Abe Beame owns several pairs of Gucci flip flops and you know damn well why.
There’s an old, lazy, hackneyed political cliche known as the liberal bubble. It’s basically a way to slam coastal “elites” for being out of touch with Nixon’s silent majority. Over the years, conservatives have taken up a variety of behaviors and seemingly random bits of lifestyle ephemera and stapled it to this idea. There are Volvo-driving liberals, latte-sipping liberals, sushi-eating liberals, body piercing liberals, New York Times-reading liberals, the list is as endless as it is stupid.
I bring this up because I have a new attribute to ascribe to us coastal elites for this upcoming cycle. It’s the reason why you’re getting a feature on Nayvadius DeMun Wilburn so late in this series, why I am so uninterested in writing it and why your eyes probably glazed over when you saw yet another piece on this site with Future in the headline. Along with our lattes, fuel efficient cars and love of organic produce, in 2019 you can identity a snooty, out of touch intellectual based on how many Future think pieces he or she has written or read over the course of the past ten years. It’s why I was pissed off when the Danny Boyle film Yesterday dropped because it stepped on the screenplay I had been developing about a Pakistani mechanic in the Iron Triangle who hits his head and wakes up in a world where no one has heard of Future.
And yet, of course, this series would be incomplete without him. He is the most beloved, heavily covered, praised and studied rapper of this decade amongst the Pitchfork intelligentsia. Not to mention one of the most prolific and accomplished artists of any genre. We’re jaded to that idea now, but when you take a step back, it’s pretty fucking wild.
Future was at the vanguard, and perhaps at one point was seen as the most controversial of the new generation of rap superstars who have been featured in the last 10 months of this column. He emerged as an Atlanta rapper who would only record through the distortion of autotune at a time when we had been assured autotune was dead. When it was a crutch for the hook on every obnoxious generic Top 40 anthem. When it was known in “serious” critical circles as a curio Kanye West had hijacked to produce his most surprising, career-altering album. But Future didn’t use autotune with intention, he didn’t use it sparingly. He used it like that first bone that infamous, resourceful primate picks up in 2001, a piece of misunderstood technology dusted off and reimagined as an evolutionary tool.
Along with birth control, punk rock and social media this took a while to sink in for many of us as a life change, and if you do some deep diving through old Future album reviews you’ll find some antiquated, hilarious scathing pans. But several discerning critics understood that Future was much more than the fifth member of D4L, and there were indicators from the beginning that this was an artist in it for the long haul.
He’s famously Rico Wade’s little cousin, who he also attributes as the architect of his sound. A Dungeon Family pedigree is worth a lot, and it’s why Future had a defined sonic palette from the very beginning which I’ll describe as, uh, Futuristic. If he was dabbling in more of the soaring instrumental shit that was in vogue when he debuted at the dawn of this decade he would have sounded more like a hypebeast than an emerging brand. There are few rappers who have 8 year-old albums and mixtapes that sound as current, prescient and important as Future’s early work. He was always just a little smarter and savvier than his peers.
And then, there’s the shit you can’t teach. No amount of familial relations or cunning beat selections can make you a polymath freak pop artist who is infinitely dynamic, who is capable of everything you can do in pop from the grimiest fuck the club up trap to the most saccharine, yet beautiful and universal R&B, with an infinite palette of shades separating the two poles. There’s a reason Future was the artist who was able to break consensus, to penetrate the Carhartt-wrapped hearts of the staunchest rap conservatives and the vanilla dappled tastes of their popist millennial teenage sisters. He remade trap in his image and changed our understanding of what it is and what it can be. His music is that infectious; he’s just that good.
So considering all this, what is really left to say about Future? For too long I thought of Future in the false dichotomy many fall prey to when considering him: Trap and R&B. My colleague Torii Macadams blew this up beautifully in his own sprawling multi-mixtape post he dropped three years ago on this site, arguing that reducing the artist to two identities was a stupid oversimplification. What occurred to me as I sat down to write this after spending a month pouring over his immense body of work, is not the particularities contained within his multitudes of styles and sounds, but the similarities, a unifying theory of Future. And it is his exquisite sadness, masquerading as trap nihilism that is in the nooks and crannies of even his most sweet and soulful work. If we were to create a simple dichotomy for Future’s music it wouldn’t be between R&B and trap, but Ciara and everything after.
Let’s be clear: Future’s emo shit is EMO, and the weirdest possible EMO. If Kurt Cobain had access to “Turn On Me” while he was writing “Heart Shaped Box” he probably would’ve thrown his notebooks and his guitar in the garbage. We never play armchair psychologist for Future in the same way we consider rappers like Kanye, Jay and Drake, in terms of these grand narratives that frame their music for us, but perhaps we should. There are few artists that represent themselves as nakedly as Future has in his music throughout his career.
According to archival interviews, Ciara had been Future’s dream girl for years, a friend of an acquaintance he wasn’t ready to approach until the right moment in his career. He felt he needed to earn the right to even speak to her. That came with the release of his gorgeous and heartfelt Pluto. A little more than a year after its release the pair had tattooed their names on one another, and by Ciara’s 28th birthday in October of 2013 they were engaged. Their son was born in the Spring of 2014, just after the Seahawks decided to throw instead of let Marshawn Lynch punch it in. Future released Honest in April, and soon after they were torn apart by rumors that he had been unfaithful.
