While the Key Wane-produced track “Nothing Is Stopping You” serves as a sensible intro to Big Sean’s sophomore album Hall of Fame, retelling the now-notorious story of his accidental audition for Kanye West at a Detroit radio station, the grandiose implications of the project’s title are best captured through the second track, “Fire,” a pre-released single brimming with soulful emotion, empowerment, and the echoing words, “I know it’s been a long, long time.” A long time it has been indeed, with the young rapper’s debut effort having been released in June of 2011.
Thanks to the widespread success of certain cuts off of his debut, high-profile guest features (Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me), and the slaughtering of verses spotting G.O.O.D. Music’s compilation album Cruel Summer, Big Sean was able to spend more than two years on his sophomore project without losing relevancy. In many ways, his importance and presence in the culture has been bolstered, a feat worthy of praise in itself. However, a monumental weight was placed on Big Sean’s second effort.
By allotting more time to touch on serious subject matter (Listen: the end of “It’s Time”) and by stepping up his lyricism, Sean takes a much needed sidestep, avoiding the very dangerous label of a gimmicky rapper, a label that stuck with him thanks to overly simplistic songs such as the 2011 song “A$$,” his various animated ad-libs, and an overall lack of depth and musical complexity. These characteristics existed throughout his mixtapes and ultimately plagued his debut album, Finally Famous, which was a rather disappointing project that spawned hits but did nothing to sway any from doubting Sean’s longevity as an artist.
On “First Chain,” a standout track supported by phenomenal contributions from Nas and Kid Cudi, Sean wastes no time shedding light on the current state of Detroit: “Coming from a city where bullets turn bros into souls / Who knew from that concrete that a rose had arose.” As a song in its entirety, “First Chain” mostly assumes a celebratory tone, until a single line subtly adds another element to everything that precedes it: “I’m rocking chains everyday, so you know I slave.” Continuing commentary most notably and recently shared by Kanye and J. Cole, Sean cleverly acknowledges the materialistic, negative repercussions of functioning within a society that stresses such a high importance on money and what it can buy you.
The powerful song “Ashley,” which sees Miguel once more exerting hip-hop-hook dominance, is one of the most mature tracks on this album, and also one of the most emotional. Sean reflects on his days with Ashley before he began making money with his music, seeing that the times with less monetary success brought him more happiness: “Remember that Christmas? We had a wish list / We couldn’t afford nothin’ but we still get shit / Ironically those were the times I felt the richest.”
If this album fails in anyway, it is because of some imaginary line that is not surpassed, whether it be the result of a lack of excitement, a disappointing guest spot, or an unremarkable verse from Sean himself. “You Don’t Know,” which features Ellie Goulding, leaves much to be desired. Lo-filtered, submerged sections of the hook are meant to build up to a final breaking point when the clean singing shines through, but the moment is not memorable. “10 2 10” consists of a banging beat that strays from the typical trap / club formula of the past several years (though this formula is revisited on “Mona Lisa”), but Sean’s delivering of the hook is off-putting. The elongating of every ending rhyme in the chorus (“Mexican,” “again,” and “adrenaline) is forcefully strained, hitting a peak level of annoyance with the final word. “MILF,” despite a, well, arousing verse from Nicki Minaj, recycles the clap from Sean’s aforementioned smash “A$$,” and the symphony of children hollering is a bit much. While the piano keys on the closing track are beautifully full, other reoccurring sounds are unneeded. There really isn’t a bad song on Hall of Fame, which exhibits Sean’s progress better than any amount of hype ever could, but Hall of Fame is no arsenal of incredible tracks, either.
It is on one of the best songs on the project that an oft-mentioned detractor from Sean’s originality arises. “Toyota Music,” produced by Xaphoon Jones of what was formerly Chiddy Bang, features a fantastic beat and solid rhymes. The song plays through without problems until the Detroit rapper reaches the following line: “Well / I got, money coming through / Drugs and women coming too.” One might need to rewind the track for a second to make sure it is not Drake who says “well,” and then another second to really grasp how closely the rest of the couplet resembles something from an OVO Sound record, between the sing-song-y delivery and the words being said. It would have sounded better if Sean’s contemporary from Toronto filled in here.
When such comparisons come to light, they tend to not work in Sean’s favor. Big Sean is to Drake what a Chrysler is to a Bentley; sure, they look similar (or in this case, sound similar from time to time), but it’s pretty clear which model is top tier and which occupies the second-string level. I’ve always seen Sean as Kanye’s answer to Lil Wayne’s Drake, perhaps because for some time Sean and Drake were seen as two hip-hop artists who had the most potential in their respective class. Any real similarity between them is mostly absent on this project, though the presence of this alone raises qualms regarding his future.
Hall of Fame is a far better album than Finally Famous. But as Sean proves his advancements and reaches to establish his own merits as an artist with individuality, he also exposes some limitations. Even on the highlight track, “Fire,” the rapper from Detroit cannot go without mentioning a line revolving around a concept as cringe-worthy as “Trapanese.” Big Sean is a good hip-hop artist, and he has improved considerably, but is he strong enough to ascend further in the game? The question is sure to receive far fewer “no’s” now than it would have in 2011, but the final answer remains to be seen.