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Artist to Watch: Big Sean, Kanye West’s Quick-Witted Protégé

Detroit MC scores Top Five debut with hook-packed 'Finally Famous'

July 6, 2011 12:45 PM ET
Artist to Watch: Big Sean, Kanye West’s Quick-Witted Protégé
Courtesy of Island Def Jam

Who: "Big Sean" Anderson, a buoyant 23-year-old MC from Detroit signed to Def Jam via Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music imprint. His major label debut, Finally Famous – on which Big Sean dodges fugazis, nabs bad bitches and reflects on the grind as he chases the fast life – debuted this week at Number Three on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

The Big Break: The tale of how Big Sean first got 'Ye's attention is now a well-established part of his backstory. West was visiting a Detroit radio station, and after bluffing his way past security by pretending to be an employee, Sean found Kanye in a back room, and managed to get him to listen to one verse while the two were walking out of the station. An immediately intrigued West ended up listening to Sean for 10 straight minutes, and a professional relationship was born. Just as interesting, though, is what happened immediately after. Which is: nothing. "That was some of the darkest times in my life," Big Sean says. He was a member of a duo, SOS, with his best friend – but 'Ye only wanted to sign him as a solo artist, which eventually led to the dissolution of the partnership and friendship. Meanwhile, while West had expressed strong interest in person, he hadn't yet made the signing official with the proper paperwork. "I was supposedly signed to Kanye West but all my friends thought that I was lying," he says. "I was broke as hell, at the studio, running through my mom's money, my grandma's money. And they were like, 'damn, you should have gone to college.'" When West entered his life, Big Sean – a high school senior at the time – gave up an academic scholarship to Michigan State to pursue music full-time.

Innovations: "That's when I had to put matters into my own hands again," he says. The result: a well-received mixtape, UKNOWBIGSEAN. "I had a track on there called 'Supa Dupa,' and I was doing a rhyme scheme that people hadn't been doing at all, with the one-word punchline." He's referring to what Kanye would later term "hash tag rap," where the MC uses a metaphor but leaves out "like" or "as."  (West introduced on the style his Graduation track "Barry Bonds: "Coming in the club with that fresh shit on / with something crazy on my arm / ah ah arm / and here's another hit, Barry Bonds"). "I was working with Kanye on Graduation, and it happened in those sessions," Anderson explains. "He was like, that's the best rap you ever wrote. Then the whole industry kind of took that rhyme scheme and made it into something crazy. And I'm not mad; that just showed me how far I could go. I influenced the rap game before I even put an album out."

We Major: Big Sean broke through to rap radio with his current hit, "My Last." At first, though, he hated the beat. "[Producer] No I.D. gave it to me and I was like, 'Man, this shit sound soft as hell.' He said, 'You wanna be a mixtape rapper forever? Or you wanna make music that people listen to all around the world?" I was like, 'fuck that shit!'" Big Sean recalls, laughing. Finally, he came around, and put the whole song together before handing it off for his pal Chris Brown to re-record the chorus. "He did it a little bit better than me," he readily admits. And once Def Jam heard it, they were ready to move forward with his official debut. Now, "Grandma loves me," Sean says. "Her friends are calling her: 'I seen Sean on MTV! I heard Sean's song on the radio!' She always smiling and happy. It's tight as hell, man. When I graduated high school, one of my teachers told me the dumbest thing I could do is turn down my scholarship. And now the same teacher wants me to come back and speak at the high school."

Big Sean - 'My Last'

LAST WEEK: Little Dragon Charms With Dreamy Electro-Pop

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