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Big Sean Is Rap’s Most Improved Artist

After years of slow progress, he’s become one of the genre’s most engaging stars

In the last half-decade, there hasn’t been a more impactful moment in rap’s shifting hierarchies than Kendrick Lamar’s verse on Big Sean’s 2013 song “Control.” A flame-throwing, name-dropping challenge to his young, influential peers, the verse reinforced Lamar’s position as the quintessential modern hip-hop artist. Though the song was originally slated for Big Sean’s Hall of Fame, it didn’t make the cut; the official reason had to do with uncleared samples, but the impression remained that Lamar had swiped the song from right under Sean’s nose. Few noted at the time that Big Sean’s own verse on “Control” was a blitzkrieg, too. With an appealingly malleable flow, he took shots at his peers, chronicled his climb to Detroit rap royalty (“Now I run my city on some town hall shit”), and took note of his city’s real-life shortcomings (“Niggas get sprayed up like AK was cologne / For a paycheck or loan ... They say Detroit ain’t got a chance, we ain’t even got a mayor”). His verse was unsurprisingly overshadowed by Kendrick’s — the winners write the history books — but “Control” demonstrated for the first time that Big Sean was more than just a punch line rapper. He hasn’t looked back since.

The shift toward creating more personalized and even profound art that began with “Control” has paid off for Big Sean in recent years, raising expectations for his fourth album, February’s I Decided, to levels that were once far out of reach. In many ways, he’s contemporary hip-hop’s Most Improved Player. In the NBA, that award often goes to a baller who’s been given more playing time, which means he does better in the major statistical categories — points, rebounds, and assists (but mainly points). In other cases, as with Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler, who won in 2015, it’s more about hard work: A player who was once just good can cross the threshold of average and inch toward actual greatness.

Hip-hop and basketball are pretty much play-cousins in American culture, so it stands to reason that we can measure rap stars’ improvement in a similar way. But since rap is a more qualitative, subjective art than basketball, improvement isn’t always as clear-cut. Calling Big Sean hip-hop’s Most Improved might sound like a backhanded way of saying “You used to suck, but now you don’t suck as much.” Yet the fact remains that making quality music is fucking hard, and lyrical improvement is something to celebrate, not mock. Not to mention, Big Sean was never a bad rapper, per se — at worst, he was a blah rapper with funny punch lines and not much else. That left lots of room for him to learn the limits of his previous work, to experiment, and to become the refined and engaging artist he is today.

I decided to stick with Big Sean’s music early on because he struck me as a fun-loving court jester who could grow into something greater. With the help of legendary host and DJ Don Cannon, his 2010 mixtape Finally Famous Vol. 3: BIG was littered with loopy piano strokes and flaunty rap, ranging from blue-collar back-patting in “Meant to Be” to pretentious down-talking of his peers on “What U Doin Bull$#!@ing,” “Too Fake,” and “Fuck My Opponent.” Sean was just coming off a huge year after signing to G.O.O.D. Music and landing a spot on XXL’s annual Freshman List, so the boasting was warranted. I revered the tape then — it was chock-full of aspirational, relatable bangers that reassured listeners he was ready for the big leap. The mainstream promise Sean showed on Finally Famous Vol. 3 was summed up in one of his verses on “Supa Dupa Lemonade”: “I just give ’em line after line after line after line after line, barcode.” The bar is, admittedly, goofy as hell, but his giddy delivery and direct appeal to the commercial market were charming. As enjoyable as it was, though, the mixtape hardly gave audiences a sense of who Big Sean might be outside of the studio, how he had faltered and struggled, or how his reality had been directly shaped by his experiences in Detroit.

That narrowness followed Big Sean into his debut album, 2011’s Finally Famous. Again, he demonstrated an ability to weave the quippy punch lines he was known for with hooks that didn’t really lead us anywhere. Songs like “My Last,” on which Sean plays mack daddy by emphasizing his work ethic (“Grind hard but got a lot to show for it / Always had drive, like I had to chauffeur it”), and the Kanye-assisted “Marvin & Chardonnay” were perfect soundtracks for a frivolous, debauched summer. But by the fall, it was clear that the album hadn’t given us much to sink our teeth into. Sean’s delivery, vocal inflections, and singular ad-libbing talent were still strong, but he seemed directionless. Skepticism began to set in.

