The sun is beginning to sit low in the sky as Big Sean takes to the stage at Manchester’s Emirates Old Trafford cricket ground. He’s only using a fraction of the mammoth stage that will set the scene for Rihanna’s Anti World Tour show later in the evening, but has the energy, vocal clarity and hits to rock the 26,000 capacity venue with ease. Kicking things off with his verse from recent G.O.O.D Music posse cut ‘Champions’, he walks a tightrope between fan-favourites and hits familiar to the casual listener, from last year’s DJ Mustard-produced ‘IDFWU’ to ‘Mercy’ and ‘Clique’.
It’s been a busy couple of years for the 28-year-old Detroit rapper. He got 2015 off to a flying start with ‘Dark Sky Paradise’ – almost unanimously hailed as his best LP yet – which scored him his first number one on the Billboard 200 and spawned 5 gold singles. He won an MTV VMA for ‘Best Video With A Social Message’ for ‘One Man Can Change The World’, and toured extensively with the likes of J. Cole and Rihanna. This year he followed up by joining forces with R&B singer Jhené Aiko to form a new group, Twenty88, which released their first project in March. And, all the while has been working on his own anticipated 4th album, which is expected to land later this year and has been lauded by collaborators with early insight.
Just before he hit the stage, we caught up with Big Sean to discuss everything from life on the road to Twenty88, his forthcoming solo album to what’s on his bookshelf…
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How's this tour been so far? How is warming up for Rihanna on the Anti World Tour?
It's been great. I go on right before her and then Mustard goes on before me. I never would be able to tour Europe on this large of a scale, on stadium status. Not at this point in my career, at least. It's just tight to see that and look forward to that [for myself] and then work towards it like, "Ah, damn, I want to do stadiums myself one day in Europe." I also like performing for people who aren't necessarily my fans, so to say, may not listen to me that well but then at the same time may just be a little familiar. I like to draw them in and be like, "Oh, okay. He's good."
How have you tailored your set towards that kind of crowd then?
Just making sure I get the energy popping. I have a lot of anthems, a lot of songs that carry on pretty well, whether the crowd knows them exactly or not - ‘Clique’, ‘Mercy’, ‘I Don't Fuck With You’ and ‘A$$’, songs like that. But then at the same time I'm still giving them rap because I'm definitely a lyricist. I take pride in that, so I'm still giving them that too.
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I'm still giving them rap because I'm definitely a lyricist.
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Last time we spoke, we talked about that clarity that you deliver with the live show, so it works really well for something of this scale. Have you done a stadium tour as big as this before?
No. No way. Arenas is usually the standard. There's only a couple people, like Beyoncé, who does stadiums. I don't even think Rihanna did stadiums in the US, I think she's only doing them here. I'm only on my third album so I got a lot to look forward to but I do rock the arenas, though, and amphitheaters and big crowds, 10,000, 20,000 on my own, and festivals too.
I was thinking about it myself earlier. The last time I saw a show in a stadium was Eminem when I was a teenager. Even Watch The Throne was an arena tour, it’s still very rare that hip-hop artists get to perform in stadiums.
And that's probably the only hip-hop artists who do stadiums, actually. Eminem is the only solo rap act, he's the biggest rapper in the world. Do you know what I mean? Kanye and Jay-Z together, that's about as big as you can get. It is something to look forward to, though. It is something I want to get to.
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Was it nerve-racking on that first night to step out in front of such a big crowd?
No, because in America, I have performed at stadiums here and there. I'm used to performing for large crowds but it was definitely exciting. Just like any other tour, I think the first show I was a little excited and I was still working out the kinks of the show. Now, we're in a good groove and I'm just looking at it as an opportunity and at the same time I'm finishing my next album. I have a studio bus that I've been working on. It's been going well.
That was one of the things I was going to ask you about. When you're travelling so much like this, how do you keep busy? Are you just kind of a studio rat when you're on the road or do you do other stuff, too?
We go out and see the town and test the town. Sometimes we'll have after parties or go catch up with friends we know around different cities like London or Paris or Amsterdam. Other than that, I'm just in the studio. I don't really do too much besides watch movies and whatever, whatever. I used to play Call of Duty a lot but I haven't been playing video games these last couple years.
What kind of movies do you tend to watch on tour?
I watch a lot of zombie movies, action movies, just funny movies, all just good. I'm a huge Dragonball Z fan. They actually send me their latest movies in the mail so I appreciate that from them. I'm a huge Dragonball Z fan. I definitely like anime for sure.
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I take pride in bringing quality to visuals...
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So I guess that stuff influences the movie you and Jhené Aiko made for the Twenty88 project. How was the process of making that?
It was fun, it was creative. You know what I'm saying? Jhené's somebody that's easy to work with. Me and her have been working since my first couple of projects. It was a natural thing and then we just wanted to do something fun with the movie. I take pride in bringing quality to visuals and to the music. It was definitely a fun process and we used all our imagination to come up with it.
Does she share a similar taste in movies?
Hell yeah. I definitely love sci-fi. I didn't mention that before, but yeah we know a lot of the same movies and we reference them when we do things like that.
Obviously working with someone else, no matter who it is, means there’s got to be some compromise. You can’t just run ahead and focus entirely on your own ideas as you would with a solo project. How did you find that collaborative approach?
