Detroit Free Press
Published 8:45 PM EDT Sep 3, 2020
It was all supposed to go down for Big Sean on 313 Day. And then 3/12 happened.
On March 13 — the annual celebration of the Motor City by way of its area code — the homegrown rapper planned to reveal he had a new album, “Detroit 2,” coming soon. In the days leading up to the planned announcement, he was around town, happy and productive — visiting family, listening to mixes, shooting a video guerrilla-style in neighborhoods across the city, spending an afternoon with the Free Press for a photoshoot in the Fisher Building.
It turned out to be a last gasp of normalcy, because things suddenly went haywire just before the Friday unveiling: Overnight, sports leagues suspended their seasons. Concert tours were canceled, festivals called off.
The coronavirus had sent America reeling, and “Detroit 2” was abruptly on hold.
“In March, it was just such a big shock,” Big Sean recalls. “At first it just felt so tragic when everything started closing down. I really didn’t know what was going to happen. I started thinking, ‘Is this the apocalypse?’ My mind was racing. It was a tough time to adjust to.”
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Big Sean wound up announcing “Detroit 2” later in March, with no firm release date. Now, after months of buildup, it’s finally here: The 21-track album — follow-up to 2017’s “I Decided” and sequel to the 2012 mixtape “Detroit” — is out Friday, loaded with guests including Eminem, Travis Scott, Lil Wayne, Post Malone, Justin Bieber, the late Nipsey Hussle and a host of Detroit hip-hop colleagues.
In a nod to the 2012 mixtape, which featured spoken-word features by Common, Jeezy and Snoop Dogg, the new album includes contributions by Stevie Wonder, Dave Chappelle and Erykah Badu, paying tribute to the people and history of Detroit.
These days, Big Sean’s mom runs his foundation, which funds a host of youth and education initiatives. When he was young, the rapper says, she was busy filling the house with music by Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and other Detroit staples.
“I want people to feel the roots of Detroit — the undeniable soul, that unbreakable spirit,” Big Sean says of the new album. “Detroit gets slept on sometimes, but I don’t think there’s any greater or more impactful city, especially musically throughout the decades. I couldn’t let that die. I had to do my version of the impact all that music had.”
Big Sean says the forced break turned out to have a silver lining. He set about reshaping parts of the album, writing new material, incorporating timely themes. On the finished release, a reference to “pandemic” appears within the first 60 seconds.
“That’s one of the only good things I got out of it,” he says of the spring shutdown. “I was able to make this album better for the people who need music. I was able to get inspiration, some kind of meaning, some kind of uplifting energy — because I felt that’s what I needed.”
Shimmering, textured and often explosive, “Detroit 2” finds the rapper born Sean Anderson in a confident creative space. It’s got a familiar Big Sean vibe — poetic but accessible, swaggering but sensitive, with the catchy feel that has long made him an in-demand guest rapper. But at 32, he also sounds newly bold and energized, his rapping dynamic, his voice mature.
The album’s striking cover features a shot of Big Sean on the city’s east side, embellished with four Eastern Market street percussionists hovering above him — like “my guardian angels,” as he describes them. At his side is a colorful display of roses, in keeping with the rose theme that’s been part of his imaging for several years now.
On Friday, Spirit Plaza downtown will be site of a 3,000-rose installation arranged by 1-800-FLOWERS, inspired by the “Detroit 2” cover.
The release comes 15 years after Big Sean’s discovery by Kanye West during a Detroit radio station visit — a meeting that would lead to his G.O.O.D. Music signing and introduction to the world through a series of mixtapes and the 2011 full-length debut “Finally Famous.”
He hadn’t set out to make a sequel to “Detroit” when he embarked on his latest music. The concept eventually presented itself.
“It kind of developed like that as I got into it,” he says. “I always wanted to do a ‘Detroit 2,’ but I never caught the right zone and time to really capture the essence. As time went on and I was making the music, I was like: I think I’m ready to do this.”
It hadn’t come easy at first. Following “I Decided,” which topped the Billboard album chart in 2017, Big Sean found himself in a creative rut.
