Do it for Detroit: A look into Big Sean's intimate listening party
“I hope you take some inspiration from it and I hope you like it. We about to get this shit poppin’.”
Those were some of the last words before Big Sean premiered his fourth studio album, I Decided., on Sunday night among friends, family and some limited press at the Museum of Contemporary Art in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan.
Despite having been born in California, the twenty-eight year-old emcee went on to explain that, in reality, he “spent [his] entire life in Detroit,” reminding the small crowd of the names of his old streets and schools. He affirmed: “Anytime you see me on Jimmy Fallon, or Saturday Night Live, or anywhere,” it’s for the city.
“This is my fourth studio album: I Decided.,” he concluded. Then it began.
Apparently, Big Sean has never before been allowed to premiere one of his albums in Detroit, as record labels favor bigger marketplaces (think New York and Los Angeles), a fact that added extra weight to the live debut of his newest lyrical nods at the city, the first of which appear no longer than thirty seconds into his first verse.
After a tense intro featuring a seasoned male voice boasting about having worked the same job for forty-five years, Sean raps over rich, moody keys, with his voice as the only percussion on the beggining of “Light (Ft. Jeremih).” He eventually arrives at a heartfelt hook (“Even if you take away my life / They can’t take away my light”) and, finally, an iconic grin at his family members (“Got the whole city on fire / This the flow that finna have my whole family retire”), many of whom happened to be present in the room.
The third track on the album is “Bounce Back,” and Sean added a more localized flair to the song by cooly announcing, “Detroit’s gonna bounce back!” The salute was warmly received, and it acted as a seamless transition into the fourth song, which is guaranteed to become a staple Detroit anthem. “No Favors,” which features Detroit-native and rap legend Eminem, turned the room up to another level and even inspired someone in the crowd to yell out, twice: “The whole city been waiting on that!”
The fifth song, “Jump Out The Window,” is bouncy, so Big Sean started walking around the room — shifting the crowd’s attention away from the carefully-illuminated area where he had rapped the first few tracks aside an artificial tree — and greeted attendees, most of whom he seemed genuinely personally excited to see. He wore all black, including a blacked out Detroit Tigers cap and a discretely branded I Decided. hoodie. But three diamond Michigan mittens, dangling from his neck and decorated in different shades of gold, brightened up his entire ensemble.
Next up was “Moves,” and once again the room became a full-fledged party. People were crowding around Sean, obviously, but the energy was still more intimate and recreational than business-fueled. When the album’s singles — which were released beforehand and have already turned into monstrous hits — came on, the room became particularly excited as attendees rapped every single word, myself included.
“This is my favorite song on the album,” Big Sean whispered to me and a few other fortunate journalists standing beside him as the seventh song, “Same Time Pt. 1 (Ft. TWENTY88),” which includes lines about someone acting “out of line,” queued up. Trapped in complete awe as he spat, it looked as if he was still, even at the debut of his fourth album, nervous everything could all go wrong on any note. It never did, but Sean writes, performs and lives like it might. It’s what keeps him grounded, humble and, above all else, driven. That attitude is stamped all over I Decided.
“Halfway Off the Balcony,” the heartfelt third single off the album, came next. When it ended, a slow, eerie, bass-heavy beat came on, and Sean began rapping along, building around the motivated, conscious hook: “Voices in my head saying I can do it better / Voices in my head saying better do it better.” On first listen, the track, “Voices In My Head,” somewhat parallels “Deep (feat. Lil Wayne)” from Sean’s third album, Dark Sky Paradise.
“Stick to the player hatin’!” warns Sean later on the song. On the tracklist, there appear to be two parts — “Voices In My Head / Stick To The Plan” — and the latter half has a turnt-up, trap-like beat led by long, thick bass kicks. Though it acts as the most telling predictor of the rowdy surprise to come moments later, its debut was particularly unique, as it is placed right before “Sunday Morning Jetpack,” a thankful, even spiritual, reflection that Big Sean premiered on “Saturday Night Live,” and the hyper-personal twelfth track, “Inspire Me,” during which Sean walked across the room to seek out his mother, then proceeded to rap the lyrics to her.
The thirteenth song, “Sacrifices (ft. Migos)” is positively guaranteed to be a monster hit. I wrote that assumption down immediately, as soon as I heard its explosive drums and the intensity in Big Sean’s voice. But once Offset came in, first teasing fans with his famous ad-lib, then delivering a quintessentially charismatic verse before, inevitably, passing the microphone to his bandmate Quavo, the radio potential for this deep cut multiplied immensely.
And finally, the closer, “Bigger Than Me.” It features a meditative, reflective, monologue-like verse in which Sean reminisces about growing up in Detroit, going out to see the world and, eventually, returning home as an older, wiser man. “That’s when I realized, shit’s bigger than me,” he admits, expressing his spirituality through the chillingly real confession: “God talking to me telepathically, like it only happen if you let it.” Maybe that’s what Big Sean Decided.
Eventually, the collective voices of the Chozen Choir from Flint, Michigan arrived, adding purely childish ambition to the track. But even this inspiring feature doesn’t distract from the album’s emotional grand finale: a voice recording I expect belongs to Sean’s mother. In the final moments of I Decided., Myra Anderson tells her son she loves him, and expressing her pride before concluding with a humanizing anecdote. All of the above things are still true, she says, “even when you do stupid things that I warned you about…”
In his short speech following the premiere, Sean called it, “By far my best album,” and then again emphasized his unswerving loyalty to Detroit, noting: “There’s not a lot of people in my position, so I’ll keep kicking down doors.”
He is dead serious. On first listen, I Decided. comes across as his most finely-tuned, thematically cohesive project yet. Its tracks bear the wisdom and maturity of an aging, well-experienced man, but still prove unwilling to sacrifice energy and hunger.
As far as the whole Detroit thing goes — Sean has already done almost everything but run for mayor. He has been vocally representing it for years with localized slang, and even named his critically-acclaimed mixtape from 2012, Detroit, after the city.
Now, Big Sean finally premiers a studio album in his hometown. Michiganders can return the favor by listening to I Decided., out this Friday.