On a muggy June night at the Standard Hotel, as Big Sean’s debut Finally Famous: The Album played to a room full of journalists and industry executives—not to mention Kanye West—the Detroit rapper stood up from his chair and began to party. Mouthing the lyrics to the raunchy “Dance (A$$),” he took his microphone and turned it into an extension of his phallus, waving it down there like a gleeful toddler as the track imbued new meaning to MC Hammer’s signature phrase “Hammer Time.”
He wasn’t all bravado, though; as he thanked his friends for sticking with him, Sean wept. “I used to be shy in everything I did,” he said. “I used to be too shy to rap. [His longtime best friend and hypeman] Tone used to make me rap.”
In 2005, Sean was cashing a paycheck from a telemarketing gig when he got a call from a friend alerting him to Kanye West’s presence at a local radio station. Thanks to his knowing people there, he was able to get to Kanye, who allowed him a 16-bar audition. It was impressive enough for Yeezy to sign Sean to G.O.O.D. Music in 2007; he released his first mixtape that September.
Finally Famous: The Album is finally out after a couple of false starts, although thanks to the timing of its release it may very well have locked up at least one slot on 2011’s Songs of the Summer list. “My Last,” the album’s Chris Brown–assisted first single, is lean and spirited, with a riveting loop borrowed from New Edition’s 1988 hit “Can You Stand the Rain.” On the track, Sean is girl-crazy, perpetually tipsy, and beholden only to the prerogatives of himself and his crew. More than that, though, it illustrates a fascinating dynamic between generations: “My Last” producer No I.D. (Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.”; Jay-Z’s “Run This Town”) is a hip-hop stalwart devoted to a soulful formula; Big Sean, meanwhile, is in his early twenties, is credited for bringing snapback hats back into vogue, and was an early pioneer of the elongated-pause punchline technique known as “hashtag rap” (“And I ‘m expected to blow … Lindsay”).
“Neither one of us, no matter how much we have respect for each other or whatever cool words we have to say [in public], can say we had chemistry that was made in heaven in those first sessions,” No I.D. said of his time working with Sean. “I’m the type of person that really has a strong opinion, but a lot of his newness to the game had him questioning a lot of the things to do. I was like, ‘Let’s do it, see what it looks like, and make a decision.’ “
Finally Famous, which contains a handful of other tracks produced by No I.D. as well as collaborations with the likes of the Neptunes and Wiz Khalifa, is a slick triumph filled with muscular drums and rolling synthesizers. “Memories (Part II),” an update of “Memories” from his 2010 mixtape Finally Famous Vol. 3, is pumped up with beefy piano chords, heavier drums, and an assist from John Legend. “Marvin Gaye & Chardonnay” has one of the album’s catchiest hooks and a cameo from Kanye himself; since its release earlier this month, it’s been blowing up, bringing that day at the radio station full-circle.
“I remember riding to school listening to Lil Wayne, listening to Jay-Z, listening to all these different mixtapes and now we doin’ that shit,” said the 23-year-old. “That shit is, like, happening. That’s the best part of life, man—when you set your mind to something and it starts happening. It’s better than everything. “