Big Sean’s sophomore album, Hall Of Fame, is all but certain to be best remembered for a song that didn’t make the final tracklist. Cut because of sample clearance issues, “Control” lit up the Internet with a remarkable, instantly notorious verse from Kendrick Lamar that shot friendly fire at nearly every prominent rapper in his age bracket. In one masterful display of bravado, Lamar seemed to singlehandedly reawaken hip-hop’s competitive spirit, spurring responses from dozens of rappers who seemed downright grateful to have something to prove. Further fueling the voice-of-a-generation buzz that’s been building around him, the fervor affirmed Lamar as one of the rare artists who inspires other artists to be better at their craft.
Big Sean is not that kind of artist. A dweeby, punchline rapper with the emotional range of a Chuck Lorre sitcom, he’s 2013’s answer to the Rob Bases and Young MCs of the golden age, an entertainer with currency on the radio but no greater cultural relevance. That the most important verse of the year happened to take place on one of his songs, then, was just a fluke, a coincidence—and one that probably didn’t do Sean any favors, since Lamar’s zeitgeist-turning verse overshadowed Sean’s own impressive turn on the track. In a poised, unhurried verse that builds skillfully over two and a half minutes, Sean landed quip after endless quip. Nobody will mistake him for one of the greats, but since his overeager 2011 debut, Finally Famous, he’s improbably grown into a much more skillful, dexterous rapper, quicker to tear into a beat and able to say more while mugging less.
Hall Of Fame benefits considerably from that new aptitude. Even Sean’s worst zingers don’t sting this time around, since he’s too busy somersaulting between wisecracks to lean too hard on any given one. He’s also grown surer of himself as an artist. Resting the convention that insists rappers use the sophomore album to expound on the tolls of success, Hall Of Fame doubles down on the carefree spirit of its predecessor. The mood is so consistently upbeat and agreeable that nearly everything works, especially the tracks that pair Sean with a strong singer. Miguel once again proves himself R&B’s most valuable ringer on the lighter-waving anthem “Ashley,” while alt-soul singer James Fauntleroy lends his avant sensibilities to the dizzyingly smooth “World Ablaze.” Big Sean has finally made an album that’s as much fun as he thinks it is.