Considering just how good Big Sean sounds on Hall of Fame, it’s ironic that Kendrick Lamar’s now infamous verse on his song “Control” — a track that didn’t even make the album’s final cut — is the only thing certain hip-hop fans want to talk about these days.
It’s a shame, really. Hall of Fame not only marks Sean’s finest hour as an artist but it also proves that there’s still a lane for rap that doesn’t have to be rooted in complex, multi-layered lyricism. The album sees Sean sticking to his strengths and building on them significantly from his last outing on 2011’s Finally Famous.
Now I have to be really careful in overselling this album as one of my favourites of the year but Sean’s charisma is quite infectious and Hall of Fame works perfectly as a body of work that flows smoothly from one track to the next. It’s not the work of an absolute hip-hop genius but it is an ode to individuality as Sean never strays away from his formula, trying to be something he isn’t.
Hall of Fame is far from perfect but it presents a great example of what an artist can achieve if they try to improve their sound as opposed to ditching it completely in favour of another style. The version of Sean that appears on Hall of Fame is the same Sean who found mixtape success and the same one Kanye West signed to GOOD Music in 2007 — the difference is in the attention to details.
The Detroit native opens his sophomore album on the bouncy inspirational track “Nothing Is Stopping You” which essentially tells the story of how he got on GOOD Music but also includes a verse about an aspiring young rapper whose freestyle is only average (hint, hint) but Sean gives him a shot and raps “I even let him finish it, I mean I can’t lie he was alright, but at his age, shit, so was I / So I gave him my e-mail on the fly and if his song’s good I reply.”
The song is followed by the epic “Fire,” a triumphant battle cry that doesn’t really need Miley Cyrus in the video to sell it. The album’s fourth track, “Toyota Music,” floats in on an airy xylophone-fused beat produced to perfection by Xaphoon Jones, formerly of Chiddy Bang.
The album’s lead single “Beware” hosts features from Lil Wayne and the extremely talented Jhene Aiko who just keeps sounding better on every track she appears on these days. Wayne wasn’t necessary on a song that would have been even more effective as a simple duet between Sean and Jhene.
On “First Chain,” Sean utilizes two very different features from Nas and Kid Cudi for one of the standout tracks of the album. Co-produced by No I.D. and Key Wane, the song has a vibrant College Dropout feel to it with Sean shining over a beat that feels almost tailor-made for Kanye. Nas and Cudi each deliver their verses with equal conviction and both bring an added dimension of nostalgia to the track.
The real surprise of the album comes on the song “MILF” with Nicki Minaj and Juicy J which has the potential to become some kind of new cougar twerk anthem. Juicy sounds better than ever on his verse and it genuinely sounds like both he and Nicki are having fun with the concept and buying into Sean’s colourful vision.
Late in Hall of Fame, the album reaches an emotional peak on back-to-back R&B collaborations — one with James Fauntleroy and the other with Miguel. On “World Ablaze” with Fauntleroy, Sean delivers some heart-wrenching lines about his ex-girlfriend’s mother’s battle with cancer and raps:
I left, came back in town, it wasn’t time
The cancer done came, it just hit its prime
It came from the breast, just spread to the spine
It might make her blind, she stares at the blinds
“This can’t be my mom!”
Got me thinking, “what’s a girl to do, a girl to do?”
When her world’s a pool?
Though the Miguel collaboration doesn’t quite add up to Sean’s raw emotion evident on his song with Fauntleroy, “Ashley” is still a powerful story about the love he still has for his ex-girlfriend and the dilemmas he faces balancing normal relationships with his life as a rap superstar.
Big Sean doesn’t do anything groundbreaking with Hall of Fame but he’s managed to keep it simple and create an album you can play through without skipping a song. He might lack the lyrical allure of a Drake or Kendrick Lamar but Sean tells his story in his own unique style and deserves credit for sticking to what has worked for him while dozens of other rappers are busy trying to mimic.
Hall of Fame probably won’t go down as a hip-hop classic but it should be appreciated for exactly what it is — Sean’s statement to the game that he’s here to stay.