Live: Big Sean Tears Down (And Tears Up At) Irving Plaza


Big Sean
Irving Plaza
Tuesday, June 21

Better than: Being trampled at the Adidas store.

Two weeks ago, Kanye West hopped onstage at the listening party for Big Sean’s Finally Famous and told an industry crowd that “what Beyoncé is to R&B, Big Sean can be to hip-hop.” It was a bold statement from a man who lacks an indoor voice, a headliner writing headlines.

Truth be told, Big Sean is no Beyoncé, and probably never will be; that comparison is like putting a ball-peen hammer next to a wrecking ball and calling them both oranges. Sean is shy, reluctant, confused by the attention; he’s closer to being the Drake of hip-hop. If anything, Kanye is akin to Beyoncé.

And on top of that, it’s easy to get Big Sean and Kanye confused. Everything’s a bit derivative: his clothing, his album artwork, his persistence. Hell, Sean’s introductory get-up last night was a big red jacket with thin gold chains, the same as Ye’s “Runaway” VMA performance—it was like Sean was playing dress-up, holding up a hairbrush and dancing in the mirror.

That’s not to say that Big Sean is not charming or capable of putting together great music. He definitely is! He’s his own artist, though his art may be shaped in Kanye’s mold, baked in Kanye’s kiln, and awaiting Kanye’s critique. His current song/trending topic, “Marvin Gaye and Chardonnay,” is the most intriguing and addictive club banger in a long time, a rumbling number with bed-squeaks in the left ear, an unromantic call to romance. (Then again, Kanye produced and is featured on the song.)

And thanks to a series of his mixtapes that act as the soundtrack to many teens’ lives, Big Sean has built up a huge network of his own fans, many of whom stood in two lines that stretched both ways around the block before last night’s free show. It kind of felt like we were the squishy dolls of Toy Story’s Pizza Planet, awaiting the claw. “I’ve been here since 9 a.m.!” a girl screamed. The gates didn’t budge for her, nor for the scores of kids in Big Sean tees. VIPs clamored and jostled, complaining that they were being made to wait like “normal” people. (The cynical might say that the crowd came less for the name on the marquee and more for the price at the box office, but that’s not the case. Everyone around me knew every word to his every song, underground tracks all. He could’ve given away a microphone with any of the tickets.)

Last night was Big Sean’s greatest opportunity to differentiate himself from Kanye, to show that his voice is more than just Kanye’s ringtone set on vibrate. For much of it he succeeded. His music—upbeat, unrelenting—lacks the range of Mr. West, but he did get emotional during “Memories,” choking up and turning his back to the UStream camera just inches away. And Big Sean may dress like Kanye, but they don’t move the same way. Whereas the bossman will occasionally spin and ostrich-dive his head downward, Sean is more rapid-fire, juking his shoulders and ratcheting his elbows and dipping his hips back. He’s got legs like Flintstone car-pedals and arms like nunchucks. Most hilariously, his neck snaps up and down; he’s a Pez dispenser in a snakeskin cap.

Weirdly, I felt, there were moments where Sean somehow stepped out of Kanye’s shadow and into that of Tone, his best friend and hypeman. It’s not that Tone is exceptional in any way (believe me, he’s not); it’s more that Sean seemed eager to pass off the shine he’s earned. Maybe he’s just generous. Here’s a guy who got signed to Kanye’s label by chasing him down at a Detroit radio station and proving his worth in a ten-minute freestyle, yet somehow he’s so humble and quick to hide behind a blade of grass. In separate speeches, he thanked his day-one fans, his G.O.O.D. Music family, his grandmother, a teacher who shook her head at his rap-star dreams, Adidas and Kanye West. (Having long-winded speeches break up the set list is something he presumably learned from his mentor.)

Eventually Kanye himself (in a matching Don C. hat) came out and showed the real reason why Big Sean is not Kanye, at least not yet. Big Sean set off a riot at the adidas store earlier this week, but when the opening bars to “Marvin Gaye and Chardonnay” made their way into the speakers, the dance floor turned into Pamplona—pure, uncut mayhem.

Big Sean was top-billed, but in hindsight the marquee was confusing. The kid standing next to me asked two too many times, “Do you think Kanye will show up?” As the show ended, many chanted “Encore! Encore!” but a group countered with “Yeezy! Yeezy!”

Critical bias: I like Big Sean’s music, but I also like Kanye West’s music. Also, the Big Sean tee I got as a giveaway from the listening session fits me perfectly.

Overheard: “Snapbacks are back, right? Big Sean brought them back, right? Well if your head is a size 7 3/4 or above, you can’t rock one. If you’ve got one notch holding it together… stay off the snapbacks.”—DJ Enuff, introducing Big Sean.

Random notebook dump: Does Pusha T have a standing invitation at every concert venue in New York? In just over two weeks, I’ve seen him five times. It’s not a problem! I just want to know that he’s staying in an actual apartment and not, like, sleeping outside Webster Hall.

Set list:
All of the Lights (Remix)
Phone Numbers
Home Town
High Rise
Too Fake (with Chiddy Bang)
My Closet (with SAYITAINTTONE)
My God (Pusha T)
Gang Bang
I Do It
Desire, Want, & Need
Everything High
Marvin Gaye and Chardonnay (with Kanye West)
Intro (A Capella)
My Last