Big Sean is having some phone trouble. "Outro," from his chart-topping third album, Dark Sky Paradise, ends with a challenge to anyone who says fame has changed him: "Say I'm hard to get in contact, oh, is that true?/But what about now? 313-515-8772." That's no empty rhyme – the number went directly to his actual day-to-day phone. "I thought that was the livest, tightest, coolest idea I could do," says the rapper, calling from his L.A. home. "But I immediately had to get another phone, because it wouldn't stop ringing, ever since the album leaked. Right now, I'm looking at it, and it won't stop, man. Texts are flying in every second. Do you get charged for texts you don't open?"
Dark Sky Paradise, executive-produced by Sean's mentor Kanye West, has been hailed by fans and critics as his best ever, and he doesn't disagree. Read on for his thoughts on the new album, growing up in Detroit, hanging out with Kanye and Eminem, his life with girlfriend Ariana Grande and more.
The phone number thing reminds me a little of how Mike Jones used to give out his number on every song. Were you a big fan of his?
I wasn't the biggest Mike Jones fan, to be honest. This is way cooler than how he did it. His was more of a gimmick. Mine is more like, "Yo, people say I've changed and shit. Really? Well, here's my fucking number. Call me." It's not like I'm trying to sell anything or got some weird-ass hotline going on. This is really my cell phone that I carry in my pocket.
What's the wildest conversation you've had with someone who called the number?
Nothing too wild. Sometimes people won't say anything. I'll pick up and they'll be like, [gasps], you know? Shit. I'm like, "Hello?" They're just like "Uhh... uhh," and then I have to hang up. I appreciate them though.
On the "Me, Myself, and I" freestyle you did recently, you call yourself rap's "most improved player." What do you mean by that?
A lot of people, from Jay Z to 'Ye, are like, "I can hear you getting better." That's tight. I just deliver songs better, execute them better. I feel like my lyrical content is a little more polished. I've been trying to push the envelope from a flow perspective, trying to come up with new rhyme patterns. Just having fun with it, and not thinking about it too much. Before, I used to think about it a little too hard.
How does it feel to have people recognizing you more as an artist?
I don't take it for granted. Literally, every day I wake up like, "Thank God." I'm from Detroit, and it's really, really hard for people from Detroit to make it. At the same time, I'm from a city that never gives up and knows how to thrive when the economy is down and things are depressed. We find a way to shine through. We're built tough, man.
What were things like in the part of Detroit where you grew up?
I grew up between 6 Mile and 7 Mile, on a street called Northlawn. It was definitely not the best neighborhood. It wasn't the worst, but it wasn't too far off. We didn't have a big house; it was a two-family flat. Violence, crime, drugs, all that was surrounding us, and not a lot of opportunity. You just gotta make the best of the situation.
On "Dark Sky (Skyscrapers)," you talk about "rapping Biggie Smalls in the basement." Would that have been in that same house?
For sure. I've always been a dreamer. Since I was 10 years old, I was always rapping in front of the TV in the living room, visualizing it all. "Mo' Money, Mo Problems," "Victory." I used to love rapping Pac's "2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted" with Snoop. I used to love DMX.
Did you think at that point that rapping was something you could make a career out of?
I actually did. I never even questioned it. From 12 on, I used to always be like, "And when I'm a rapper..." I was living in that world where I was already a rapper. People would make fun of me a little bit, but they would just be playing, though. They bought my CDs at school.
You made a song with Eminem last year, "Detroit vs. Everybody." Were you a big fan of his as a kid in Detroit?
Of course. I bought his first CD at Costco with my mom when I was 11. He was a new breed of rap – he had fresh storytelling lyrics, full of drugs and murder. It was exciting. It was addictive. His music itself was like a drug. So you can just imagine what it's like to go from there to being in the studio with him, eating pizza and talking about which is better, South Park or Family Guy.
Which side was he on? South Park or Family Guy?
Ask him and he'll tell you. I don't want to put his business out there like that.
Kanye West is another one of your idols who you've gotten to work with. What's your relationship with him like?
He's one of my best friends. We can talk about anything. I go to their house and eat dinner – Kim will fix up some food for me – and we'll work on music and talk. It's cool vibes. I think he's in a great space in his life. Things are going really well for him, and that rubs off on everyone around him. He always brings out the best in me as an artist, and I appreciate that.
Let's talk about some lyrics of yours that have stood out recently. On "Paradise," you say, "Hope I never have to go back to watching Everybody Loves Raymond." What do you have against Everybody Loves Raymond?
[Laughs] Nah, that's just a show I used to watch when things weren't popping. Nothing against the show, I'm just talking about that time in my life.
So just to be clear, you are not beefing with Ray Romano?
I got love for Ray! Everybody loves Raymond.
On a related note, some people thought you were going at Kendrick Lamar when you talk about rappers who hide behind skits on that "Me, Myself, and I" freestyle. Do you want to clear the air on that?
Kendrick's my homie, man. I wasn't going at him. I was more so going at the people who hype up stuff. The listeners who flip over, "Oh my God, did you hear the skits?" I'm not talking about any specific album. People get so hype about drama or dropping names or shit like that, and I feel like they sometimes forget about what it's actually all about.
How about Drake? Is there a competitive aspect when you're working with him on a song like "Blessings"?
I've known Drake since 2008. He's definitely one of my peers, one of my homies. It's competitive in the sense that I always want to stand out. It's not competitive like, "Yo, I hope you fucking lose." It's like, "Yo, I'm going to do the best I can on this song." Same thing when I was on the song with Eminem. They gave me that song with no time to digest it. They were like, "OK, we need this tonight or tomorrow." I didn't sleep that night.
Another lyric that jumps out on this record is on "Stay Down," when you say "I got a million-dollar chick with a billion-dollar pussy/Every time I come, I swear to God I feel rich."
[Laughs] Yeah, that line is awesome.
What did Ariana say the first time she heard that? Did you run it by her and ask if it was cool before you put it on a record?
I don't have to run it by my girl, but she hears. I played her the whole album before it came out, so she heard everything.
What kind of feedback do you get from her on your music?
She's super supportive. It's cool, because she was a fan of mine before anything. The first thing she said when she met me was, "Yo, I love your music," and she rapped my verse from "Gang Bang" with Wiz Khalifa. She was just an actress on TV at the time. She's very open-minded. I'm proud of her.
Does being in a relationship with another famous person affect your life? Do you have to watch out for paparazzi?
Really, the way it affects my life is being happy, man. You can't measure success in anything but being happy, and she's one of the things that really makes me happy. I appreciate her, and that's it. I don't really pay attention to anything else.