Big Sean - Finally Famous (Album Review)
Big Sean’s debut album, Finally Famous, is a very interesting album from a critical point of view. I’m writing this after a single listening session, and I’m not quite sure what to make of the album for a number of conflicting (and frustrating) reasons. In my opinion, Finally Famous has many good qualities, but overall, it doesn’t really offer much that hasn’t already been heard before, and its lack of fluidity between tracks prevents it from becoming truly noteworthy.
From a structural standpoint, Finally Famous is standard fair. The main body of the work, excluding the four bonus tracks, is not very long, and it is well paced as far as running time goes. The album, however, lacks the polish that comes from having a strong central theme to help provide a unified tone or mood throughout the work. It sticks to the subject matter of the title, but the experience of being famous (or the rise to such status) is such a generalized (and overused) concept that it lacks a cohesive quality when done in the way seen here. Despite the majority of the production being handled by No I.D., I feel like the album has no real signature feel to it that makes it unique.
Approach and Subject Matter
While Finally Famous has its share of featured artists, Big Sean uses those guests in a way that makes sense for the most part. No one really seems out of place on their respective track, and no single artist is overused throughout the album. Lyrically, this provides an even feeling within the tracks with no elements that really stick out. The artists complement each other. With an album unified by a specific theme, this would normally be a good quality because it avoids disrupting the “voice” of the work. With Finally Famous there is really no overall voice to disrupt, so this observation of “inner-track cohesion” is less important, but still noteworthy as a recognition of craftsmanship on a smaller level.
Big Sean proves himself to be very capable lyrically and shows a balance with wordplay that is very engaging without being overbearing. His pace is steady and very clean - meaning that he is easy to follow and understand. Although Big Sean does not show much variation when it comes to speed, he showcases a nice mix of different rhyming patterns accented by efficient use of metaphor and simile. He also has a very good sense of humor and a playful quality about his style that can be readily appreciated.
A lack of varied execution regarding subject matter is the major shortcoming of this album, I feel. Granted there is only so much that one can talk about with the chosen topic, Finally Famous still doesn’t even attempt to add anything new to the established picture of a rising artist’s struggles within the spotlight. Taking the road most traveled, Big Sean acknowledges the pitfalls, accents the perks, and seizes every opportunity to say “I do it” (Note: Not only is the phrase used as a title in one instance, but it literally shows up in one variation or another on almost every track). Despite all of his promise as a lyricist, Big Sean seems to come up short in this area. He takes the time to address the finer elements of rhyming, yet somehow manages to distort the larger picture of the album itself.
The Art of Storytelling
If I may slightly digress for a moment, I would like to share my opinion regarding a trend in music that Finally Famous seems to embody. As my readers have probably noticed, when I review albums, I do just that – I review albums, not songs. What makes a good song/single, in my opinion, is often too subjective and a matter of personal taste for me to provide a fair critique in isolation and without defined criteria. With that said, how those individual songs interact regarding the feel of the unified whole is another matter altogether. In the same way that I can say that a certain scene sticks out in a movie or a particular chapter disrupts the flow of a novel, I can say that specific tracks on an album work to the disadvantage of the album as a collective body of work (at least from a tone or story perspective and not necessarily a marketing one). This is something that I can talk about objectively and hopefully provide the best frame of reference for my opinions as a listener.
Finally Famous doesn’t quite deliver as an album, to me, because it falls into that category of work where you have just a collection of individual songs which don’t necessarily complement each other in any meaningful way. To most people this probably won’t matter, and listeners will no doubt like and repeatedly play a number of the songs on this album. But, in my opinion, having a few tracks with replay value doesn’t make Finally Famous great. As someone who listens to a lot of albums in their entirety, I can say that identifying the distinction between a great album and a good collection of songs makes a huge difference when it comes to understanding and appreciating an artist. Of course this recognition applies mainly to solo and group albums and less in terms of compilations and producer/label showcase projects (although it doesn’t hurt in those works either).
The distinction relies primarily on the artist’s proficiency as a storyteller. The problem with a lot of albums and artists is not so much that everyone talks about the same thing, but rather everyone talks about and presents (i.e., in videos) the same thing in the same way. It’s not simply a unique plot issue; it’s a creative story issue. As with novels and movies, music is no different in that there exists a finite number of plots that can be combined, re-envisioned, and reworked over and over again as long as the approach to the new story is different and creative. It’s the reason why Shakespeare’s Hamlet can inspire The Lion King and why a movie like Avatar can still break new ground and earn a place in cinema history even though it shares the same basic plot of movies like Pocahontas and Fern Gully. Unfortunately, most artists, though sometimes able to tell a unique story within a song, don’t seem to be able to sustain a greater story over an entire album and instead simply rely upon the same generalized descriptions shared by other artists who are telling the same types of stories. Thus continues the crapshoot of whether or not an album will be successful based on the percentage of “good,” “bad,” and “acceptable” songs. Finally Famous rolls the dice.
Certainly, there are other factors which influence and dictate success, but the foundation is the work itself and how well it flows. I might go into more depth at another time on this sensitive topic, but hopefully the reader is able to understand my point and can notice the trend.
With a generous amount of venting completed, I would like to say that this review is in no way a total condemnation of Big Sean or his efforts on Finally Famous. As I said before, I think that there is a fair share of quality material that makes this collection an enjoyable listen for many reasons. Big Sean definitely has a lot of potential given his lyrical ability, and I look forward to hearing more from him in the future. As an album, though, I don't think that Finally Famous achieves the elusive mark of greatness.