How important is it that your lyrics reflect reality? People have been arguing this since crack rap’s second Golden Age in the middle of the last decade. 50 Cent, survivor of 9 gunshot wounds was the biggest rapper in the world, and “international drug kingpin” Rick Ross had been exposed as a former corrections officer. But did it matter?
The tentative agreement that most of us settled on was that authenticity is what a writer is able to sell you. If you believe it, it is no dream (or in officer Ricky’s case, if you pump the surreality to sufficiently absurd levels and the bass knocks). I loved guys like Pusha, Jeezy and Young Buck because even if they never sold a gram, they could lovingly detail the pain of a drug addict and the pain (or chilling absence of pain) of a drug dealer making his living off of misery and I believed their experience, on paper — the only place that matters.
There’s an old saying that goes “A Memph Bleek for every Jay”, and with Big Sean’s latest Hall of Game, Sean has secured his position as the Memph Bleek of his generation. My colleague Slava P has outlined all the reasons why the album is spectacularly meh, but for me it’s provoked a larger question. Memphis Bleek wasn’t “bad”. He had a few modest hits and sold some records, just like Sean. But there always seem to be guys like Sean and Memph, also-rans who fill out your radio hour with shit that sounds enough like everyone else to play, without being remarkable in any way. So why at the time was he such a derided punchline? What is the difference between artist like Big Sean, a technically solid rapper with the best intentions and all the right connections, who just can’t ever seem to figure it out. Versus the Beanie Siegels, the Kendricks, the Drakes [ed note: ahem] of the world?
I believe it comes down to a maddeningly vague quality known as authenticity of style. This gets tricky when you get into the question of originality. If everyone has a different pair of uptowns, how does one wear a “cool” pair of shoes? Originality, particularly in a 40 year old genre in its internet age, is virtually impossible. When it’s achieved, it’s often for it’s own sake and few people, aside from navel gazing writers desperate to make taste and the impressionable kids who follow them, care to hear the results (See: Lil B). So then how do you hit on a voice far away enough from your influences that it can be heard as your own, while still resonating with an audience in a meaningful way?
Two years ago, I reviewed Big Sean’s debut, Finally Famous. In it, I accused Big Sean of an all out Drake style heist. I was bombarded by the commenters under the bridge giving the specific dates and times Sean invented the hashtag flow — and how, in fact, it was Drake that had jacked Sean. First of all, fitting that the one original idea Sean had in his life was the most obnoxious trend in rap in decades. But more importantly, the majority of those comments largely missed the heft of the argument. Sean’s swagger jack went far beyond lifting a rhetorical device. It was a theft of mood and tone, the very sound Drake had instantly launched one of the brightest post Kanye careers in Hip Hop with, was being assumed throughout the album. Let’s check the tape.
Big Sean- My Last (ft. Chris Brown) (Finally Famous, 2011)
Released two years after each other, but only a year and a half or so after “Best I Ever Had,” the contrast between the songs are instructive to the difference between a truly original sound and something trying to emulate said sound. Let’s start with Drake’s drawbacks. His influences are fairly obvious: 90s R&B first and foremost, it’s hard to imagine in hindsight but there were no rappers so fearlessly saccharine at the time, except for one. Kanye has been acknowledged as a big influence on Drake’s sound. 808s and Heartbreaks in particular. But aside from his auto tune flourishes, as a writer, it’s Kanye that looms largest over Drake’s pen. Standout lines regarding Andy Griffith and pizza are pure Kanye goofy smart cheese that ultimately works in the artist’s favor (even if you hate the song, you can quote those punchlines verbatim).
For the majority, “Best I Ever Had” was a great, memorable pop song that we’ll be glad to hear at BBQs for years to come. Few would argue that for “My Last”?). Why? Let’s start with voice. Unlike Sean, who passed off to Chris Brown on hook duties (and is being considered for the voice of Eeyore in next year’s mixed CGI/live action Winnie the Pooh adaptation), Drake did the singing here. Somewhat evolutionary: He’s a rapper first who can also cover R&B terrain convincingly. He’s displaying courage as an artist and talent to his audience. Then there’s the very conceit of the song. There’s a cleverness in his intro dedicated to an anonymous hook up while indicating familiarity and specificity. A wink behind the brashness, a touch of complexity, insecurity, a real personality conveyed throughout. You may not walk away liking Drake, but perhaps you’ll feel like you kind of know him.
