You can’t help but root for Big Sean on this one. Forget the fact that he’s locked in a sales battle with hip hop’s resident vile jester, the guy has seemed to truly put the effort in. From an interview with Vulture to frequent, passionate posts on social media, Sean has made it clear he wants Detroit 2 to be his classic.
Thus far, the closest G.O.O.D. Music’s resident average joe has come to a “good” album has been Dark Sky Paradise, yet even that relative victory felt due more to proximity than anything. A memorable Drake turn, two even more memorable Kanye turns, a handful of peak Mustard beats; in short, it would have been truly hard to entirely bungle.
Sean seeming like the bland one in his crew isn’t entirely his fault: end up on a label populated with the likes of West, Pusha T and Kid Cudi, as a rapper who tends to like sticking to the basics…well, it’s never going to be the best look for you.
Nonetheless, Sean, along with his tabloid-friendly string of relationships, has always managed solid popularity, essentially inserting him by default into a conversation alongside rappers – as cruel as it is to say – by far his superiors. Whatever his confidence tells him (and however often he borrows his flows), Big Sean is never going to out-rap Kendrick Lamar, let alone put out an album nearing his competition’s worst possible effort.
A large part of the problem simply seems to be how the man views himself. Take a line from his recent appearance on Nas’ King’s Disease: “I bought you diamonds even though I got a heart of gold.” Setting aside the groan-inducing nature of the line, it paints a clear picture of how Sean envisions himself. He wears many hats in his songs: the irrepressible lothario, the guy you know is better looking than you who isn’t afraid to boast about it, the spiritual lite, the wannabe “true MC”, or, for lack of a better expression, the total jerk. But, above all, it’s clear that Sean, taking things a step beyond main character syndrome, consistently views himself as the hero within his story.
This is again exemplified on Detroit 2‘s “The Baddest” when Sean raps, “I heard you keep what you love that’s valuable inside your safe / I keep mine inside my heart, I guess we value different things (God).” Beyond his not seeming to see the irony of boasting about his finances on the very next track “Don Life”, it reveals perhaps the fatal flaw in Sean’s songwriting. His inability to see himself – or at least unwillingness to portray himself – as much more than this ‘golden boy’ prevents the sort of self-critique, self-deprecation, or even self-awareness that makes a Kendrick Lamar great. This keeps a Big Sean feeling serviceable, but impersonal.
Still, Detroit 2 tries. In the opening stretch it truly seems Sean just may get away with that great album he’s been seeking. “Why Would I Stop?” provides a solid, chest-thumping opener, “Lucky Me” delivers a beat switch that’d make Travis Scott envious, and “Deep Reverence” makes good use of a posthumous Nipsey Hussle verse (while Sean, again, tries to place himself on Lamar’s level). Hell, even a completely needless, phoned-in Post Malone appearance can’t drag down the vicious “Wolves”, boasting one of Sean’s strongest hooks in memory.
Yet, Malone’s appearance speaks to a curious oddness inherent in Detroit 2. For all the talk Sean has offered about his desire to deliver his statement, he includes a head-scratching amount of filler. Did we really need two love anthems with Jhené Aiko? Even “Respect It”, “Lithuania”, and “Don Life” – excuses to include Young Thug, Travis Scott, and Lil Wayne respectively – while all perfectly functional rap anthems, shed no light on whatever journey Sean intends Detroit 2 to be.
In fact, it’s not entirely clear what the album wants to be at all. In title, of course, Detroit 2 is a dedication to its creator’s city, and without a doubt, those moments of adoration are present, particularly in “Friday Night Cypher”. A tribute to the city’s legendary battle rap clubs, it features an absolute mess of Detroit personalities, many rumored (and even confirmed) to not get along. Does it work as a song? That’s a tall order for a nearly 10-minute track with 11 different rappers from several generations. Is it a beautiful moment, nonetheless? Absolutely, especially if it leads to further collaborations by the city’s youth and its ageing white spectre, Eminem (who provides a lengthy verse that’s awkward and impressive by turns).
So, too, are the “Story” skits a tribute to the city, but while they can be intermittently charming (particularly Chappelle’s bit), they feel tacked on, sign posts seeking to create the appearance of depth and cohesion where there isn’t any (ironically, a problem Sean’s rap hero, Mathers, also created for himself with a handful of Hitchcock skits on album mostly full of pop songs on his own most recent LP).
On an album that truly stuck to its theme, these moments may well have felt earned, but as it is they feel like abrupt pit stops on a random drive. There are moments that feel truly personal within Sean’s journey – “Harder Than My Demons”, “Full Circle”, album closer “Still I Rise” with friend Dom Kennedy, and others that simply feel relevant to the current cultural moment (namely “Guard Your Heart”). But, too much of it simply feels like scattershot attempts at “good songs”, lacking in spirit or purpose.
Naturally, this would be fine if Detroit 2 aimed to be an overwhelming assault of a good time like, say, ASTROWORLD, but it has neither the mad energy of that album, nor the desire to simply gun it. It gets bogged down in the doldrums somewhere between the personal and universal, and ends without truly having reached either shore.
To be clear, none of this is to call Detroit 2 a “bad” album. It’s far from it. Yet, for a work that – at least in the claims of its creator – so desires to burst into the essential, it’s peculiarly unsure of itself. Is it Big Sean’s best work yet? Overall, it may well be. Yet, it’s hard not to picture what might have been with just a bit of critical trimming and a tad more reflection on just what it wanted to say, rather than solely what it wanted to be.