It wasn’t until 2012 that Sean Don’s potential came into focus. That year, he dropped his most acclaimed mixtape, Detroit, where he celebrated his hometown in a way that went beyond “D-tooowwwnn” ad-libs. His love for the city is couched in anguish — for leaving, for not being able to solve its subpar state institutions — and in genuine admiration for family members and homeboys who suffer yet resolve to survive. Sean flexed his storytelling chops on tracks like “24K of Gold,” in which he imagines a world under his benevolent rule where he’d “start a franchise / So my dog can quit wearing a .44 up on his waist like it’s his pant size.” He admonishes the city’s education system for “teaching us ass backwards.” The mixtape still had plenty of Sean’s trademark materialism and sexual boasting, but it was buoyed by his new commitment to talking about the uphill economic battles of his past and the ones his city still faced.

If Detroit signaled a move toward more meaningful content in his verses, then “Control” and Hall of Fame found him looking for a new sound to match that newfound depth. The Chiddy Bang–produced bump of “Toyota Music” showcased his developing gift for slant rhyme: He fit so perfectly in the cut that just mouthing the lyrics can give you a feel for the nature of the bounce — “Spilling liquor, rest in peace, rest of my Gs rest with a piece / Start the day dissecting weed, then strategize, then rest my team.” The single “Beware” was Sean’s best love-rap song to date and a reminder of how well his lower registers pair with Jhené Aiko’s whisper vocals. But the album was a transitional one, especially in light of the moves he made on 2015’s critical breakthrough Dark Sky Paradise.

Taking a hint from the rise of austerity in rap — led by artists like Kanye West, who executive-produced the album — Big Sean went for a smoky, paranoid aesthetic that highlighted his renewed rap style. The first half of Dark Sky Paradise features some of his hardest rhymes yet: “Paradise” is a breathless fury where Sean machine-guns your favorite rapper, your favorite rapper’s girl, your favorite rapper’s playlists, and your favorite rapper’s laziness, and shouts out The Beatles in approximately .08 seconds (“Look at my girl, nigga, fuck yo’ bae list / Fuck yo’ night list, fuck yo’ day list, fuck yo’ playlist / I’m from the D, fuck your A-list / I been working eight days a week / I don’t even know what the fuck today is”). He smartly bookended the album with grounded and inspiring songs — a lesson carried over from Detroit — and, in between, gave us the peachy nostalgia of “Play No Games” and the ubiquitously petty breakup-rager sing-along “I Don’t Fuck With You.” Dark Sky Paradise was written and recorded in Sean’s L.A. home, where he felt comfortable enough to reveal the darker emotions looming behind his glossy veneer. The album represented his greatest foray inward, the first time he really dealt with mortality on record. When he rapped about the death of his grandmother, more than ever, he felt like one of us. It’s no coincidence that his most relatable album is also his most commercially successful. After years of slow progress, Big Sean had finally attained the consistent level of skill, content, and delivery that his earliest work promised.

Where does that leave him in 2017? The songs Big Sean has released so far from his next album are effortlessly performed, like most of his singles. “Bounce Back” showcases his penchant for redemptive rhetoric — “Everything I do is righteous / Betting on me is the right risk.” His flow is confident, sailing over a shoulder-shimmying, boppin’-ass Metro Boomin beat. His second new track, “Moves,” solidifies his ability to sound relaxed even as his speed ratchets up to near-inimitable levels. He’s composed, only raising his voice when met with competition — “Motherfuck the whole industry / Half of these niggas my mini-me's ... You hot for a minute, me / I make the shit that last for infinity.” His audience has reason to be hopeful; his doubters, nervous. “I’m excited to push the culture and push my artistry to the limit,” he said in a recent interview, citing a heavy Motown influence on his newest album. He's still challenging himself, still working on convincing the world that his unlikely rise was no fluke but a product of rigorous self-improvement. As I Decided approaches, Big Sean is becoming undeniable.