Art by Eddy Rissling
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Kevin Yeung is just tryna teach you how to get these whips loaded.
We know what began the inferno. When Future dropped Monster in 2014, he embarked upon one of the most torrid mixtape runs of all-time, as well as one of the most emotionally self-injurious. His early work indicated the earnest ideals of a romantic, and his second album, Honest, even tried to put a win in writing: He finally got his dream girl and proposed to her. However, that album fell a bit short of (lofty) critical and commercial expectations, and then Future lost Ciara. We watched a romantic become a cynic, and it became clear that Future is just as good at snarling through the depths of his own toxicity as he is at falling in love.
With workmanlike focus and a bacchanalian tolerance for sex, drugs and opulence, Future released the Monster–Beast Mode–56 Nights trilogy in a six-month span and quickly followed with two commercial releases in DS2 and What a Time to Be Alive with Drake. Purple Reign, released 15 months after Monster and finally added to streaming services in April, sometimes seems to be an afterthought. It came during a relative lull in Future’s release schedule, and it seemed to be met with little fanfare at the time. We can look back and characterize it as the epilogue to that classic trilogy, but for me, it’s more special than that. It’s the one I find myself revisiting most. If Monster began the inferno, then Purple Reign comes to terms with it.
As a concept in his music, Future’s predisposition for trauma isn’t really that rare, although many other artists only go as far as to wear the general idea of trauma as an aesthetic. (I’m testifying to this, as someone living in Toronto.) All the same, you can find convincing parallels to Future’s music across genres and forms — last year’s Mannequin Pussy album, Van Morrison’s “Here Comes the Night” or the especially male trauma of Don Draper. You can run wild with it. Toxicity is not a groundbreaking trait in dudes or their art, and it might even be fast becoming a tired one. One of the things that made Pluto-era Future so exciting was his romanticism, and it remains one of the things that make 03 Greedo’s love songs, weighed against his battle with the carceral state, so compelling.
We keep going back to Future’s specific trauma because he invited our psychoanalysis. His trauma unfolded in his music as a narrative arc, one that he navigated in great detail and in full view of the public. If you have ever felt anything like the way Future feels, then his deflections will resonate. This continues on Purple Reign in the same, gut-wrenching ways. Drugs, women. “No Charge” is ostensibly a song about sharing his drugs with his women, although the first verse opens by cutting to the core of the matter: “I look inside your eyes, I see the same things I’m going through.”
For the first time since Monster, longtime Atlanta-based collaborators Nard & B return on “Inside the Mattress” as well as “News Or Something,” previously a standout loosie tacked on the end of the streaming version. After dedicated collab tapes with Zaytoven and Southside, it’s a shame that we never got the Future/Nard & B tape after all. They’ve worked with Future since the very beginning, and they’re able to tap into all sides of his character — the nihilism, and the profound sadness underneath. If he’s trying to act like he doesn’t care, then he’s being betrayed by everything in his voice.
Purple Reign’s heart is found in its last two tracks, “Perkys Calling” and the eponymous “Purple Reign.” Both are downtempo and reflective, the most Future has sounded like this since “Codeine Crazy.” Transparency has always been a strength in his music, and Purple Reign hits its beats hardest when Future confronts his coping mechanisms and makes clear just how much they have become his dependencies. He hears a literal chorus of codeine, Xanax and Percocets on “Perkys Calling.” He says he needs “better thoughts … better vibes,” but nothing suggests that he’ll achieve them. He is mumbling and wailing and beat down, even when he claims the Aquafina has him glistening. These songs are somber and tender; if Purple Reign, the mixtape title, seems to infer Future’s dominance of the rap game at first glance, then “Purple Reign,” the song, infers something very different, a haunting and brilliant subjugation to his pain.
Maybe the trap in becoming everyone’s toxic fave is that your earning potential becomes inextricably linked to your toxicity: “Hey, man I can never get ‘way from this art / They treat you like Lord, they treat you like God when you beat the odds.” Maybe that’s by design. As an artist, Future plans meticulously, and to whatever degree his pain has been performative, the results have only justified the process. I don’t really like the myth of the tortured artist, but Future’s inferno has been without a doubt the creative and commercial peak of his career.
If Purple Reign marked the end of Future’s classic run, then one album stands out to me as different from everything else after. On 2017’s HNDRXX, Future tries to heal, he tries to buy back into romance again and channels his Pluto-era best into new classics. On “Use Me,” he shakes off the cynicism and attempts to fulfill the needs of another in the hope that this will be what makes him whole again. On “Sorry,” he goes longform, trying to take ownership of his mistakes and the pain he caused others.
I wonder what it would look like if this turn held up for him, if there was a progression from Monster and Purple Reign into a romantic built back up, but there’s just as much drugged-out, hopeless music since then to the contrary — at least Future is really good at making drugged-out, hopeless music. The stages of grief aren’t linear. After everything, after all of the pain and all of the ways he tried to cope with it, Future can’t extract himself from any of it. He’s just going to keep going, and Purple Reign is the one where he makes his peace with that.