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Detroit is such a fixture of Big Sean’s music — indeed, of his entire personality — it can almost seem to fade away in the deluge of off-pocket, multisyllabic, punchline-ridden bars that permeate his albums and songs. But if you close your eyes and cock your head, you can hear it. It pops out in periodic references to specific spots in the city or in Sean’s near constant shout-outs to its west side.
It’s so much a part of who he is, his consensus best project to date is named after the city. Now, nearly a decade later, he returns to that same creative wellspring in the form of a sequel project aimed at redeeming his last effort, 2017’s resignedly received I Decided. The trouble then was that, like his subliminal level love for his hometown, he was overshadowed by the busy production and buzzy guests. This time, Sean and his civic appreciation shine through.
For instance, on “Lucky Me,” one of the album’s early standouts, Sean gets even more personal than he ever has, revealing his aversion to Western medicine as a result of a misdiagnosis by doctors in his early adulthood. Then, when it comes time to pay homage to Motor City, he reminds listeners that “I don’t even have to say it, you know where I’m from.” He’s said it enough times that he doesn’t need to say it.
He gets personal again on the Nipsey Hussle collaboration “Deep Reverence,” revealing more details he felt he could never speak on before, from a miscarriage one of his relationships suffered to reaching out to Kendrick Lamar due to the supposed bad blood brewing between the two over K. Dot’s blistering “Control” verse nearly a decade ago. Although the e-streets seemed to want the two at each other’s throats after Kung-Fu Kenny hijacked Sean’s buzz single with his misinterpreted shout-outs, Sean reveals, “It wasn’t even no real issues there to begin with.” (Y’all really gotta learn what beef is and isn’t, still, 20 years after Biggie had to explain it. Get off my damn lawn.)
The spoken interludes from the original Detroit mixtape are back too, with a similar array of Sean’s influences speaking highly of the city and its residents. Dave Chappelle recounts the kind words of Sean’s father saving him after bombing a set there, Erykah Badu does what she does, filling her interlude with her urban mysticism, and Stevie Wonder(!!!!) praises the city as the birthplace of Motown Records, where he made some of soul music’s modern standards. Not only do they form an impressive guest list (seriously, STEVIE WONDER), but they also show Sean’s influences go far beyond what one might guess.
As far as guest lists go, one of the consensus weaker elements of Sean’s latter-day catalog is how he gets swallowed up by his bigger-name collaborations. Detroit 2 course corrects to the days when he could proudly stand alongside peers like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar without coming up short. In fact, if anything, the big names here are the ones that feel sort of out of place, from Travis Scott on “Lithuania” to Young Thug on “Respect It” to Post Malone on “Wolves.” Fortunately, he also returns longtime collaborators like Earlly Mac, Lil Wayne, and Wale, with whom his chemistry is palpable.
But for the city after which the project is named, the highlight is “Friday Night Cypher.” While Sean has always paid so much homage to his hometown in his lyrics, he’s seemingly foregone reaching out to the city’s vibrant underground music community. Of course, shouting out Dilla is one thing — putting Tee Grizzly, Kash Doll, Sada Baby, Payroll, Boldly James, and 42 Dugg on a track with Eminem and Royce Da 5’9 is something else entirely. He’s also kind enough to stick the biggest name at the end, giving him ample space to roam for Shady fans and a convenient place to hit the skip button for everyone else.
Rappers love to make sequels of beloved projects, but in past years it’s felt more like a naming convention and an easy gimmick to boost interest. Rarely has it felt like a true full-circle moment where the rapper in question really does return to the mindset they were in when they recorded that old favorite — even when they do, how can they balance years of growth and experience with that refreshed mentality? Sean does an excellent job of laying down a blueprint with Detroit 2. Though it’s a little long, it sees him showing the foundation for his “came from nothing” raps, putting on for his city, and being a little vulnerable for once. He’s been famous for a long time — it’s nice to finally get to know who he really is.
Detroit 2 is out now via Def Jam Recordings. Get it here.