In the years since, the two have had a particularly acrimonious breakup, in and out of court over public defamation, visitation rights and alimony. Ciara quickly rebounded with Russell Wilson, who she married in 2016 and has a daughter with, in addition to Future Jr. who lives with them. The star-crossed former couple continue to bring each other up and trash each other in interviews.
Two pivotal things happened to Future in that Spring of 2014. He broke up with Ciara, and in the estimation of many, Honest bricked. It’s a pretty objectively terrible album, by far the worst in his catalogue including the mixtape work [ed. note: We celebrate “Honest” in this tabernacle]. But one song took off and has had a seismic impact on his music since. It’s the propulsive, coke dusted, “Move That Dope”, a song that changed the trajectory of trap, that gave it the verve and cool and purposeful dead eyed emptiness we now associate with the genre (Or at least evolved the project Pharrell had started with the Clipse). It was also the fourth fucking single released off the album! If you’re a DJ or just happen to find yourself with access to an aux cord in a bar, or at a houseparty, or in a fucking rideshare, do this for me next time you have a chance: play “Karate Chop”, then play “Move That Dope” and let me know how it works out for you.
I bring up the latent release of “Move That Dope” because to me it explains a rapper who was at a crossroads. For the first and only time, Future had an imperfect understanding of Future at that moment. The album attempted to straddle the dynamism Future nailed on Pluto but couldn’t land here, which isn’t surprising when you consider a handful of albums I’ve ever heard in my life pulled off the genre fluidity Pluto accomplished easily. At the time, I thought he had learned all the wrong lessons from “Move That Dope”. Despite the fact that the next moment in his career was what launched him into the critical stratosphere, an unprecedented run starting with Beast Mode and running through Evol, I missed the heart and humanity of the guy who sang “Neva End”, and I thought Future was playing it safe and leaning away from what made him unique.
But I see it differently now. Future became this generation’s Scarface. He rededicated himself to a sound that very much defines this era in American life. It’s for those nights you should go home but decide not to, when you’re so overwhelmed with ominous responsibility you respond by running to the nearest vice, a morning when you’re force majeured by an incredible deluge of Onion headlines that happened to make their way into the New York Times on your RSS and the only logical solution is to get back into bed or fight against your hangover in the worst possible way. It embodies the escapism that can be promoted by feeling shitty, by making poor choices, by not being thrilled about how things have gone or how they’re going. The official soundtrack for this state is Future’s distinct brand of conspicuous consumption carols, anything he released during that epic 2015 post-Ciara run.
In the years since, he’s returned to his well of human emotion. He now releases entire albums that almost feel like character work, really his whole recent output has taken on the feeling of pseudonym performance art. There is often no “There” there with Future and it feels like an intentional divorce. The music is still as strong, if not more sure footed and accomplished than anything that had preceded it, but there’s something impersonal and concepty in the way he slides into these different skins. And even with his most transparently emotional appeals there’s an underpinning, a depressed Lynchian surreality that may or may not be intentional. I listen to “Side Effects”, one of the most gorgeous and simple lullaby R&B songs I’ve heard since the classic golden age R&B shit I grew up with and there’s still a wistful, dreamlike ache at the center I can’t shake. I imagine he wrote it about Ciara but it’s structured as this impossible laundry list of qualities I guess Future is searching for in an ideal woman that he believes he’s found in this woman. Perhaps if and when he relistens now he wonders if he ever really saw Ciara at all.
Theater critic Chris Jones once described the Lanford Wilson classic Burn This as concerned with the eroticism of mourning. I can’t think of a better way to describe the work contained in the mixtape below. How grief and loss and sadness can drive our complex need for comfort and connection in different forms. How choosing to take agency and pursuing those needs are commonly represented in art, and in life, as redemptive, but they can also be ugly and toxic.
Apart from his revolutionary approach to autotune, his one-of-a-kind swiss army knife rap tool box, and his knack for dark, infectious pop, perhaps this is what we relate to in Future’s music in these often bleak and depressing times, why we have not just come around to embrace him but have remained fascinated by his work throughout the decade. We connect to its sense of loss and the refusal to reckon with that loss, the things in our lives that didn’t work out the way we might’ve wanted them to and continue to haunt us. The things we want to get away from. In the play, a character says, “Make it personal, tell the truth, and then write ‘Burn This’ on it.” He’s expressing the hopeless, gorgeous nihilism I feel when I listen to Future. The desire to set it all on fire and walk away as it reduces to memory and ash.
ROD: Future- Burn This
- Hate the Real Me (Beast Mode 2 2018)
- Purple Reign (Purple Reign 2016)
- Hardly (Monster 2014)
- Selfish (ft. Rihanna) (HNDRXX 2017
- Where I Came From (Beast Mode 2015)
- Fuck Up Some Commas (DS2 2015)
- Psychadelik Smoke (ft. Ty Dolla $ign) (Kolorblind 2018)
- 4 My People (Dirty Sprite 2011)
- Move That Dope (ft. Pharrell, Pusha T & Kasino) (Honest 2014)
- Too Much Sauce (ft. Lil Uzi Vert) (Project E.T. 2016)
- Trap N***** (56 Nights 2015)
- Faceshot (Future HNDRXX Presents: THE WIZRD (2019)
- Photo Copied (EVOL 2016)
- Three (ft. Young Thug) (Super Slimey 2017)
- Perkys Callin (Purple Reign 2016)
- Turn On Me (HNDRXX 2017)
- Side Effects (Honest 2014)