Big Sean is boyish and bitter at Myth

Big Sean performs at the iHeartRadio Music Awards at the Forum on Sunday, March 5, 2017, in Inglewood, Calif. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Big Sean performs at the iHeartRadio Music Awards at the Forum on Sunday, March 5, 2017, in Inglewood, Calif. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP) Associated Press

Big Sean’s live show starts just like his new album, I Decided.: A downtrodden old man begins a sour lament. His disembodied projected head is the first thing the packed and mosh-ready Myth crowd sees.

A tone of regret established, out skips Sean, oozing boy-next-door-throws-a-house-party energy, his charm sweeping away any scorn. Swinging through Maplewood during his birthday week, the 29-year old Sean alternates between resentment and resilience, compassion and pride, sweet and sour. He stirs up a tale of being an under-30 who already feels over 60 because of his regrets. It’s an undercooked pose, but like all good parties, being half-baked feels all right.

Sean opens with two new tracks, “Voices in my Head/Stick to the Plan” and “No Favors,” followed by “Paradise.” He’s a middling wordsmith who compensates with charisma, a poor man’s Drake, and when he tries to do too much, he comes off maudlin. But at least he tries. Live, he bounces around, emphatically delivering lines, hardly winded, his rhymes crisp and effortless. His go-to move -- a quick, pitter-patter flow he deploys on every single track -- can be so predictable it’s just boring on his recordings, but his sheer stamina and speed makes it sound remarkable in person.

Smaller venues suit Sean, steering us away from his reputation as a stadium-sound, hit-singles rapper and letting him do more intimate and nuanced work. The results of this shift are convoluted and incohesive, as Sean bounces from stories of a mother's pride to expressions of professional bitterness with little connective tissue but his persona. But that persona is what juices the poppy hits, that boyish charm what audiences respond to. Though Myth is packed, there’s no ravenous appetite to devour, let alone properly savor, Sean’s brand-new stuff. Sean is like dessert, always welcome but ultimately nonessential. People want the hits and big-time features, and when he first steps on the Myth stage, the surging response is the kind that comes from seeing a Kardashian, not honoring a Coppola.

That celebrity-based generation of success, attention, and wealth is no new thing to Sean’s label boss, Kanye West. (Pusha T is technically president, but come on.) Big Sean is good at and celebrated for being famous, and his relationship with Ye is mutually beneficial, enhancing the celebrity of each.

Sean sprinkles in older hits like “Play No Games” and “All Your Fault,” the stage lights taking on the purple of the “Play No Games” video, which was a homage to Martin. That choice may offer an insight into how Sean sees himself -- he’s open about his feelings and insecurities but he’s still a man, Gina!

Sean doesn’t just rely on a DJ live. He’s accompanied by a drummer and synth player, and this mini-band stood out on a rockin’ run of hits from Cruel Summer: “Clique,” “Mercy,” and “Don’t Like.” The whacking snare leading into each chorus of “Don’t Like” in particular had a more visceral feel.

The more intimate and interior Sean emerged during “Halfway Off the Balcony.” With its opening lines – “I’m hanging halfway off the balcony/ Over-thinking because my job is way more than a salary” -- Sean floats the notion that his vocational calling is such a massive cross to bear it’s got him thinking about suicide. As the stage lights turn a devil’s red, Sean’s voice grows deep and demonic voice, his earnestness as thick as the weed smoke in the club.

When Sean shifts into (or out of) maudlin sweetness, it is from (or into) prideful callousness. One minute he’s encouraging us to live up to our potential and reminding us to call our moms, the next he’s spitting with disdainful cockiness, incredulous of the idea that he has any competition and a little embarrassed for us that he even has to explain that.

“Everybody in this crowd has a future ahead of them,” Sean tells us during an abrupt five-minute lecture on taking risks and being the best friend we can be. Then he sings “Bigger than Me,” a song about making his hometown Detroit proud, and leaves the stage. Immediately after, Sean returns for with his biggest and most bitter hit, “I Don’t Fuck with You.” Which is it, Sean? Are we supposed to love one another or throw our middle fingers to the sky? “I don’t give a fuck,” he repeats over and over, and that’s Sean’s role: to be famous and flash his winning smile, to be friends with Kanye and say he’s the man because no one is really checking, to throw parties and give no fucks.

Openers: Neisha Neshae is wildly talented. She sings and raps and moves well, but right now she’s all show. Once she concentrates on the music she’ll deliver the goods. MadeinTYO is a more composed performer, electing to calmly stalk the stage, simmering, waiting for the moment to spring the audience loose into that mosh.

Critic's bias: Big Sean is a below-average artist, but he’s loads of fun as the life of a party, and his precise and challenging live spitting was pretty damn artful.

The Crowd: Mainly high school and early college age, with a lot of “Where’s Rachel?!” “She’s Coming!!” “Where’s Rachel?!?!!!” overheard in the crowd. The early, younger people on the Myth floor were so compacted near the stage, any open space was like hot lava -- it was your basic junior-high-dance style clumping. If you were waiting for the show maybe 20 minutes before with hardly anyone around, you were still squashed in somehow.

Overheard in the crowd:
Guy: (loud) You guys drinking? Want a drink?
Girls: (louder) We’re sophomores in college.
Guy: [silence]

Random notebook dump: Big Sean is like everybody’s little cousin who takes himself too seriously. He’s the 12-year-old who campaigns for a spot at the adult table, wins one, then brings up international affairs while the adults just want to talk about childhood memories and how bad Minnesota’s going to lose the division.

Set list
Voices in My Head/Stick to the Plan
No Favors
Once Bitten, Twice Shy
Don’t Like
Jump Out the Window
Play No Games
Owe Me
Halfway Off the Balcony
All Your Fault
Skateboard P (with MadeineTYO)
All Me
Sunday Morning Jacket
Bigger than Me

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