Big Sean Pays Tribute to Motor City With Star-Studded ‘Detroit 2’

Since he signed to Kanye West’s “GOOD Music” imprint in 2007, Big Sean has steadily honed his craft and further distinguished himself from a slew of cookie-cutter rappers with each release. His debut album, 2011’s “Finally Famous,” lived up to its name, winning him several hit singles and a flurry of praise. The following year’s “Detroit” mixtape paid homage to his hometown, with such high profile collaborations as J Cole and Kendrick Lamar. Now, Sean outdoes that release with an epic sequel, “Detroit 2.” Having reunited with Jhené Aiko after a musically publicized breakup, he is brimming with a positivity that expands his music to new parameters. Backed by a stunning array of features, Sean traverses varied styles, and turns out a comprehensive, passionate set of songs, interspersed with vignettes that honor the Motor City.

A few lines into opener “Why Would I Stop,” Big Sean pronounces the key line, “I don’t jump, I dive in,” and there could hardly be a better way to start. He instantly falls into a flow state, rapping with effortless swag, as crisp handclaps hit hard at the turnaround to lines like “Hero in my hood, when they dress like me, that’s cosplay.” On “Lucky Me,” he steps over a slinky, full band loop, and lets his narrative lyrics take center stage. He mentions his breakup with Jhené Aiko, recorded in Aiko’s “Triggered” and subsequently in Sean’s “Single Again,” and goes on to speak, for the first time, about the heart condition he was diagnosed with at age 19, which he treated through alternative medicine. Half way, he switches to rapid triplets, and runs through syllables at breakneck speed, anticipating a versatility that continues to show itself.

“Deep Reverence” stands out for its short feature from the late Nipsey Hussle., who starts the track by dropping slick lines like “I was birthed in a C-section,” in reference to a Crips neighborhood. Sean downplays his supposed beef with Kendrick Lamar stemming from a series of names called out on Lamar’s 2013 track “Control.” He goes on to rap about anxiety and depression with an openness rare in hip-hop, balancing it out with a bravado that makes it work in the format. Post Malone drops a verse on “Wolves,” and serves as perfect foil for Sean’s more traditional flow, with a fanciful Auto-tune indulgence condensed into a few ringing bars. Sean takes a page from the 50 Cent, or perhaps Pop Smoke, playbook for his baritone, singsong chorus. 

Jhené Aiko joins Sean on “Body Language,” along with Ty Dolla $ign. The track runs like a flashback to late ‘90s hip-hop and R&B hits, with Aiko’s irresistible, breathy voice taking center stage, and Ty offering invaluable melismatic additions over a swaying beat. “Story by Dave Chapelle” is self-explanatory enough. Over a piano backdrop, Chapelle speaks about his love of Detroit and its especially tough audiences, throwing in a spot-on Danny Brown impression, and thanking Big Sean’s father. After laying low for a few tracks, Sean lets loose on “Harder Than My Demons,” somehow managing to deliver lines like “No sir, I don’t even do flu shots” in a way that sounds razor-sharp, and nodding to figures in snappy snippets like “ See my third eye is on Left Eye, I can’t let them Eazy-E me.” The track ends in an ambient haze that could have been clipped from a Flying Lotus track. 

Sean gets reflective on “Everything That’s Missing,” guided by an optimistic hook courtesy of fellow Detroit artist Dwele. By the end, Sean is downplaying materialism and debauchery, calling for reprioritizing, and managing to do it without sounding sanctimonious, a rare feat in hip-hop. This leads into “ZTFO,” which expands to “Zen the Fuck Out.” Travis Scott joins Sean for an infectiously monotonous chorus, as Sean riffs off the titular line over a trap beat, in a lighthearted diversion. The star-studded “Guard Your Heart,” featuring Anderson .Paak, Early Mac, and Wale, breaks into lush, classic R&B instrumentation, with soulful crooning from Paak. Wale calls out Eric Garner, Brianna Taylor, and George Floyd, and a refrain of “hold yo’ head, guard yo’ heart” continues a theme of persistence. 

Sean balances the enlightenment of “Everything That’s Missing” with some standard flexing on “Respect It, exchanging rapid lines with Hit-Boy in a synergistic flurry, as Young Thug packs personality into a verse, much like Post Malone does on “Wolves,” Travis Scott drops one of his signature, sugary hooks on “Lithuania,” his eighth collaboration with Sean. Why Lithuania is unclear, and it appears Scott simply likes the sound of the name. At any rate, Scott is a master at crafting choruses out of nonsensical impulses, and it works. Whimsical splashes of reverb, over a woozy instrumental, return to the territory of Scott’s 2018 “Astroworld.”

