Big Sean strives for balance on new album ‘I Decided’
His current single is titled “Bounce Back,” but Big Sean doesn’t need to bounce back from anything at the moment. He’s on a roll.
On Friday, the Detroit rapper releases his fourth album, “I Decided.” It’s his follow-up to 2015’s “Dark Sky Paradise,” which featured the career smash “IDFWU” and the Grammy-nominated “One Man Can Change the World” and solidified his status as one of today’s top rap talents.
In January, Sean — born Sean Anderson and raised on Detroit’s west side on Northlawn near Livernois and Outer Drive — made his debut appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” In recent weeks, he also turned up on “The Tonight Show” and Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” appearing on both not as a performer but as a sit-down guest.
“Bounce Back,” meanwhile, was recently certified gold — signifying sales of 500,000 units — and has racked up more than 75 million streams on Spotify. Its official video has been viewed more than 35 million times on YouTube, and the song is No. 15 on this week’s Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.
“Sometimes I feel like things go so good for me that I feel like it’s my second chance here to do it all right,” says Sean, who’s seated inside a darkened corner suite at Detroit’s MGM Grand hotel. He’s eating a takeout order of wings from Sweetwater Tavern and resting up before making an appearance at Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Design, where he’ll play his new album for a small gathering of friends, family and assembled media.
The second chance scenario is part of the loose narrative that drives “I Decided.” The album is about being granted a do-over at life and living out your days with the wisdom of your older self.
“If this was your second chance, if this was your opportunity to get it right, and you looked at life that way every day, you might approach your mission in life a little differently,” says Sean, who’s dressed in a black hooded sweatshirt with his new album title scrawled on the front, a black knit cap, comfortable black pants (also emblazoned with the “I Decided” logo) and loose-fitting socks. “In 2017 and in these times, I feel like that’s more than needed right now.”
The spiritual approach stretches beyond the album; it’s a philosophy Sean applies to his daily life. He talks openly about his meditation practices and his efforts to be a better person and a better communicator. The Cass Technical High School graduate sounds like he’s read more than one self-help book.
Sean, who wears a trio of diamond-studded chains in the shape of Michigan’s lower peninsula around his neck, also made strides to give back to the community. He is very active with his Sean Anderson Foundation, which among other projects has helped fund the building of a recording studio at Cass Tech and helped raise more than $100,000 for victims of Flint’s water crisis.
“It’s kind of just second nature to me to care about where I’m from,” says Sean, who enlisted the help of the Flint Chozen Choir on his new album’s closing song, “Bigger Than Me.”
Another guest who appears on the album is Eminem, whose debut album put Detroit on the hip-hop map when Big Sean was in sixth grade. Sean and Em first appeared together on “Detroit Vs. Everybody,” a posse cut on Eminem’s 2014 compilation “Shady XV,” “so I was just naturally coming back for my favor,” Sean says with a chuckle about reaching out to Slim Shady for a guest spot on “I Decided.”
Due to scheduling issues, the pair was not able to record the song together in person, so Sean sent Em the track with his verse attached and waited for a reply. Sean was in his Los Angeles recording studio along with his “IDFWU” music video director Lawrence Lamont when Em sent over his finished response, and they cued it up immediately.
“We’re both Detroit boys, so when (Lamont and I) got it, we were like, ‘Oh my God, what is this!’ ” Sean says. “I was just like, ‘Oh my God.’ It’s all I kept thinking. It reminded me of the first time I heard him. It was cool to hear him sound so hungry.”
Sean says Eminem — who appeared with him live in concert at Joe Louis Arena in November 2015 — shared inspiring words with him when they spoke.
“He was telling me how much he respected me as an MC, and he was saying to me, ‘You’re one of the most dangerous MCs, period,’ ” Sean says. Getting Eminem on his album is “a true honor,” he says, especially considering the sparsity of Em’s work for outside parties.
Like Em, Sean has learned a few things about being famous over the years, having been in the public eye for most of this decade. He’s had two high-profile relationships, one with “Glee” star Naya Rivera and one with pop singer Ariana Grande, end in public flameouts, so he currently keeps relationship news to himself and his handlers block it as an interview topic. (He’s frequently seen with singer Jhené Aiko, with whom he put out last year’s collaborative album, “Twenty88,” though neither party has commented publicly on the state of their relationship.)
Finding balance, taking Ls
Since “Finally Famous,” Sean’s 2011 debut album, he has not only sharpened his skills and his delivery — “I feel like my voice was too high,” he says of his first album — but he’s in a better place personally, as well.
“I feel like I’m a way better artist, rapper, even just a better person than I was when I put out (‘Finally Famous’),” he says. “I feel like you can’t really get better at something unless you get better at everything else, which is self-development, learning and really taking stuff in.”
Early on, he was his own counsel. Now, he says he freely shares his music with others during the creative process and keeps members of his visual team — including Lamont and his creative director Mike Carson — around him to help flesh out ideas and lyrical concepts.
During the writing and recording of “I Decided,” Sean reached out to peers and industry giants such as Jay Z, Kanye West, Rick Rubin, Andre 3000 and Royce da 5’9” for feedback. “If you have that opportunity to play your music for those who have done so many great things in music before you,” he says, “you should.”
“Bounce Back,” which describes the experience of “taking an L” — shorthand for loss — but coming back stronger and more focused, is something of a rap anomaly. In the bravado-laden world of hip-hop it’s rare to hear a rapper admit to not being impervious to life’s difficulties, but it’s one of the reasons “Bounce Back” has caught on with listeners. Even LeBron James appropriated the song’s lyrics on Twitter to describe his team’s rocky season; “Lately taken L’s, but very soon we’ll bounce back/ Boy, frustrating as hell, I know my team we’ll bounce back,” James wrote on Jan. 24.
“That’s just real life, man. Everybody takes an L,” says Sean, who says he had athletes in mind while writing the new album. “That’s a part of winning, too, is taking an L. I’m just glad it translated that way through the music.”
Sean says he tries to strike a balance in his songs: making tracks with a message that people will enjoy but won’t feel overburdened by; striking a balance between being lyrically dynamic but not structurally burdensome.
“I think, can people work out to this? Can people still listen to it easily without having to think too hard, but still get some meaning out of it?” he says. “It’s sometimes hard to execute. You can make things complicated all day, but sometimes having a little bit of simplicity, with meaning, and keeping it lyrical? All these different things I’m trying to do. It’s definitely a balancing act.”
Sean is goal-oriented in his career but says he’s seeking more than commercial success. He talks of visualizing goals and putting ideas out into the universe, in the style of “The Secret,” and watching them manifest before him.
“My biggest goal lately is to really inspire people,” Sean says. “And I know that sounds cliché. But when you inspire someone, you give them something money can’t buy. That’s what Marvin Gaye did, so I’m trying to give my listeners glimpses of inspiration they can take with them.”
And a little of that may end up bouncing back onto himself.
“I feel like my full potential is going to be a feeling for me when I reach it,” Sean says. “I’m gonna feel like, ‘Whoa, I did something real right now.’ True success or true fulfillment is a feeling. It’s not a recognition from a certain amount of people, it’s something internal. Once I get there, I will let you know.”
GOOD Music/ Def Jam
streaming services Friday
Big Sean pop-up shop
Detroit is one of four North American cities hosting a Big Sean pop-up shop this weekend. The store, located at 1441 Woodward, will carry exclusive “I Decided” T-shirts, hoodies, bomber jackets and more. Hours are 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 12-6 p.m. Sunday.