A Future of Progress: Past, Present, and Hendrix

Pop hero to trap villain and back again.
A Future of Progress: Past, Present, and Hendrix

Pop hero to trap villain and back again.

Words: Sam C. Mac

photo by James Richards IV

March 14, 2017

Through his work with cousin Rico Wade and the rest of the Dungeon Family—the seat of Atlanta’s most forward-thinking hip-hop—Nayvadius DeMun Wilburn, known to most as rapper Future, forged a musical identity that progressed contemporary rap and R&B by connecting the influence of regional movements with that of growing national trends. Future found an aesthetic in the updated trap form that Wade helped pioneer as one-third of OutKast production house Organized Noize, and he committed to a work ethic of near-constant commercial saturation, especially after signing to rapper Rodney “Rocko” Hill’s Atlanta-based A1 Recordings in 2011.

The sound of Future’s music capitalizes on hip-hop audiences’ growing acceptance of genre impurity, effectively dissolving what little border remained between rapping and singing. Crucial to that achievement was Auto-Tune, a technology familiar to the rap listener, but one which Future uses as a conduit for emotional expression. For this artist, Auto-Tune can telegraph a drug-induced paranoia or woozy triumphalism; it can be imbued with brokenness and heartbreak or it can signify the fluttering euphoria of falling in love.

Future’s 2012 studio debut, Pluto, found the surest elements of his carefully honed craft—peacocking braggadocio, fluidly expressive vocals, pop-savvy production—forming an appropriate dichotomy: barked displays of pure id (“Tony Montana,” “Same Damn Time”) and heartrending male weepies (“Truth Gonna Hurt You,” “Turn on the Lights”). The bangers and the ballads alike were performed with an enviable melodic facility, as Future showed himself to be an artist less concerned with a verse/chorus structure than with the sheer magnetism of the hook.

By the time of 2014’s Honest, Future had proven not only that he was capable of demonstrating his craft across an entire record, but that he recognized the meta-potential in his formula’s limitations. On “T-Shirt,” the rapper cynically self-mythologizes through branding (“Strippers, money, weed / Young Future, I promote it!”), while on “Honest,” he rides a percolating, unresolved beat, crooning apparent half-truths about his love life. The sinewy “I Be U” follows a barely defined song structure as it recounts the willing dissolution of the self when it comes to living for another person, and the staggering “Sh!t” ports nothing less than pure punk anger and subversiveness into its unrelentingly assaultive thrust.

Future peeled away the more sensitive dimensions of his persona, all but abandoning his pop-hero bonafides for the trap villainy of his baser instincts.

Honest was notable for replacing another planned album: Future Hendrix. For once, the change seemed less motivated by commercial calculation than by personal reasons: Only a months after that album’s announcement, he made public his engagement to R&B artist Ciara. The romance informed much of the disarmingly direct emotional sentiment of Honest—and so, naturally, the later breakup had just as substantial an effect. Through the following procession of mixtapes and albums, Future peeled away the more sensitive dimensions of his persona, all but abandoning his pop-hero bonafides for the trap villainy of his baser instincts.

This shift meant less a markedly diminished craft (there’s little drop in quality between late 2014’s Monster mixtape and early 2016’s EVOL album) than a retreat from the progressive promise of Pluto and Honest. Future’s sonic range regressed to the trap aesthetics he made his name with, and while opiates like codeine have been mainstays in his songs since at least 2011’s Dirty Sprite mixtape, the unmitigated focus on debasement that defined 2015’s celebrated DS2 represented an even more deliberate change in the rapper’s image, one that’s persisted in its almost cartoonish exaggeration for the last several years. And so longtime fans of the rapper were made to experience a strange kind of dissonance, as the artist whose every particle once seemed devoted to forward motion, to being light-years ahead of everyone, stayed in one place.

Apparently, this wasn’t lost on Future himself: His brand-new back-to-back albums (released one week after another in late February) have been positioned as breaking a holding pattern, reintroducing a Future of progress—a FUTURE HNDRXX, as the two titles would have it. However, you wouldn’t guess this from the first of the two: FUTURE seems to exist as a countermeasure, an assurance that his fan base isn’t too immediately caught off guard.

FUTURE may lack for new ideas, but it usually makes up for that in its expert refinery of old ones: It’s Future’s most fully realized work since DS2, and it often benefits in comparison from a less rigid thematic focus. While songs like “Mask Off,” “Zoom,” and the charging “Super Trapper” represent pro-forma trap, lines start to blur on “High Demand,” and dissipate entirely with “I’m So Groovy,” in which it’s no longer the drugs but Future himself being the commodity sold.

