"I'm Big L, Notorious, Big Pun, Shawn Carter, Sean Combs and Connery all in one…" — BET Cypher (2010)
In this current generation of top-tier emcees, from Drake and Kendrick Lamar to Chance the Rapper and J. Cole, Big Sean is pound for pound the best lyricist, and it's time we stop overlooking and start acknowledging it.
For the longest, conversations about the hottest emcee, best rapper alive, and current undisputed best rapper have centered around names like Drake, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Chance the Rapper as the culture's frontrunners — and rightfully so. But hardly ever does the man behind the "Supa Dupa" stimulus package and breadwinner of G.O.O.D. Music (the only other artist besides Ye to have back to back Billboard No. 1 albums, responsible for nearly ten Top 50 records over the last five years) get the rightful spotlight.
People forget this: Lil Wayne dedicated an entire verse to co-signing his talent. Kanye West hailed him "the Beyoncé of rap." Jay Z bestowed him a diamond-studded Roc-A-Fella chain. Over the course of five years, he's rapped alongside Jay, Nas , Ye, Wayne, and Eminem. Within that same course, he's out rapped his contemporaries, from Drake to Meek Mill and stood on his own alongside rap geniuses like Kendrick Lamar, Wale and J. Cole. "Greatest rapper of all time if you let Ye tell it," he raps on "No More Interviews," one of two records he released last year. "You ask me, I don't got the resume yet, but, shit, I can go bar for bar for ni—as who talking off." No matter how you look at it, Sean has proven he is worthy of top five status within his class.
Looking at statistics, every album single he's released, beginning with 2011's "Marvin & Chardonnay" through "Blessings," have gone platinum (yes, even "Guap"). And if not platinum, his other retail singles, such as "My Last," "One Man Can Change the World" and "Bounce Back," have all earned gold certifications for sales over 500,000. His last album, 2015's Dark Sky Paradise, earned the rapper six certified singles, including deep cut tracks like "I Know" and "Play No Games." Clearly, the guy is a commercial and critical contender for the rap throne. Stats aside though, what makes Sean worthy of the best lyricist title is his dexterity in the lyrical department.
When he isn't being questionably removed from collaborations with your favorite rappers, the G.O.O.D. Music star is having his verses performed by them. Long removed from the days where he was just seen as the hashtag rapper-cum-Kanye West protégé, Sean has evolved into a certified superstar whose sharpened lyricism continues to create streams of show-stopping codas.
The inventiveness behind his lines ("I spit that A1 every day, I'm hitting new primes / Now the stakes high, ni--as surprised at the new lines"), the wittiness behind them ("Got my pinky on her brain, while I'm getting brain plotting world domination"), and his rare ability of fluidly compacting success, sex, stress, spirituality and socio-economics all in one sentence ("The pu—y the tightest, the drinks are the coldest, the future the brightest... the love is divided, but I just gotta thank God that we got it"). With almost every rhyme, Sean elicits the kind of rubber-necking "he said what?" reactions that drove fans to rap lyric websites back in the day. And it's not just about what he says that makes him standout, it's the technicality that goes behind Sean's lines. He isn't just rhyming together words, he's exemplifying the skill of wordplay in its purest form.
On "Detroit Vs. Everybody," he somehow makes fetch happen. "My homie wanted a Chevy, so I put my dog in the 'Vette/ Plus I'm so loyal that that paper, boy, is all that I fetch," he raps, before later comparing prime steaks to goals and wrapping up laboring for nine months with due time. "I spit that A1 every day, I'm hitting new primes / Now the stakes high, niggas surprised at the new lines / Or taking down my number like "You still ain't got a new line"? / Nah it's the same, we've been laboring for years / I know it took way longer than nine months, but fuck it, it's all in due time." On "Holy Key," he's both MLK and N.W.A. in the fight for social justice, "Dr. King meet Dr. Dre, except this doctor lost all his patience / Have you tied up in a basement, with you and your partner facing adjacent / Until you deposit payment or reparations / If you shoot me then you gotta deal with a holy me/ It feel like I'm finally free and unlock my spirit with the holy key." On the 2015 sleeper "What A Year," he cleverly interpolates a classic Notorious B.I.G. in signature Sean Don fashion, "Making sure the fam straight like they up in Mike will / every Mike, Jordan, Tyson, Jackson." To add a bit of color to the latter line, the "Mike" reference came after he gave the producer Mike WiLL Made It a formal shoutout.
The lyrical relay race for Sean continues on I Decided., his fourth studio album, wherein he hits his stride with a cavalcade of standout lines. For "Moves," one of the singles released for the album, he takes the liberty of shifting your Top 5, rhyming, "It's that nigga that you probably least expected/I just had a couple dots that need connecting/Now your top five getting redirected." On "No Favors" he flips the swinging-pocket-watch technique that's used for hypnosis, rapping, "Never stopping like we hypnotized / Watch what we visualize on the rise," and finds time to reveal, "I don't write this sh-t, I think it, my ni—a."
Like most figures who don’t get the roses until they can't smell, Sean fails to get the recognition because… well, it's unclear. Some will point out his voice, while others point at his subject matter. All in all, when you ask why Sean isn't considered a top-tier lyricist, all you'll get is a hodgepodge of excuses.
Of the RIAA-certified singles mentioned above, each are packed with skillfully crafted puns, metaphors, double-entendres, similes, homonyms — you name it. Whether he's cleverly flipping Kanye and Kim K to describe his stepbrother’s pharmaceutical moves on "One Man Can Change the World" or executing clever alliteration on "My Last" ("Since I signed with Kan, I'm Louie Vuitton Sean, up in Benny Han Han eating all the Wonton…"), and not to mention loading "Bounce Back" with numbers 1 through 5 with different meanings ("If I lose 1, I bounce back like 2-3 did with 4-5." (Sidenote: Did you know Jordan once wore the No. 12?) The guy is a lyrical sniper.
For someone who's arrived in a game that is post Jay Z, Nas, Kanye, Lil Wayne and Eminem — a game where lyricism is far from where it was in the early aughts — the guy raps with a level of tenacity and urgency that is driven by the foundation of the titans before him and prominent because of how he executes this with his own flair. You have emcees that are wordsmiths, like Kendrick Lamar, one who skillfully bats around words and cadences for sport. You have emcees that are fascinating and appealing, like Drake, the unarguable LeBron James of rap (check the stats)— one who despite the criticism behind his pen game, exudes the rare air of internalizing his own struggles and making them universal. You have those who are eccentric like Chance the Rapper, poetic geniuses like Wale, and others who are through and through poignant like J. Cole. For Sean, one who wraps (double-entendre!) vulnerability, truth, consequences, puns and bravado all in one, he's a lyricist's lyricist.
It's time we change the conversation and recognize.