“At one point I wasn’t inspired at all to make music,” he says. “That’s when I realized I had some work to do on myself.”
Making music — long his “passion and happy place” — suddenly felt like a job. He put things on hold, he says, “for months and months and months.”
“I think whenever you do something for longer than 10 years, you have to rediscover that passion, relight that flame,” he says. “Whether you’re a lawyer, flipping burgers, an artist, whatever you are, any field, sometimes you get to a point in your life where you hit these walls. And you’re like, ‘OK, I’m not growing anymore. I need to figure out something. I need to break down this wall and keep going.’ And that’s where I was at around the time I turned 30.”
Big Sean started therapy, sought spiritual guidance and began daily meditation. In spring 2019, he went public about his battles with depression and anxiety, and the topic returned as the theme of his foundation’s DON Weekend in Detroit that summer.
Though widely applauded for speaking up — helping break a stigma that persists in many traditional male spaces and in hip-hop — Sean says he hasn’t kept close tabs on the praise.
“One of the things I haven’t been paying much attention to is feedback, because I’m so emotional,” he says, laughing. “That’s something I learned: Make sure I do what I want to do, no matter what, whether people love it or hate it.”
On “Detroit 2,” Big Sean once again addresses the perils of social media scrutiny — just as he did on last year’s track “Single Again.”
As work continued on the new album, the rejuvenated rapper found himself feeling the spirit of his early days. To that end, he embarked on a massive track called “Friday Night Cypher,” named for the old Detroit radio show that pitted local rappers in weekly battles of wits and technique.
With contributions from local producers such as Helluva and Key Wayne, the final track features verses from nearly a dozen Detroit artists — including Eminem, Royce da 5’9”, Tee Grizzley, Kash Doll and Payroll.
A sprawling effort that at one point featured more than 30 verses, it was one of album’s most demanding tracks, ultimately brought together by producer Hit-Boy, who helped “cut it down heavily and put something together that made sense,” Big Sean says.
Eminem goes “super-hard” on the track, as Sean puts it, and his appearance is a friendly boost for some of the budding acts on the song.
“I appreciate Eminem — being the (greatest of all time) that he is — for being willing to be on a song not just with me but with people from Detroit who don’t have close to his platform, and giving us some of his light,” Big Sean says.
The album’s spoken-word stories have their own charms.
Chappelle is dependably amusing as he reminisces about his infamous 2015 set at the Fillmore Detroit, where the comedian bombed after smoking up with rapper Danny Brown. He later got a pep talk from Big Sean’s dad backstage.
Badu talks of Detroit’s “special place in my heart,” rattling off a series of adjectives to describe the city: “Creative. Deep. Rooted. Organic. Cosmic. Fantastic. Futuristic. Ancient. Musical.”
Wonder recounts his upbringing on the city’s west side, where he says that as a young, blind musician, he found his artist vision.
Big Sean calls Wonder “just the greatest singer-songwriter of all time, and my absolute favorite.” The Motown star had reached out during the pandemic while contemplating a COVID-19 relief event, and eventually visited Big Sean in his studio to check out “Detroit 2” tracks.
The connection seems likely to spur future collaborations between the two.
“We have some ideas for music we’re working on, none that we could get done in time for the album,” the rapper says. “We didn’t want to rush it, but we’ve definitely exchanged ideas.”
For Big Sean, “Detroit 2” was cathartic in another important way. Following the spring killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the nationwide protests that erupted, the rapper found himself disconsolate.
“It felt like a weight that was too heavy for the planet to bear,” he says. Coming amid the pandemic, “it just added to the trauma, the tragedy, the pressure, the heat of it all. I found myself very angry at one point. I found myself very heartbroken.”
In tears, Big Sean journaled, meditated and immersed in his music. On “Guard Your Heart,” written a year ago to address protests, he got a new, topical addition from singer Wale.
And he gave the album an introduction to bring it all home, urging strength and perseverance through crisis.
“I was addressing where we’re at,” Big Sean says. “That’s the mentality and the mode: Why would I stop? We are unstoppable no matter what happens. I write that in my journal every single day — that I am unstoppable.”
Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or [email protected]