If you take all the shades and nuances out of “Best I Ever Had,” you’d get “My Last”. Straightforward and earnestness, there’s a sense of gratitude at just reaching the finish line. He pictures a world where there will never be another problem and a cookie cutter hook replaces everything that made Drake’s lead single interesting. It’s all generic big money talk and braggadocio no one believes. Does Big Sean come off as a well-meaning nice guy? Sure. Does it make for a very fun song? Not really. This criticism extends to much of the subsequent album.
Despite being desperate to please, Sean made some radical stylistic changes in the face of the collective yawn that greeted his debut. While Big Sean has totally switched up his flow, he still remains kind of awful for the exact same reason. On Hall of Fame, Sean no longer sounds like Drake, (though on songs like the putrid “All Figured Out” he drops the aw shucks I’m just happy to be here approach and delivers a remedial Fame Rap, “SHOWING” all over the place). The flow he’s been trotting out for his radio efforts is woozy and unpredictable, subject to sudden gear shifts and mewling left field melodies. You can find it on the Cruel Summer singles and “Guap.” But it never sounds worse than when positioned opposite its inventor.
You would be forgiven for not remembering “Dance (A$$)” was a song that started as an album cut on Finally Famous, because it found its life on radio as a remix with Nicki Minaj. The remix was released in October of 2011, exactly a year after her virtuosic performance on “Monster.” In Big Sean’s hands, his three movement verse and the overall impact the aforementioned wooziness creates is that of a bi-polar cartoon character trying to balance between crystal meth and K.
Of course, Minaj invented and still masters in said cartoonishness, but does so with complete and total commitment. She employs a score of accents, voices and sporadic bursts of adrenaline. It’s exhilarating, while Sean hedges towards the middle, somewhat restrained and as a result is merely annoying. To be fair, with a little conviction and a great climactic pay off on “Clique”, it works. Here, simply put, Nicki OWNS it, Sean does not. It’s yet another lifeless grab at a remarkable young artist’s intellectual property. Sean has simply replaced Drake with Minaj as his muse.
There are plenty of artists who employ such stylistic curveballs in their verses. General in-verse weirdness is en vogue. I just reviewed a young prodigy in the discipline. You can also find a host of oddball Gucci disciples in Atlanta (See: Migos, Young Thug, and Gucci’s 3-mixtape epic) who are quite proficient at it. But to bring it around to the thesis, these artists have achieved a kind of “authenticity”.
We buy their style and it is sufficiently “theirs”. It resonates with us because where, to draw comparisons between the questions of authenticity in style as opposed to content, a stylist uses conviction where a writer uses detail. A stylist establishes mood much like a writer. A stylist commits with energy. The effective stylist conveys personality, distinct and weird individuality, whether it be through verse, spoken interludes or something as simple as a well timed ad-lib (“DON’T LOOK LIKE THAT”). It can be a question of aggression, or inebriation, or insanity, but it’s coherent and even if it is premeditated it feels genuine.
There are a number of young authentic working stylists in rap I’m excited about. Action Bronson earns authenticity with a universe of bizarre references ranging from haute cuisine to the sex trade. The guys in Migos are very good rappers who are actually fun and allow odd humor to seep into their punchlines. Earl Sweatshirt is a rap nerd’s rap nerd, having a ball seeing just how many twists and turns he can wring out of multi syllabic schemes. But Big Sean is not one of these artists.
I don’t know what the genome is that accounts for originality (probably some bizarre cocktail of creativity and confidence) but Big Sean and his eternal middle pack ilk were born without it. (This is as of this date. Prove me wrong Big Sean!). He will bounce through his career in Kanye’s tailwind, occasionally hitting with whatever sound is popular, a Clear Channel parasite (See: Fat Joe, Fabolous, and yes, Memph Bleek). Then he’ll be gone and few besides us rap nerds will remember him. He is a pair of uptowns patterned like Quagmire’s button down that no one on the block has. He is different, like everyone else.