Big Sean’s Creative Process Included a Mental Health Break and Advice from Kanye

The Detroit 2 rapper walks us through his decade-long career from rapping for his mom at age 11 to having Dave Chapelle tell him he loves his dad.

Sean Anderson, professionally known as Big Sean, is all smiles over Zoom while posted up in his LA studio. The larger than life rap icon becomes especially excited when he learns we’re calling from Toronto. Anderson loves the energy of the city and has had many memorable moments there. One of which is a throwback to the celebrated MuchMusic program, Much On Demand. In 2002, on a trip to Toronto, he appeared on the show and freestyled to his friend’s beatboxing. He didn’t know it at the time, but that was the beginning of a long and prosperous career. Now with the release of Detroit 2, arguably one of his best albums yet, he shows no signs of slowing down. 

It’s been nearly a decade since we were introduced to Big Sean with the rapper’s debut studio album, Finally Famous. After a strong 10-year run, Detroit 2 marks the first time Anderson acknowledged a need to take some time for himself to deal with internal battles and go through the motions of therapy and spiritual work (“ZTFO” being his new mantra for meditation). It’s a struggle that many can relate to; depression, anxiety, and an overwhelming schedule are not uncommon, but the raw honesty Anderson exudes while discussing these topics is refreshing. He follows this up by saying that he feels his true purpose in life is to inspire others, and suddenly it all makes sense.

We had to ask him about that time he rapped for Kanye West outside of Detroit radio station 102.7, a career defining moment, and we were surprised to hear that a series of events leading up to that day had unexplainably prepared him for the task of making a good impression on his favourite rapper (along with talent, of course). Throughout the Zoom call, Anderson dropped a few more gems on us about the first person he ever rapped for, his dad’s connection with Dave Chapelle, and solid life advice about counting your blessings and staying focused on your passion if you want to get ahead. 

What is your first memory with music? 

I grew up in a household where my mom played so much Stevie Wonder, The Isley Brothers, and Marvin Gaye (her favourite). My first rap album that I purchased and owned was Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, E. 1999 Eternal.

When did you know music is what you wanted to pursue? 

I wrote my first rap when I was 11.The first person I rapped for was my mom, and that’s when I decided that it’s what I wanted to do with my life.

Was your mom supportive of your decision? 

I grew up in Detroit and I didn’t grow up in the best neighbourhood; there was a lot of violence and drugs. At that time, gangster rap was the most popular so there was a lot of gang shit that my mom did not like and I remember when I rapped for her, she really embraced it and supported it. 

So many rappers are inspired by your story of how you rapped for Kanye outside of 102.7 FM. What was that day like for you? 

That was probably one of the first times in my life where I was just doing what I felt. I was a telemarketer at the time but I had been doing a radio show called The Friday Night Cypher every Friday, and Kanye was there promoting his album on the Saturday. Since I had built a relationship at the station, they let me in. One of the DJs, DJ Gary Chandler, was like, ‘Yo Kanye is down the hall, you should go meet him, let me introduce you.’ I met him and I got the chance to rap for him as he was walking out. I had been writing a new rap every week to be on the radio show, so I had like 50 raps and I was rapping for 10 minutes straight and he heard every second of it. He asked if I had CDs and I had these CDs I had been selling around high school. So it was crazy how all the things I’d been doing since I was 11 or 12 years old—printing up CDs, doing that show, writing raps—it all led up to that moment and I was able to rap for my favourite rapper and deliver it. Living in my passion prepared me for the moments that defined the rest of my life. 

What was your creative process like working on Detroit 2

This project was such a journey. I was facing so many adversities internally, so much depression and anxiety, feeling stuck and broken inside. One of the things that I did was take time for myself. I never did that before and I didn’t know how to. I had also just lost my passion for music; I lost the hunger and fire I once had. When I was going back, in my spiritual work, to when I was doing that radio show (Friday Night Cypher) and sleeping in the studio, I asked myself, ‘Why was I that hungry?’ It did something to me and brought me back there energetically and helped reignite that passion. I also realized why I’m doing it, I’m not doing it to just rap or to hear my song on the radio but I’m doing it because I want to make an impact and I want to inspire, I feel like that’s my real life purpose. I said things [on the album] that I wouldn’t normally say, that were uncomfortable, where I sacrificed my privacy but I feel like it was all in order to cut through and deliver a message. 

Are you in a different mental headspace now that you’ve finished the album? Or is Detroit 2 just a product that came out of the work you did?

It’s what came out of everything I was working on but I definitely still, on a daily basis, deal with a lot of those same emotions. I can just deal with them a little bit better and I’m still working on myself. I think we’ll probably be doing that until we die. There’s a lot of things you have to put into perspective. In your life and the grand scheme of things, you can’t compare your life to anyone else’s. You’ve got to realize you are on your path and that, shit, if we woke up today, we already won. So you never really feel broke when you count your blessings. 

You had features on the album from Dave Chapelle and Erykah Badu, how did those features come about and why did you choose the two of them to talk about their experiences with Detroit? 

Just naturally, on my first Detroit mixtape, I had skits in a similar fashion, so that’s why I wanted to continue that same concept for Detroit 2. I was getting off a plane and I ran into Dave Chapelle and he walked up to me and was like, ‘Yo man, I love your dad.’ This was at 5 am too, so I didn’t know if I was still dreaming. And I remember my dad called me a couple months before that and was like, ‘I was with Dave Chapelle at his show, he loves you son, he loves your music, and I connected with him.’ Sometimes my dad can exaggerate stuff, but when I ran into Dave, I was like ‘oh shit, I have to call my dad and apologize.’ So then when I told Dave what I was working on, he was so happy to contribute and he was like ‘not only will I tell this story for you in Detroit, I’ll perform at your concert with you, I’ll open up for you and do a set. That’s how much I rock with you,’ and I appreciate him for being like that.

Erykah Badu, I reached out to her because I knew she spent a lot of time working in Detroit with J Dilla and every time she has a concert in Detroit people show up. So I knew she had a special connection with the city; she was more than happy to do it and she summoned the heavens and earths while she was talking so it was cool, I really appreciate it. 

You’ve had a lot of mentors throughout the years, what piece of advice do you always go back to when you need guidance? 

Probably advice from Kanye, listening to his gut and his heart and I see how that pays off as opposed to what people around him were telling him or what the label was saying. He taught me to always make sure that you’re right with the music, in your heart. No matter how long it’s taking or what other people are saying about it, you gotta be good with it. That has really helped me out, especially now, in this project. I really had to make sure I was straight with it in my heart and I felt it. There were songs that I rewrote four or five times, like “Body Language” with Jhene Aioko and Ty Dolla $ign. So many filtrations that went on in this album and I’m glad how it turned out. 

Detroit 2 is available now via Getting Out Our Dreams/Def Jam