Big Sean has a chip on his shoulder. The latter-day champion of Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music label, former XXL Freshman and self-proclaimed “best in the city [of Detroit]”(“Ashley”) just dropped one of 2013’s most highly-anticipated releases, Hall of Fame, but he did so amid the clamor created by “Control”, the already infamous single in which Kendrick Lamar dominates Sean on Sean’s own track.
Even when Kendrick is removed from the equation, Big Sean faces the indomitable challenge of developing his identity—the world recognizes his verbal dexterity but some have suggested that he tends towards outmoded clichés. Sean has chosen to bear the weight of Detroit’s stagnation on his shoulders, assuming the role of singular representative for his city’s stake in hip-hop. And he has essentially declared himself famous.
In some ways, Hall of Fame picks up where Finally Famous left off; we find Big Sean eschewing boom-bap traditionalism, eminently concerned with his own fame and grandeur, floating feather-light on hard-hitting synth beats, undeniably charismatic and upbeat but sporting a delivery only a little fiercer than oatmeal. Hall of Fame reverberates with victory and escape—it’s a project which demonstrates the Detroit MC’s desire to motivate through his music. However determined Big Sean may be to inspire, his second LP struggles to escape the same clichés put forth on Finally Famous and suffers from a general lack of diversity.
Big Sean can “flow”—he is recognized for his elasticity—and the album is rife with his labyrinthine rhyme patterns and double entendre. This said, only some of his double entendre and metaphor is clever and inventive. In “It’s Time” Sean rattles off a few witty lines detailing his family’s financial troubles: “Momma swimming in that debt/Rather swim with the piranhas”. But on the almost-obnoxiously bombastic “10 2 10”, Sean sounds trite and flat: “They say Detroit going through the great depression/Still it’s been depressed so long I can’t even tell depression here”. Lyrically, most of Hall of Fame follows the same trajectory; we become all too familiar with Sean’s self-reported work ethic and his resulting ascent into the multifarious and complicated realm of hip-hop greatness. Sure, waxing philosophical on the pressures of fame is de rigeur in hip-hop this year, but Sean never strays far enough from this formula.
Hall of Fame finds Big Sean continuing to develop chemistry with producer No I.D., the “Godfather of Chicago hip-hop”. Of the list of producers credited on Hall of Fame, No I.D. offers the most positive contribution to the album’s sonic landscape, entreating elements of EDM and trap in constructing a triumphant, lively aesthetic (“It’s Time, You Don’t Know”). Sean’s features are a mixed bag of ratchet characters (Nicki Minaj and Juicy J on “MILF”), brooding R&B stalwarts (Miguel on “Ashley”, James Fauntleroy on “World Ablaze”) and respected vets (Nas on “First Chain”).
It’s easy to tell that Big Sean is contented with his success—Hall of Fame radiates an infectious positivity and energy. Sean is most compelling when he deviates from his aforementioned formula. “All Figured Out” finds Sean especially thoughtful and introspective, while “First Chain” encapsulates Sean’s concern with his own legacy more lucidly than any of the album’s myriad “rags-to-riches” stories. “Ashley” is an interesting isolated example of Sean’s capacity to unravel stories, and it’s not a typical manifestation of rising action, but he seems very uncomfortable there. “MILF” and “10 2 10” are abrasive would-be bangers; “MILF” lacks nuance and substance altogether, and Sean’s delivery on “10 2 10” is grating and awkwardly unpleasant. Hall of Fame may very well be an important step in Big Sean’s quest to find himself, but it’s too monotonous and repetitive to stomach easily.