like the star quarterback in high school, and in my career, I've gone through all these ups and downs. I felt like that video was a direct metaphor."

The song became a direct metaphor for his breakup with Rivera. While he was working on it before the split, the real life aspect worked its way into the lyrics and gave it extra heft. Like Sean says in the song, "I guess drama makes for the best content."

Sean's not afraid to get personal

There's more drama on "Dark Sky Paradise." "Win Some, Lose Some," a track with roots that stretch back to his 2012 "Detroit" mixtape, deals frankly with the way Sean is perceived by friends and family, and discusses his 2011 sexual abuse case in upstate New York. (Sean pleaded to a misdemeanor and paid a $750 fine.)

"I had never put that song out because of how personal it was," said Sean, who sported a red string on his left wrist, signifying the interest in Kaballah that he's taken up since dating Grande. "I held on to it until I felt 100 percent right about it."

The song includes an outro by Sean's father, Jim Anderson, who said he's proud of how his son has handled the recent strife in his life.

"I guess this is his therapy," Anderson said. "He's come out of everything with a good attitude. Everyone's going to have situations, except his are public. He just looks at it as a learning process. I know he's a sincere person, and I think his fans see that. He wants to make a difference; he has good in his heart. He's all about making things better for everyone."

Sean is treating "Dark Sky Paradise" like a new beginning.

"It's my third album, but it's the first one where I feel like this," he said. "I remember when I rapped for Jay Z a long time ago, and I don't know if he was really impressed or not. But now I sit at his house and go over my music with him, and he'll be very impressed. That's an awesome feeling. It makes me more and more hungry. I just want to keep doing good and keep getting better." (Sean is now repped by Jay Z's Roc Nation management firm.)

Sean is launching "Dark Sky Paradise" amid a whirlwind promotional blitz. He has been crisscrossing the country the last few weeks, and his Grammy weekend show in Los Angeles was attended by Jennifer Lopez, J. Cole, Justin Bieber, Chris Brown and Kanye West. This summer he's hitting the road with J. Cole, and he'll perform his own concert this summer at either The Palace of Auburn Hills or DTE Energy Music Theatre, he said.

After introducing UM's starting lineup Sunday at Crisler, Sean hit the road. By the time the game ended, he was already at the airport en route to New York. When he touched down there, he went to NYU and premiered a 15-minute short film about the making of the new album, then hit the studio to record a freestyle that he uploaded to the Internet Monday night, hours before the new album hit stores.

Today he's scheduled to make stops in Atlanta, Detroit and Los Angeles, and wherever he goes, it's a safe bet people will shout at him, "I don't (mess) with youuuu!"

But really, that just means they do.

Big Sean

'Dark Sky Paradise'

Def Jam/ G.O.O.D. Music

In stores Tuesday

Release day event

Big Sean will celebrate the release of "Dark Sky Paradise" on Tuesday at The Shelter, 431 E. Congress St., in Detroit. The first 300 fans who purchase a copy of the album beginning at 5 p.m. at the venue will get a chance to meet Big Sean. All ages are welcome. For more information, call (313) 961-6358.