While Future's new album has received raves in certain corners, overall noise around Honest seems quieter than the response to 2012's Pluto. That album eased out the gate, selling only 41,000 copies its first week, but ultimately climbed to 365,000 after the release of "Turn On the Lights" as a single. It also received its share of acclaim. Future became one of the year's biggest success stories by the time it was reissued as Pluto 3D in late November. Honest, though, has suffered through delays, went through a name change (Future Hendrix was supposed to drop last year), and narrowly survived stalled singles, like the soppy, cynical Miley Cyrus collaboration "Real and True."
What goes up can come down as spectacularly, and hip-hop fans are always ready to watch that fall. Future's position feels especially precarious. Honest is uneven, although not considerably more so than earlier tapes. What has changed is the breadth of the production palette, a challenge to any rapper attempting to shift from Atlanta clubs to popular stardom. Opener "Look Ahead," which samples Amadou & Miriam and Santigold's "Dougou Badia," suggests an outward-facing, open worldview at odds with the hermetic clubs 'n' cash world Future comes from. Andre 3000 collaboration "Benz Friendz" feels more like an Andre song than a Future cut, and likewise breaks from Future's typical sound, to his detriment.
As Future's album was delayed, an entire cross-section of artists rushed into the void to produce new "Future" songs.
The best songs—the second half of the record really picks up in this department—capture moments of earnest emotional confession. Finding those moments of overlapping sound where melody and texture recombine to gently slide up heartstrings, and capturing them in amber, is the source of his power. "There's no way I could make my voice crack the same exact way," he told Rolling Stone's Chris Weingarten. "It's about that moment, you know what I'm saying? So every time I go in the studio, I'm trying to get that moment." One such moment is "Special," which incorporates an acoustic guitar to Future's typical 808s and heartbreak to great effect. Best of all is "I Be U," a love song that exemplifies Future's ability to believably convey devotion in a genre that typically shields such sincerity, or conveys it through the construct of persona.
Future's importance has mostly been talked about in terms of his sonic impact, which seemed so unusual and sudden, particularly to listeners outside the Atlanta club diaspora. Trading on outer space mythology, otherworldly vocal manipulations, and an emphasis on melody over rapping, Future cultivated a world of lovelorn cyberromantics, a rap game Wall-E. As the Internet has levelled hierarchies, crossing geographic boundaries and opening access to the entirety of recorded history at once, it's tripped up perceptions of music as linear progression. (There's even a book about this idea—Retromania.) With his robotic croon, Future went against the grain. His art, appropriately enough, was futurist. In no way retro, It implied a kind of forward momentum: Seemingly without precedent, built on the intentional misuse of technology, draped in sci-fi language.
This kind of thinking tends to be overvalued, though, a kind of religious faith in "progress" as some kind of inevitable fortune. (It's also important to remember that as radical as Future seemed outside of Atlanta, he was one of an array of technologically-assisted melodicists—everyone from Roscoe Dash to Kwony Cash to Stuey Rock—who wouldn't reach the same heights of success, despite the novelty of their particular approaches). Not that Future's vocal style wasn't unique. It had a massive impact, and led to an array of copycats, from certified hitmakers to aspiring locals from more far-flung locales. 2013 was the year when Future's biggest songs weren't actually by Future, as "Type of Way" and "OG Bobby Johnson" became huge anthems.
Herein lies the problem for Future, a modern artist in a postmodern world. His advances transformed hip-hop, but the bigger his impact, the less unique he seems. Trends have always been jocked, as it's been since the diggedy-days before Das EFX. But the Internet has sped up the co-option process. Artists no longer need the long lead time and a major label deal to capitalize off of a hit single; evolutionary developments are co-opted the second they hit SoundCloud. As Future's album was delayed, an entire cross-section of artists rushed into the void to produce new "Future" songs.
Only Gucci Mane and Lil Wayne can be seen to have shaped the current Southern sound the way Future has. His songs have been ringing in clubs for years—before his mainstream breakthrough, tracks like "To the Moon" and "No Matter What" were major singles to hip-hop's core audience. But unlike Gucci and Wayne—both of whom relied upon charisma, biography, and an artful way with words to convey personalities their fans could invest in—Future seemed a slighter star. On stage, he runs through his hits without expression, jumping slightly for the more upbeat songs. His interviews are notoriously blank, giving away little of himself.
In his music, he sings and raps from a place of great emotional power and honesty—but it almost always feels mediated, distanced from the personal, the concrete. (On "Blood, Sweat, Tears," from Honest, he sings: "I gave my blood, sweat, tears/You couldn't have known what I did for this." And indeed, he rarely tells us.) We know he's been through a lot because he tells us so, but the details are absent. The main impression hammered home over and over is that he spends most of his time in the studio; that he's devoted to his craft. "Studio rat" is a personality type especially interesting to music nerds (a respectable audience, to be fair—Steely Dan were acclaimed in their day) but less so to hip-hop's core fanbase. Rap music—especially the kind favored by the club-going street audience that served as Future's core—has been highly personality-driven for many years.
Future is a more traditional songwriter—traditional for popular music, non-traditional for reality rap. He's crossed the wires of the two traditions, and it's here that his strengths lie.
In that sense, Future was a very unlikely star. One half-expects a clueless label suit, pulling his hair out after reading the previous paragraph, to tell Future to be more expressive, to give more interviews, to rap about more gangster shit, to be more hood, more authentic, whatever. To clothe his talents in new marketing. But contrivance is the enemy of consistency, and it obscures Future's real talents, which have been to tap into a replenishing wellspring of creativity, and for the art of songwriting.
Future is an introvert. Whatever alchemical relationship there is between his own real lived experiences and the expression of his talent, its process is obscured from our view. Unlike confessional emotive gangster rap of years past, Future is a more traditional songwriter—traditional for popular music, non-traditional for reality rap. He's crossed the wires of the two traditions, and it's here that his strengths lie. For a non-Future street rapper who is first and foremost a personality, songwriting is important, but not life-or-death; we allow a thinner track or a hook that doesn't quite connect because at the song's core, the rapper is conveying another dimension of his life as displayed through art. It is another star—perhaps a dimmer one, maybe off to the side—yet it still marks a place in the constellation that makes up the artist.
Future's personality is not foregrounded. If one of his songs doesn't connect, it may as well not exist; it becomes a mere data point in the stock market that is Future's career. When it does connect, it has a universal appeal. Future is the disembodied voice in the background, his lyrics intentionally general so they can easily lay on top of our own experience. This notion of the "disembodied voice" is a concept Kelefa Sanneh once used to describe the work of Luther Vandross. It feels equally appropriate to describe Future, for whom attempts to personalize with concrete detail would sever the connection.
Mr. Vandross was first and foremost a disembodied voice, which is part of the reason he remains the gold standard in make-out music: you can bring him into your bedroom without worrying that he'll steal the show. And that's part of the reason so many of his best songs had an undercurrent of melancholy. For a disembodied voice, love is always unconsummated; even his most passionate songs were somehow untainted by lechery.
People will continue to bite Future for every innovation his makes. His power is in his ability to consistently turn out songs that resonate in such a singular way. For Future, then, it's an eternal uphill climb, with an Epic rep asking at every rest stop, "But what have you done for me lately?"