There’s a remarkable range on the album, with Sean seamlessly switching between trendy and classic styles. For “Full Circle,” he takes an old school route, prompting featured guest DIddy to note, “Niggas don’t even make shit like this no more.” Diddy’s contribution hardly extends beyond this. As has become his custom, he lazily speaks a few lines, and slaps his name on the track. Rapper Key Wane, on the other hand, adds an actual verse, and meshes elegantly with Sean, as the two rap about coming up over the years. 

Jhené Aiko might have stopped by for “Body Language,” but it’s “Time In” that really marks her triumphant reunion with Big Sean. It finds the two blissfully repeating the eponymous line over a backdrop of carefree wah-wah synths and crisp snares. The easy repetition and swaying feel convey the sense of two spirits in sync. Towards the end, Aiko giggles in between lines, and the chemistry captured is difficult to overlook, although it can get a bit silly when the two join in a singalong of “Quality people deserve quality time.”

The second “story,” paying homage to Detroit, comes courtesy of Erykah Badu. Unlike Chapelle’s candid monologue, Badu’s piece is a poetic spoken word piece, presented with all her distinctive, earthy flair, with shout outs to Berry Gordy, Stevie Wonder, and J Dilla. The spiritual undertones of Badu’s delivery transition smoothly into “FEED.” Sean reprises the climactic theme of “Everything That’s Missing,” reflecting, “I didn’t know I gave it everything ’til I realized that I had nothing else left.” His voice pitches down at key stages in contemplations that give way to unaccompanied self-affirmations, as Sean observes, “When I compare my purpose to someone else’s / Then it is no longer my purpose.”

Whenever Sean risks losing listeners with his meditative excursions, he rebounds with braggadocio and beats, as on “The Baddest,” which repurposes the same Godzilla sample used in Pharoah Monch’s “Simon Says.” The star power keeps coming on “Don Life,” featuring Lil Wayne. Wayne hardly ever raps over beats this classic, and it’s surprising how naturally he pulls it off. He and Sean skitter about adeptly, building to a chorus of “Getting to the paper like it’s human nature.” A sample at the end reveals the striking statistic that “Black music sells about sixty percent of the music sold in the world.”

Real rap albums need at least one sprawling posse cut, and Big Sean goes all out on “Friday Night Cypher,” featuring a staggering eleven Detroit rappers. The track is an absolute riot, beginning with the untiring Neptunes beat from Clipse’s “Grindin’,” and mutating into different shapes to suit each rapper’s idiosyncrasies. Every feature packs a punch, without any filler. Among the standouts are Kash Doll, whose bona fide ratchetness resounds in a way to send pangs, and Sada Baby, who raps in demonic, cartoonish spurts. There is a world of difference between the slurred, twangy stylings of 42 Dugg and the relatively traditional stylings of Boldy James. The grand finale comes from Eminem, who runs through torrential tongue-twisters and vocal acrobatics for twice the running time of everyone else. 

A final heartwarming Detroit “story” comes from none other than Stevie Wonder. While Badu’s monologue was stylized and pointed, Wonder’s rings with spontaneity. In his unmistakable voice, he speaks of his gratitude for the city, making for an especially heartwarming few moments, as he recalls how his mother helped him cope with his blindness. Finally, Sean teams up with Dom Kennedy, who takes up hypeman duties for a triumphant coser, “Still I Rise.” Again, standard bravado gives way to words of wisdom, as Sean wraps up the affair with philosophical musings, delivered over samples of gleeful crooning.

“Detroit 2” is a megalithic album that cuts swiftly through all the drivel that typifies today’s hip-hop. Big Sean speaks in the rap vernacular, and strikes the usual poses, but does it considerably bigger and better than so many of his counterparts. Stylistically, he demonstrates a mastery of everything from golden era B Boy bars to trap triplets, delivered with an artful fluency over beats that tastefully survey the spectrum of hip-hop. Features like Post Malone and Young Thug anchor Sean’s stylings in the present moment, while the likes of Anderson .Paak connect him to generations of soul. The three Detroit stories shine a light on the city, from various angles, illuminating a too often overlooked hotbed of creativity. Sean’s reunion with Jhené Aiko is refreshing and fruitful, and his meditative digressions offer a palliative counterbalance to usual hip-hop posturing, somewhat splitting the difference between conscious rap and foolhardy fun. Comprehensive, insightful, and full of colorful star power, “Detroit 2” is easily Big Sean’s most definitive release to date.

Detroit 2” releases Sept. 4 on Apple Music.