“To try to do it all by yourself — that’s the ego talking,” says Big Sean, pacing around one of the recording studios in a stylish rented house in Venice, Calif., near the ocean. He and superproducer Metro Boomin are playing songs from their joint album, Double or Nothing (coming soon), and they’re feeding off each other’s energy: Metro will scrunch up his face at certain lines of Sean’s, while the rapper will let out a spontaneous “Woo!” when Metro’s beats drop in.
Sean, 29, and Metro, 24, are at the top of their games — each is one of hip-hop’s most in-demand talents — and could easily claim the spotlight for himself. Instead, they’re shooting each other excited looks over the cranked-up songs they’ve made together. “Sometimes ego gets you in trouble,” says Sean. “You’ve got to be aware enough to have your teammates around.”
Collaborations like these were once commonplace in hip-hop. Rappers often paired off with a single producer, who would craft the entirety of a project’s beats and help execute the final vision. (Think KRS-One and Scott La Rock, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre.) Producers and MCs would come to be defined as duos; once they drifted apart to work with new collaborators, fans would pine for a return to their original form. “I was born in ’93,” says Metro, “and a lot of projects [from that era] had one producer, maybe two. They sounded more cohesive — better as a whole.”
Metro and Sean aim to recapture that feeling on their first full-length collaboration, which follows the pair’s “Bounce Back,” the single from Sean’s 2017 album, I Decided, that peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it his highest-charting song as a lead artist. (Metro also contributed to two other songs on I Decided, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in February.) It merges two artists who hail from the Midwest — Metro was born in St. Louis, while Sean proudly reps Detroit — but whose sounds, up until now, could not be more different.
They have always, however, shared a disciplined work ethic. “That’s one of the things me and Metro are like-minded on,” says Sean, who has grown during the past five years from a rising talent on the margins of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music roster into a star artist with a high-profile personal life. (The paparazzi closely followed his relationship with Ariana Grande when they were dating, and now his current one with R&B auteur Jhené Aiko.) “Maybe it has something to do with us being from the Midwest. We have that goal of wanting to succeed not just for ourselves, but for everybody who’s listening.”
Metro, meanwhile, has recently taken his creative partnerships to the next level. Double or Nothing is the fourth time in the past 18 months that he has shared marquee billing with vocalists, following his and 21 Savage’s Savage Mode; Perfect Timing, with Toronto’s Nav; and Without Warning, in which he paired off with 21 and Migos’ Offset. (The lattermost debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 in November.) If there is a resurgence in single-producer albums, Metro is at its forefront. Double or Nothing is among his deepest collaborations, with Metro taking cues from Sean to broaden his palette and cementing him, a popularizer of the current Atlanta sound, as one of the key producers of his generation.
Sean, meanwhile, has pared down his lyrical approach, cutting to his ideas more quickly than in the past. As a vocalist, he’s typically discursive and elliptical, with tangents running over the end of one bar and finishing, rapid-fire, in the middle of the next. To some, this reads as disorganized, but it’s a variation on a common Detroit style, one that requires a certain degree of technical precision to pull off. Here, he cuts fat from most lines, feeling around for the beat’s spine. There are quick, impassioned passages about police violence and racial equality, an unusual focus for Sean. “I believe music is a way of getting away from things,” he says, “but it was heavy on my heart, and I felt the need to talk about it.”
Meanwhile, “Pull Up N Wreck,” featuring 21 Savage, moves in a handful of bars from Sean pining for a few days off to hang with family in Atlanta to then conceding that the respite is likely to never come. “I really challenged myself to get it out,” he says. “That takes a lot of focus and energy in the moment — [and] that’s something I think is going to improve all my music going forward.”
Where Metro has been a major force in the mainstream’s current fixation on trap, on Double or Nothing he tries his hand at radically different styles and subgenres. Though Metro is much more closely associated with his adopted hometown of Atlanta, his formative years in St. Louis figure prominently on the album, a sort of omnivorous collage that’s common in rap production from the middle of the country, from Nelly’s early, try-anything records to the delirious eclecticism of 1990s Chicago. On the set, Brazilian jazz samples and would-be blaxploitation themes bump up against one another.
In the studio, Metro and Sean have an easy chemistry, dancing and rapping while their music plays back through the speakers. In between each song, trying to decide on what to play next, they pound fists into open palms and break into excited laughter.
They approached the record as an experiment not only in sound, but in process as well. Made mostly in Atlanta and Los Angeles, the new songs were largely written and recorded on the spot — Metro would make a beat in the studio in front of Sean, while Sean would sit with a mic, writing and freestyling. The version of the album pulsing through the speakers is still being mixed, but Sean cracks that he fully expects that on some tracks, the playback will bleed into the microphone, because they recorded without a vocal booth or even a pair of headphones.
Today, their relationship seems free of pretension, and full of genuine appreciation and respect — which Sean says was the goal all along. “It ain’t about status,” he says. “It’s about what you’re bringing to the table: how we’re going to progress humanity, how we’re going to give people something to work out to, to live to, to upgrade to.”