[31 October 2013]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
As far as Big Sean should be concerned, Kendrick Lamar picked a hell of a time to get pissed off. It wasn’t too long ago that “Control” dropped like a nuclear bomb and imploded each end of the Internet’s social media universe. Nobody could even comprehend the balls it took to go after Every Important Rapper the genre has seen, sure, but the minute Lamar name-dropped his collaborator among his list of casualties…whoa, there.
The song doesn’t appear on Big Sean’s latest official full-length effort, Hall of Fame, but there’s something about the sentiment of both Lamar’s verse and the LP in question that says it should. Floating in a world over-saturated with hip-hop cliches, it’s not that the Detroit rapper doesn’t set himself apart from the rest of the genre’s newest, youngest and best MCs with these 15 tracks (18 for you deluxe edition fans), it’s just that he doesn’t set himself apart enough. For a guy who once sounded so hungry to rhyme his way out of the Motor City, essentially stalking Kanye West in order to land his spot among the industry’s in-crowd, he may have been best served had he taken down a note or two from Lamar’s School of Conflict and opted for a more bombastic approach toward crafting his second record.
It’s odd, too, considering how adamant Sean was to steer clear of label boundaries and stay true to himself as an artist while compiling this set (or, at least so he said in walk-up interviews). Granted, there’s a lot here to be celebrated—the tracks as a whole are decidedly less hook-y than one may expect and there are moments the rapper offers that are on par with some of his best appearances in recent memory—but there’s still something inherently lacking from the whole thing’s aftertaste.
The collaborations, for one, are hit and miss. “First Chain”, with Nas and Kid Cudi—along with the Miguel duet “Ashley”—are standouts, the former working best because of Nas’s increasingly aggressive flow and Cudi’s never-failing seamlessness that makes him as intriguing an artist as any the young crew features today. “Ashley”, in addition to being another can’t-miss appearance on Miguel’s laughingly impressive resume, allows the rapper to spread out his tender tropes in a good way—there’s no denying that Sean is at his best whenever he doesn’t fall into the lazy stereotypes on which so many hip-hop artists tend to lean these days, and here, not only is his flow substantial, but it’s also lasting.
But those don’t make up for the should-be bullseyes that end up barely sticking to the board. The Nicki Minaj and Juicy J collab “Milf” is a waste of a golden opportunity if only for how show-stopping the female MC has proven she can be in guest stints (you still can’t find a better 2010 verse in all of rap than her breathtaking appearance on West’s “Monster”). Here, however, the same magic is not to be, considering how the minimalist beat is barely enough to carry a memorable hook, let alone the addition of a fairly pedestrian effort from Sean himself. Ditto for the deluxe-only “Mula Remix”, where the nearly-six minute track shouts its way to the finish line about two-and-a-half minutes too late.
Still—and even with the missteps fully in mind—you can’t deny the raw talent that ‘Ye clearly saw in the Detroit native. Album-opener “Nothing Is Stopping You” is ripe with honesty and a biography begging to be made into a movie. Recalling that fateful day he made his way down to the radio station at which West was appearing, Sean splices in audio of the G.O.O.D. Music head singing his praises all the while tipping his hat to karma, allowing a would-be star to spit a verse or two to him. The tale might feel a little too obnoxious in a lesser rapper’s hands, though Sean instantly wins any listener over with his proposed humility. “All Figured Out” then reaches for introspection and while it may come up just a tiny bit short, it earns the rapper points for levity.
Yet it’s that precise potential that makes other parts of the set so frustrating. “You Don’t Know” and “Mona Lisa” lean on the type of predictable rants that can’t help themselves from always finding their way into hip-hop’s lexicon: women and weed. That’s OK, of course—such is to be expected from most everybody these days now that even someone as straight-laced as Common broaches the subjects every now and then—but the turn makes each track boring and somewhat of a let down when placed next to most of the others.
“I woke up working like I’m Mexican/That mean I work from 10 to 10/Then 10 to 10, then 10 again/Nightmares of losing everything boost my adrenaline,” Big Sean relays on “10 2 10”, a decidedly dark track aided by No I.D.‘s clear-cut ominous touch. In a way, that hook can sum up the entire collection. Why? Because the best parts of Hall of Fame come when that adage is indicative of how hungry the guy still is all these months after breaking through with 2011’s Finally Famous, yet the worst parts appear when that adage is indicative of how tired such an ethic might inevitably make him feel.
If anything, this set proves that not even the biggest of rappers are immune to some of the tinniest discrepancies from which hip-hop culture can sometimes suffer. Two official studio-albums into his career and Sean hasn’t made himself a lock to be enshrined anywhere. But Hall of Fame, in addition to its many virtues and limited flaws, makes the case for the possibility that he may someday at least be on the ballot.