Son Raw is the trap Bjork.
Where do you go when hitting rock bottom sends you to the top? Between his breakup with Ciara and the herculean task of carrying Drake across a shared EP a year later, Future purged a Berlin Trilogy’s worth of drugs and darkness across 3 mixtapes and an album that redefined him as Atlanta’s gothic prince of Actavis. 2016 however, felt like dry heaves: Purple Reign and Evol had flashes of brilliance, but were mostly rehashes, while Esco Terrestrial barely registered. You could write these tapes off as vault clearing, but the seeds of doubt were planted: was Future tapped out? Even on a misguided record like Honest, it felt like he was excited to be conjuring new flows, but in 2016 he was cruising on autopilot. You know what too much syrup did to Lil Wayne…
Future (the album) doesn’t provide any definitive answers, as the MC veers between some enticing new directions and boilerplate trap. “Draco” serves as the album’s first big win with the melodies and pimpery meshing perfectly with the kind of high-tech arps that you’d usually find on a Bjork album. “POA” is deliriously fast, pushing rap production to speeds usually associated with Footwork. “Mask Off’s” flute loop and “High Demand’s” brightness counterbalance Future’s usual bleakness with an almost spiritual vibe. At this point, Atlanta’s production hive-mind has the kind of self-confidence last seen in ’90s New York: no sound is too weird to be a hit provided the drums are knocking. It’s something Future fully takes advantage of, rapping on loops that would have never made their way onto a major ATL rap album even three years ago. When he combines this ear with his knack for tongue twisting hooks, even the lower key tracks are resounding victories.
The problem is, Future seemingly doesn’t trust his own direction, and when he goes back to his 2015 formula, there’s more misses than hits. “Zoom” and “Super Trapper” sound like ten other songs Future’s already written better, while “Scrap” and “I’m So Groovy” are catatonically stoned. Lead single “Poppin’ Tags” gets it right by virtue of TM88’s outstanding production and a more lively vocal performance, but it’s not touching “Covered in Money,” “March Madness,” or any of Future’s biggest hits. For an artist who’s often viewed as half man half hook, there’s a surprising lack of them here, and the hasty release and clearinghouse track list hint at an album released mostly to promote an upcoming tour.
Nevertheless, the ten best tracks on the album make for a tape that rivals Beast Mode or even 56 Nights, and one that positions Future as a chastened and wizened writer operating from beyond the chaos, instead of in the heart of darkness. That means that with a judicious use of the skip button, Future goes from good to great, but Atlanta is also cutthroat and there’s no room for error. While Future was touring with Drake, Rae Sremmurd, Young Thug, and a resurgent Migos were already developing new styles, and this album again feels like a half measure when what listeners want is a definitive statement to match recent innovations. Future is not quite that, but with tracks as potent as the almost crystalline “When I was Broke” and sorrowful “Feds Did a Sweep” bookending the album, it’s clear that the only thing missing here was the right A&R to cut out the filler. Plus it’s still better than anything Desiigner will ever put out.