The rapper’s reliable stable of producers are all here, but they’re organized intuitively across the album, with 808 Mafia’s trunk-rattling anthems bookending a mid-section highlighted by Metro Boomin’s spartan arrangements; with a pair of twinkling Zaytoven beats at the end. Future, meanwhile, flexes to the limits of his producers’ established sound: The static choral sample and boilerplate 808s of opener “Rent Money” inspire a torrent of energized flows and hairpin syllabic change-ups, as Future excoriates his haters with a verve not heard since “Sh!t.” It’s the first sign that this album cycle will have a renewed sense of purpose, an impression that carries over to the instant-earworm chorus of “Draco” as well the formalist integrity of “Scrape.”

Even at over an hour in length, FUTURE maintains a standard of compulsive listenability—a peak of pure dedication to the trap aesthetic that he’s all but mastered. Recorded and produced simultaneously, the surprise follow-up HNDRXX isn’t nearly so concise in its ambitions. Billed as the album Future wanted to make when he made Honest, it feels more like the album he made after distancing himself from that watershed for years: A work that actively struggles to catch up to his own progressive legacy.

Opening track “My Collection” even seems to leave HNDRXX immediately damaged by the misanthropy that is now his brand. The song finally frames his misogyny in a personal context, taking aim at—even asserting ownership over—a woman who “fucked two rappers and three singers.” But then comes the evasive chorus (“You won’t get no response from me / Ain’t no confessions / Before I tell a lie / I won’t tell you nothing”), which serves as an important reminder that even a song like “Honest” wasn’t nearly as transparent as it was suggested to be.

FUTURE is a peak of pure dedication to the trap aesthetic that he’s all but mastered. HNDRXX actively struggles to catch up to his own progressive legacy.

For its genuine sense of risk, HNDRXX is unlike any other Future album or mixtape. A song like “Incredible,” with its bouncing, tropical-house accents and earnest vocal hook, would’ve sounded anachronistically pop even on Honest, while “Lookin Exotic” and “Hallucinating” each drone on placidly for nearly four minutes while Future layers his flows over shifting, dissonant soundscapes. The subterranean beat breakdown of “Fresh Air,” meanwhile, showcases the most avant-garde production work of his career. (That these beats in large part come from the same producers responsible for architecting FUTURE is itself an impressive display of versatility.)

The best track on HNDRXX is probably “Use Me,” which is both as spectral and unmoored as the most interesting parts of the album but, crucially, coheres around a compelling melody and vocal. It’s the most openly vulnerable song on HNDRXX, a kind of sad-sack sequel to Honest’s “I Be U”: Future again imagines giving up autonomy as a show of devotion, but he sounds almost dejected by the idea and eventually circles back to his own accomplishments before recognizing his desire as a selfish one in the denouement (“Use me—to make me better”).

HNDRXX often finds room to rebuke or at least push back against the dirtbag ideologies that Future’s committed himself to post-Honest. But that’s a hard change to bring about so quickly, and songs like the rambling closer “Sorry”—a roll call of repulsive exploits (“Grab a couple chicks, then nail them / Take ’em to the hood, then sell them”)—don’t delve nearly enough into self-reflection.

Likewise, Future has difficulty entirely reanimating the more radio-friendly side of his craft, leaving it to two high-profile guests to deliver the big pop moments. “Comin Out Strong,” which features The Weeknd, better negotiates the distance between the sounds of Toronto’s dark prince of R&B and Future’s own than the duo’s EVOL collaboration “Low Life,” but it ultimately challenges neither artist, sounding as at home here as it would on Starboy. More instructive is “Selfish,” on which Rihanna throws down a gauntlet: “It was right / Even though it felt wrong / Nothin’ ever stopped you / From showing your progression suddenly.” The song is a big, cinematic ballad, and almost—but not quite—an anomaly in Future’s catalog: Its sentimental piano and duet arrangement recall a forgotten single, 2013’s “Real and True,” which was recorded with Miley Cyrus and ultimately left off of Honest.

Four years on, Future seems ready again to stretch the definition of his music beyond that which his fans are comfortable with, but that doesn’t necessarily make HNDRXX a show of progression. Most of the music on both of his new albums captures an artist either a little too comfortable within the confines of the aesthetic he’s created or expanding in ways that don’t connect experimentation and accessibility like he used to. The real test, then, will be whether or not FUTURE HNDRXX really represents the endpoint of a process, as it’s being promoted, or if this body of work is merely a prelude to a more decisively progressive Future. FL