Future Tense: How a Pair of Albums Turned the Rapper From Mixtape MC to Mastermind

Future has created a number of alter egos to create his music. And we may be seeing the emergence of a new personality: the mastermind.

future hendrix

Image via WikiCommons

future hendrix

Attrition. That’s the game we thought Future was playing. We thought he was playing that game because that’s the game nearly every rapper’s been playing since Lil Wayne forgot which songs were going to be on Tha Carter 3 and it went platinum in a week. Flood the block. Drown the consumer. Saturate the game like Paula Deen wielding butter in a kitchen. Let the artistes take time to think about the world at large and their (our) place in it and then painstakingly craft projects that detail their findings. For rappers like Wayne and Future, it’s quantity over quality, every time. If you could strike a balance between the two, great—if not, no worries, just keep pushing. The cream will rise to the top, the duds will fall away like Que.

With this model, there’s no room for big picture thinking, or a grandiose vision that unifies the output. There is only the grind. To many, the grind is what got Future to where he is today: The first artist to notch two back-to-back number one albums, FUTURE and HNDRXX, in back-to-back weeks. But’s that’s too reductive an explanation.

Having sat with the albums now, it’s tough to believe that this wasn’t orchestrated.

Future clawed his way to the top in 2017 not by melding lucid gutter visions and passionate love songs hedged by paranoia and distrust, but by proving that the grind is in service of something other than itself. His mainstream false-start and mixtape run all led to these twin projects. When consumed together, FUTURE and HNDRXX bear this out. Two 17-track albums that, on the surface, play to two different audiences, Future’s latest projects work best as a pair. Both lean into a lifestyle afforded by someone with immense riches and an opiate addiction that borders on suicidal. Both deal with gain and loss of money, friends, and love. Both seem to exist in a world inhabited only by Future and a very select group of people. In other words, they are the distillation of everything we’ve come to expect from Future’s art in 2017.

Think about your favorite rapper. Think about how much music he or she has released in the past three years. Think about their last project. Then consider whether that  album accomplished what these two projects did for Future. In an interview with Complex, Future said his impetus for dropping the two projects was “being able to do something different and stepping outside the zone people normally see me in. I think that’s what’s most special about it.”

He’s right. FUTURE and HNDRXX have kicked Future up a level from mixtape rapper who produced a prodigious amount of music without much regard for how it would all fit together in the aggregate, to an artist with an eye towards thoughtful arrangements and meaningful curation of guests and talents. Whereas before it seemed as if Future simply hitched his cart to the best viable ride—whether that be producer or rapper—now we see him as the main attraction. He has the wagon now.

Future, like many rappers, has created a number of alter egos to make this music. There’s Super Future, who he says is the unrelenting hit maker. There’s Caeser Lee, who is, if you can believe it, the ladies man. And a few others that don’t really seem like drastic variations when put under the light. But we may be seeing the emergence of a new personality: the mastermind.

The running narrative for Future has been steeped in codeine use and superfluous spending to suppress and placate pain caused by his marital and financial strife. His output therefore has been seen mostly as catharsis; pure id. Fans have reveled in it. The more unintelligible or emotionally unstable, the better. However, on FUTURE and, especially, HNDRXX lyrics and thoughts come across clearer than ever. You can hear it when he talks about how the feds “picked the dogs up like an infant” on “Feds Did a Sweep.” Other moments work harder to excavate meaning and emotion from the slumped patina that’s been spread across his music for the past few years. Like when he morphs into a mixture of all his selves, past and present, for the pleading and aching “Use Me” to comfort a woman he’s seeing by offering: “I’ll call your ex if you really want me to.” This is a Future we’ve not yet seen, one informed by the mistakes of his past, both musically and romantically. Few people can teeter between sincere affection and menacing gloom like Future.

Even the musical direction is clearer. Songs like “Incredible,” produced by Dre Moon, who’s better known for his work with Beyonce, don’t make you feel as if you’re in an elevator shooting to the basement of an abandoned apartment building on Mars. Instead the steady guitar strum makes you want to sip drinks with umbrellas in ‘em, cruising on some boat, or at least in freshly washed car on a sunny day. Too poppy? Take a darker track like “Turn On Me.” Nothing too out of the ordinary until a horn emerges to highlight certain lines. It’s surprising and appreciated. Just like the flutes on “Mask Off.” Future’s rapping over flutes. Who saw that coming? Even greater is the cohabitation of songs like that and his usual trap fare, which is now sharper and better honed.

An editor of mine once told me that a great rap album or song properly expresses where that rapper is in their life at that moment. It’s taken time, but, through attrition, Future has finally gotten to the point where he is able to fully express himself. He’s proven he doesn’t need anyone but himself to make an impact—give him any producer, any guest star, and he’ll shape the work.

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