Future has released so much music in the past year that were he to retire today he’d have a perfectly substantial and respectable discography to his name. Plenty of rappers are prolific in the mixtape world; in terms of sheer output, this Atlanta trap king puts even the absurdly productive Young Thug to shame. He’s been on such a roll for so long it’ll seem weird when he takes a break, when there isn’t all of a sudden a new Future record to enjoy, analyze, and blast in your car. The canon, including free mixtapes and commercially released albums, goes like this: Monster (mixtape, October 2014), Beast Mode (mixtape, January 2015), 56 Nights (mixtape, March 2015), DS2 (album, July 2015), What a Time to Be Alive (Drake collaboration, September 2015), Purple Reign (mixtape, January 2016), and Evol (album, January 2016). I also recommend his previous two studio albums, 2012’s Pluto and 2014’s Honest, released before he went on his insane spree.
Generally, the albums are stronger, more consistent, and more audacious than the mixtapes, which serve as messy grab bags hosting vast reserves of worthy music not quite intense enough to make the official albums. Taken in tandem, however, starting with Monster his records follow a new stylistic and emotional direction than the one that made him famous. Future uses lots of Auto-Tune, and circa Pluto, his major-label debut, he had perfected a tight, shiny brand of hip-hop significantly deeper and more joyful than anything previous Auto-Tunesmiths had put their names on; Pluto alternated upbeat club bangers and warped, moving love songs in rapid succession to construct a sleek, aerodynamic pop-rap vehicle. Two years later, Honest aimed for the charts even more blatantly, and while many declared it a solid if unexciting follow-up at the time, in retrospect its syrupy ballads and toned-down hooks sound clumsy. Four months after Honest came out, his relationship with fianceé/R&B singer Ciara (whose recent music has also been pretty great) fell apart. Ever since, everything outgoing and radio-friendly about his music has disappeared — gone are all the declarations of romantic love like “I Be U” and “Turn on the Lights,” gone is the sense of popcraft that animated “Tony Montana” and “Magic.” Monster heralded a shift to a harder, more abrasive style of street-rap, allegedly honoring his precommercial roots in the Atlanta trap scene. The following records flesh out his brutal new sound, all while Future gasps and gulps down lyrics that describe a life equal parts recovery from heartbreak, recreational drug use, and fraught anxiety over the traditional hip-hop fantasy life.
Of the mixtapes, Monster is probably the most distinct (radio hit “Fuck Up Some Commas” is inexhaustible, Lil Wayne’s guest verse fits right in on “After That”, and the beats snarl and squirm throughout) and 56 Nights probably the vaguest (although it too has its moments, specifically “March Madness” and the outlandish “No Compadre”). I’m partial to What a Time to Be Alive, his collaboration with Drake, which got dismissed as interim product when it came out yet swerves to life with more spirit than any of the mixtapes — the beats fusing murk and gleam, Future’s deep growl contrasting markedly with Drake’s smug snicker, each rapper trying to outdo the other so they can claim the project as theirs. What a Time to Be Alive boasts serious pop appeal (“Jumpman” sounds fabulous on hip-hop radio, and if they’d only chosen “Big Rings” as the next single, it would have conquered the airwaves too), which means it’s really more of a Drake album in the end. Evol, his latest commercial release, has no such outreach factor. Though clearer and more direct than any of the mixtapes with the possible exception of Monster, it’s unabashedly gloomy, creeping along at a steady downtempo pulse. Often the keyboards get reduced to ostinato background, a low, eerie presence flickering on and off at will, leaving hook duty to the crunching and clattering of the snare drums. Often Future swallows whole consonants, whole syllables, leaving only a slimy trail of Auto-Tune in his wake. Some songs do stand out from the pack: “Photo Copied” bounces and pops via echoey pitched percussion; “Lil Haiti Baby” assembles the synthesized brass, electronic strings, church bells, and drum machines mimicking gunfire that constitute trap’s signature instrumental arsenal and somehow turns it all into something even grander and more martial than the norm; “Lie to Me” deploys a synthesizer with a gushy, slithery texture that I’ve never before heard on a rap record. And even those excellent bangers pale compared to the harshness of DS2.
