It is human nature to want to prove people wrong. If others pigeonhole you as a certain type, you want to go out and show them that they are wrong. You want to show them that you can do whatever you want to. You want to break through whatever pre-conceived notions they have about you. But the thing is, most of the time those people who are pegging you with some kind of trait aren’t that far off the truth. You are often at your best when you are being yourself, not trying to prove anything to anybody.
I bring this up because those were the thoughts that were passing through my mind as I began listening to Big Sean’s sophomore record, Hall of Fame. I found myself thinking, “Wait, where’s the dude who made a catchy hook out of only the word ‘Ass’? Where’s the dude who introduced ‘swerve’ into our collective vernacular? Where’s the dude who instructed me not to fuck with his clique?” And as the album continued, it became clear that Sean is trying to be something different here. He is trying to be more than that dude. Unfortunately for him, he is far better at being that dude than being anything else.
Big Sean and I have a strange relationship. I have never been a huge fan of his, but his debut, Finally Famous, had a few very solid tracks on it. His guest verses have been pretty hit or miss, ranging from pretty decent (his verse on Kanye West‘s “Clique”) to the most excruciatingly awful piece of garbage I have ever experienced in my 21 years of living (his verse on “Mercy”). But through all of this, one thing became clear: At his best, Big Sean makes fun music. He has a unique style, and when he uses it right, he can make pretty respectable songs. He’s doesn’t have to reinvent the genre. He just has to make tracks that are fun to blast out of your car window with a bunch of your friends. And so with Hall of Fame, that was all I was looking for. That’s all I needed from Sean. That’s all I asked for. But he did not deliver.
“Nothing Is Stopping You” starts off the record on an interesting note. It tackles one of the most dependable themes in the history of rap: the chronicling of the rapper’s rise to fame. Sean spins the true narrative of his journey, including his meeting with G.O.O.D Music mastermind Kanye West. He then turns the tables and tells the story of a young aspiring rapper meeting and proving himself to Sean. It’s an entertaining and fresh way to begin the record. It sets the mood for the overall message, and it shows Sean has a little bit of range. The only problem is the hook. It becomes extremely grating as the song progresses and drags everything around it down.
The sub-par hook on the first track becomes indicative of one of the (numerous) problems with Hall of Fame. Big Sean has always been on the poppier side of rap music, and no one is faulting him for that, but the hooks throughout this record are more often than not horrible enough to taint any kind of redeeming values that surround them. “10 2 10” is a low point on the album, taking a solid beat and contaminating it with Sean’s off-key howling about Mexicans. “Beware” features a vocal performance that sounds like Sean was forced at gunpoint to do it. He comes off as extremely unenthusiastic and outright bored on the hook, and it completely takes all the momentum away that he gets going during his verses. And then there’s “Sierra Leone”, where he completely derails an outstanding beat and a dazzling vibe with a flat, lackluster chorus.
Regardless of how good his rapping on tracks is, with the poppiness that he brings, he has to deliver stronger hooks and choruses or he risks his talent being overshadowed by mediocrity. But his massacring of hooks is even more disappointing when you come across the ones he does right. Whether it’s the outside assistance on “You Don’t Know” (Ellie Goulding can do nothing wrong in my book. Her voice is incredible; I could listen to her sing Creed’s greatest hits and it would be my favorite thing ever) and “Ashley” (Why doesn’t Miguel sing the chorus on every rap song?) or the simple brilliance of the hook on “First Chain”, it becomes abundantly clear that the main problem with the hooks on this record is that Sean is too involved. The worst ones are the ones where he is trying to carry too much of the vocal load, and it gets sloppy. The songs are at their best when the hooks are left to other voices, or if they are dialed down to their simplest, rawest forms. Hopefully Sean can see that and address it in subsequent releases.
The album isn’t without its bright spots, though. “Toyota Music” shows that Big Sean is capable of making slower tracks that are enjoyable, and its trippy spaced out feel, courtesy of Chiddy Bang’s own Xaphoon Jones, is a refreshing change of pace. “Mona Lisa” is about as dumb and ridiculous as the album gets, but it is the fun, out-of-control style that Sean can make work so well. An album full of songs in this vein is what I wanted. It’s far more enjoyable than anything else on the record, regardless of its outlandishness. But the standout on Hall of Fame is “Fire”. It finds the middle ground of the two worlds that Sean finds himself caught between. Its message is grandiose, and the hook is massive, but it also has Sean flexing his talent, with his signature out-of-control flow weaving recklessly through the pounding beat. The moment when the track cuts out and leaves Sean rhyming acapella, only to come crushing back in, is a breathtaking spectacle and proves that Big Sean does know how to mesh all his traits into a great song.
But every other track on Hall of Fame pales in comparison to the low point of the album (and possibly our species),“MILF”. It’s an appalling effort that takes the uncomfortable premise of Sean fucking some kid’s mom, adds in an atrocious hook delivered by a group of kids who are angered by the fact that Sean is fucking their mom, and then delivers the final blow that is a disgusting guest verse from Nicki Minaj, who I’m fairly certain was put on this Earth to punish mankind for its sins. It’s truly a repulsive song that forced me to take an infinite number of showers after listening to it to feel clean again. I know I said I was looking for dumb, fun music from Sean, but this track is deplorable. It, along with several other tracks, really causes an inconsistency on the record. If Sean wants to create aspirational, inspiring music, why would he include this song? This record really shows me that he isn’t quite comfortable with where he wants to be as a rapper. But it would be in his best interest to pick a side and stick with it, because the confusing, inconsistent moments on Hall of Fame are ultimately its main downfall.
I shouldn’t be this upset and disappointed by this album. I really shouldn’t. I have never liked or respected Big Sean. He almost single-handedly destroyed a song that features two of my favorite people ever, Kanye and 2 Chainz. I’ve never enjoyed him, so I shouldn’t be disappointed that he put out a bad album, right? But for some reason, I am. Maybe it’s that I caught glimpses of something special amidst the wreckage that is Hall of Fame. Maybe it’s because I accepted the fact that he has talent and can make entertaining songs. Maybe it’s because he is simply growing on me. But whatever the reason is, all I know is that Big Sean is better than Hall of Fame. I can only hope that he knows that too.