The name of Big Sean’s 2011 debut album, Finally Famous, sounded like a declaration: Mission accomplished. OK, but what comes next? After his G.O.O.D. Music crew’s tsunami of a single, "Mercy," washed over the world — aided by his excellent opening verse — the answer seemed simple. Big Sean, along with Kanye West, Pusha T and the label’s other big guns, seemed aimed squarely on making sure Cruel Summer, their upcoming compilation album, lives up to the Mt. Everest of hype it's built. And in light of "Mercy," it’s easy to think that Big Sean would emerge from Cruel Summer a true superstar. The album’s most recent single, "Clique," with Big Sean again skillfully leading off — before passing off to Jay-Z, of all people — reinforced both notions.
So, in light of this feverishly escalating, and carefully curated, build-up for the Sept. 18 release of Cruel Summer, Big Sean dropping a mixtape, Detroit, could seem like an ill-timed distraction. But it’s also striking while the iron is hot. And in this sense, Big Sean delivers. Much like Finally Famous, Sean shows off his talent for celebratory, ear-worm hooks and smart aleck, pun-filled couplets. Several high-profile guests, from Snoop Dogg to French Montana, show up for the party. "24k of Gold" and "Life Should Go On" bookend the album’s optimistic, aspirational tone, with J. Cole and Wale verses, respectively, and soulful Rhodes-heavy beats that recall Sean’s best work with No I.D from Finally Famous (maybe even too much).
But unlike his first album, this mixtape has several tracks that go beyond champagne wishes and caviar dreams. "Sellin’ Dreams," featuring Chris Brown, is a pensive sequel of sorts to their triumphant 2011 hit "My Last," an apology to the love that success left behind. The murky "100," featuring great verses from Kendrick Lamar and Royce da 5’9”, may be Sean’s most introspective work yet. The beautifully murky "Higher" is practically chill-wave, with an atmospheric, effect-drenched beat you could imagine A$AP Rocky owning.
However, after the heights of G.O.O.D. Music’s "I Don’t Like (Remix)," "Clique" and "Mercy," Detroit is a step backwards in some ways. The mixtape doesn’t come anywhere near the artful pomp that made those songs events with a capital e. Sean was at his best on all three, which perfectly balanced his high-pitched delivery and borderline childish (if hilarious) double entendres with wintry gravitas. And this makes sense: Though Detroit is listed as “presented” by G.O.O.D. Music, Kanye doesn’t appear anywhere, as either beatmaker, rapper or executive producer. It’s hard to imagine that notorious perfectionist letting derivative scattershot like "Do What I Gotta Do" or "RWT" escape the chopping block.
In fact, with all the shouts of "finally famous," you can’t help but wonder if this mixtape is sometimes serving warmed-up leftovers, clearing the hard drive before the more advanced sounds of Cruel Summer and, hopefully, Sean’s proper follow-up album. Then again, if Big Sean is willing to give away hook-heavy, radio-ready songs like "Wake Up" for free, you can’t help but be excited about music he’ll actually be selling in the future.
Rating: 4 out of 5
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(Photo: Def Jam Recordings)