“Making the case for Future as a nihilist fueled by depression has become such a popular exercise for rap writers that we’re almost tripping over ourselves after each successive release to tell you how miserable he’s become,” wrote Spin’s Israel Daramola, and in fact, it has become a cliché to point out how pointing out Future’s misery has become a cliché. Although the genre’s repeated keyboard loops have, melodically, always cultivated a forbidding tone, hip-hop aesthetes accustomed to hearing aggressive Southern rap as party music will have to adjust before hearing the pain in Future’s voice. Nonetheless, at the heart of DS2 there’s a despondence whose extremity the putatively feelsy, confessional Drake couldn’t comprehend. It’s in the very sound of the music, as metallic and streamlined as Pluto but with none of the sweetness. Over snare drums that once rang with gleeful defiance, we have instead the sour death knell that anchors “Thought It Was a Drought”; where those high keyboard squeals used to mean the dancefloor was heating up, now they sound like inarticulate cries of agony. DS2 stings like the wind in a blizzard biting your face, like losing control of the knife and cutting your hand off, like drums wrapped around synthesizer shimmer packed tightly against rattling bass soaked in corrosive acid and clouds of rainbow smoke. Take, say, “I Serve the Base” — thin, buzzy industrial humming gets twisted into something halfway resembling a melody, with a higher drone adding dissonant backup — no way is that a traditional rap beat. This music is cold, mechanical, and very alienated.
Since Future rarely talks about his feelings, one could surmise that his misery is formal, merely a matter of tone; that this is one more rap record glorifying strip clubs, substance abuse and the like regardless of mood. Indeed, his lyrics are mostly descriptive, portraying a world of endless casual sex, fancy cars/jewelry/designer couture, and, where he diverges from the usual fantasy, what on recorded evidence sounds like a crippling drug addiction (to lean, sizzurp, codeine, whatever it’s called, though he also pays homage to cocaine), all of which he probably exaggerates but certainly has experience with. But while he never condemns the drugs, he doesn’t have to, because they’re fairly nightmarish in themselves: “I just took a piss and I see codeine coming out,” he mumbles on the very first song. And there’s no room for emotional ambiguity in his vocal delivery. Probably his natural, unaltered rapping cadence would sound low and blubber-tongued anyway, and probably all that cough syrup has something to do with the rasp in his throat, too. Run it through a vocoder and the result is damage beyond repair. On the one hand, the greasy layer of Auto-Tune over his voice mechanizes it, stylizes it, turns him into RobotBoy 3000. On the other, the amplified artifice implies that something very scary and emotionally charged is going on, and through the alienation effect he conveys an extraordinary amount of pain. He did this on Pluto, only the mood conveyed was brighter; he does this on Evol and some of the lesser mixtapes too. He does this on Evol and some of the lesser mixtapes, too. It’s on DS2 that, from start to finish, his miserable croak coheres over beats that together form a whirring, swiveling death machine. It’s on DS2 that by reciting nominally pro forma lyrics about hip-hop’s familiar fantasy world, his altered voice recontextualizes it as an empty existence that can suck the life out of you, all while avoiding the jaded posturing many rich sadboys are known for. My favorite song after several months of obsessive listening is “Rich Sex”, a forlorn ballad about fucking with your jewelry on that literally combines hip-hop’s dual sex and money obsessions — the perfect recipe for materialist paradise! — without sounding like he’s enjoying a single minute. “Stick Talk” is equally moving on hook alone.
DS2 is the jewel in a large body of work that in retrospect might stand as either a worthy phase in a longer, more varied career or a slow descent into madness. Although this music is conceptually daring, sonically cool, and utterly brilliant, there’s reason to doubt he can maintain the stance without doing eventual damage to his mental health and immortal soul. If he burns out, the crash seems far away; if he mellows out, it’ll happen slowly. I’ll be playing DS2 over and over in the meantime.