Communication was key. We both wanted the same end result, was to just make a great project and an intro project. We started Twenty88 as a group, me and her, a duo. We just wanted to give our first offering, which was the Twenty88 EP. We just put our minds to it, made the music we wanted to make. It was a real easy process. We were working on our albums at the same time so we were already in the studio.
We kind of already had the time carved out to record, then we just banged it out. We both stayed dedicated and it was tight because it gave me a chance to write from a female's perspective. A lot of the songs, I had to write as the singer and her sing the actual lyrics and vice versa. There'd be times when she would come up with ideas when I might would be stuck on a verse or she'd give me her opinion or help me write a rap or something like that. It was cool the just trade that and have somebody you feel comfortable enough to be that creative with.
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It gave me a chance to write from a female's perspective.
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At what point did you know you were going to make Twenty88 a group, rather than just a one-off collab project?
There's some people you work with that you just want to do one song with, but for me and her and the type of friends we are we decided we might as well make that commitment because we're going to be making [a lot more songs together] and we just both liked the idea. We’ll make songs for probably as long as we’re making music.
I think my personal favourite Twenty88 song is ‘Talk Show’ - where you guys trade off lyrics as if you’re having a relationship dispute on a late night TV couch. How did the concept for that come about? It sounds like it would have been fun to write…
I came up with that idea and presented it to her because the song is really more me than her, even though her role is a very important part. She doesn't have to sing but she still delivered, where the chorus would be on a regular song, and made it entertaining. Even though I had to rap those verses, I feel like she definitely carried that part and made the verses make sense. I came up with the concept when I heard the beat and she was completely down with it, and just helped make it fire. Her input made it better than I could've done it on my own.
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There was a line that I really felt, where you say “To them it’s all entertainment, And they not looking at us like we real people.” Is that attitude something you think can ever be changed in people?
I think the perception of people, you can't try and control or change what people think. They're goning to have to change on their own if they want to so I don't know if people will ever change. I don't know if it's in their best interest to. Maybe that's not for them to even worry about. I came up with that line is because the concept of the short film was that we were robots in it.
We were supposed to be these big ass adult stars but then, obviously, that related to our real life too. That was why I came up with the line because they're talking to us like we're not real people but we really weren't real people, we were robots. That gets even deeper.
I spoke to Pusha T recently and he's really excited about your new solo album. What kind of stage are you at with that?
Man, I feel like I just hit a zone where it's going to get finished soon. I've been working on it since my last album, then I did Twenty88 because that's something I wanted to do but I feel like that helped the process for this album too, it opened my mind up a little more. Obviously, I'm giving a biased opinion but I think it's going to be my best album, for sure.
I feel like every project I've grown and gotten better, maybe just because I'm getting older, I'm becoming a better person, seeing more of the world. But, I can hear the progression in my music so I know other people can, if they listen, at least. I'm just happy to keep progressing and see what people think about it and I never want to do more of the same. I feel like once you keep it the same, people start expecting what they think you're going to give them and it's not as exciting. I want to give them something that they can take away and be like, "Damn, he killed it.”
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I definitely have that feeling of just letting God guide me and it's more of a spiritual process.
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So far, how do you think that it differs from ‘Dark Sky Paradise’?
I feel like the last album was the blueprint for this album. This one is just a little more seasoned. I feel like last album I was really comfortable in my rapping ability of just having fun with it. I was trusting myself to have fun instead of trying to rap good or anything. I just trust it and like, "Man, I am good. I know what I'm doing.” I definitely have that feeling of just letting God guide me and it's more of a spiritual process. I don't know if that sounds weird, but I just trust in a higher power and the music a little different from ‘Dark Sky Paradise’ but I feel like that’s the closest sounding body of work to the new album I'm making. It has some soul to it. It's definitely personal. It's just everything I wanted to do.
Last time we spoke you talked a lot about making music with intention, not just for the sake of making it. What's the intention for the new album for you?
Positivity. Giving something that people can hold on to, people going through something, people in any different situations, whether it's love, struggle, bossing up. There’s definitely an intention behind every single song. I think that when I first started I wasn't rapping with an intention always. Sometimes I was just doing it just for the feeling and just to get it done, which isn't a bad thing, but as I've gotten more into it and older, I always picture myself looking back on it and being like, "Damn, what did you do? How did you change the game? My grandma is in heaven right now, how is she going to be proud of you?”
The last question I just wanted to ask you is if you could go back in time to your younger self, starting out, and give yourself one bit of advice, what would that be?
I would tell myself not to worry so much, man. I used to stress myself out. It probably slowed down a lot of my success and lessons by just being so stressed out and worked up over stuff. Really, I should've just told myself that it all works out. If you have the right intention, the right mind, then you're going to be fine. You're going to be more than fine.
What are your methods to avoid worry and stress?
I meditate, I get my mind right. Sometimes I read a book. I like reading Deepak Chopra, ‘The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success’. I've read ‘The Four Agreements’. There's one book called ‘Ask and It Is Given’ by Esther and Jerry Hicks. That book saved my life. ‘The Alchemist’, that's a great one. Books like that I really enjoy. Or I do something else completely different, like go to the beach or go kick it with my mom or something. Sometimes you just need to recharge your batteries when things get too heavy, you've got to lighten it up.
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Words: Grant Brydon