Earlier this month, Future performed in the middle of the bill on the first day of the Made In America festival, before headliner Beyoncé and some other ostensibly higher billed artists like Big Sean. But the absolute frenzy that Future whipped the crowd into—and the fact that Beyoncé later took a moment to dance to "Where Ya At?"—seemed to speak to the scale of the impact he’s had on hip-hop in 2015. And not just on Twitter, where #FutureHive became the rallying cry of an allegedly ironic following, but out in the real world, in clubs and on car stereos and festival stages. There are other artists with bigger sales figures and concert grosses than Future, but in terms of energy and momentum, he is the hottest rapper in the game right now.
What was remarkable about Future’s Made In America set was not just the crowd reaction, but the fact that most of the songs he performed, including the ones that generated the biggest reactions, were culled from the last 12 months. Last October’s mixtape Monster, followed in 2015 by the tapes Beast Mode and 56 Nights, and the retail album DS 2, pack in more crowd-pleasers than most rappers generate in their entire career. At the end of his set, Future announced plans to release another album later this year. A few days later, rumors started swirling of a collaborative mixtape with Drake. Another Future mixtape produced by Mike WiLL Made-It, Ape Shit, has been promised for a few months. Future already has 3 of the most impactful hip-hop releases of 2015, and that number could possibly double by the end of the year.
Future’s triumphant 2015 is perhaps hip-hop’s fastest “don’t call it a comeback” comeback since LL Cool J. Just as LL had hits like “Jinglin’ Baby” a year before Mama Said Knock You Out reinvigorated his career, Future never really left—he never got cold, merely lukewarm. “Move That Dope” was one of the biggest rap radio songs of 2014, but its parent album, Honest, had a muted impact relative to the scale of hype and big name guests that attended its release. “Real And True,” a would-be crossover hit featuring Miley Cyrus, landed with such a thud that it was left off the album, and “I Won” featuring Kanye West never got far on the airplay charts. After Future went 5 for 5 with the singles off of 2012’s Pluto, it seemed like his hit parade had run out of steam.
It’s an all too common arc in mainstream hip-hop today: an up-and-coming rapper scores a big major-label debut, but then the second album falls short of expectations, and everything slows down. 2 Chainz and Waka Flocka Flame returned to the mixtape circuit after underperforming second albums. Others, like Wiz Khalifa, Big Sean, and even Nicki Minaj rebounded with successful third albums but didn’t quite regain all of the momentum they had after their debuts. By contrast, Future is bigger than ever in 2015, with DS2 on track to outsell his hit 2012 debut Pluto. But more than that, the narrative has shifted, his place in the game now rests on a more solid foundation.
Throughout the first few years of his career, Future thrived by being underestimated or under-credited. He wrote the hook that made his 2011 collaboration with YC, “Racks,” a breakthrough smash for both artists. But since YC was the primary credited artist and Future merely the featured artist, it was YC who initially gained more visibility from the song’s success. Each time a single from Pluto gained steam, a bigger star hopped on the song and hogged some of Future’s spotlight: Drake on “Tony Montana,” T.I. on “Magic,” Diddy on “Same Damn Time,” Lil Wayne on “Turn On The Lights,” Kelly Rowland on “Neva End.”
Even when Pluto’s success made Future a hot commodity, the music industry seemed more interested in milking the rapper for his ability to turn out catchy choruses to boost the careers of rappers who lack that facility. Future blessed Ace Hood with “Bugatti,” B.o.B with “Ready,” Rocko with “U.O.E.N.O.,” and piloted “Tapout” for Birdman’s first Rich Gang release. And conspicuously, Future only performed the hooks on those songs, without getting a chance to spit a verse.
It may have been Future’s choice to sell hooks to other artists and clock out without getting a verse on the track. But that happening over and over perpetuated the idea that he was less a rap star than the hook guy of the moment, cranking out radio-friendly choruses much as T-Pain had a few years earlier without much of an eye on album sales or an artistic legacy. Hit collaborations with Rihanna and then-girlfriend Ciara cemented his reputation as a starry-eyed romantic, a self-taught R&B savant who came into his melodic facility via rapping in AutoTune. Drake had destigmatized the idea of a rapper who sings more than a little on his records, but Drake’s guest verses were in demand along with his hooks.
After the guest-filled Honest, perhaps Future realized that he’d maxed out on his capacity to play well with others. Over the course of the three mixtapes that followed, a total of three guest rappers show up. Future has always come up with distinctive flows for his verses, but aside from the often imitated cadences on “Karate Chop” and “Sh!t,” his flows rarely drew as much attention as his hooks. And on some early hits like “Magic,” Future was strangely soft-spoken and short on memorable lines. With guest-free songs like “Fuck Up Some Commas” and “March Madness,” however, fans finally started to get an earful of Future’s verses, and it only made them want more. In 2015, DJ Esco can mute the track for a bar in the middle of a verse, and the crowd will shout out the line on command.
A full-length project by Drake and Future has the potential to bring one of the stranger friendships in contemporary rap full circle. Future was one of the first up-and-coming artists who Drake gave a verse to as a newly minted A-lister in 2011, but Future took offense when Drake declined to attend a video shoot for “Tony Montana.” Drake selected Future as the opening act for a tour in 2013, but then temporarily dropped him from the tour after Future made seemingly disrespectful comments in an interview. Their next collaboration, “Never Satisfied,” was truncated to a 2-minute snippet when Drake decided he didn’t want his verse to appear on Honest. And when Future announced in July that his new album was almost ready, Drake called him up and asked to appear on DS2, with his “Where Ya At” verse becoming the album’s only guest appearance.
The Drake/Future album, What a Time to Be Alive, is not exactly analogous to Watch The Throne—DS2’s numbers, though encouraging, are dwarfed by any album Drake has released. But the fact that those two rappers are on equal footing enough to make an entire project together speaks to just how far Future has come, after years of being one of the far smaller stars in Drake’s orbit.
Whatever happens from here, 2015 will have been a special year for Future. Every now and again, a prolific rapper strikes that magic combination of quality and quantity, and it seems almost impossible how many great songs they can put out in one year. Lil Wayne did it a couple times, as did Gucci Mane, two artists that influenced Future’s music and his work ethic. And like those artists, Future now has a legacy and a unique place in the lineage of southern rap that comes from a tireless resilience in the face of career setbacks. Or, as Future says on “Where Ya At”: “The reason I’m here today, ‘cause I ain’t never gave up.”