Future still seems afraid to color outside of the lines three years after doing so on "Honest," but his self-titled album draws on a rich back catalog and a never-been-better roster of producers.
Two months from tomorrow, Future's sophomore album, Honest, will turn turn three. In regards to the ever-active rapper's career, Spring 2014 feels like an eternity ago, as he's dropped no less than ten projects (if you count the DJ Esco-helmed E.T. and joint release with Gucci Mane, Free Bricks 2K16) and totally changed his trajectory in the interim. For some reason though, Honest still feels like the pivotal moment of the past seven years for him. Fans and critics' reviews varied, but Future's always viewed it as a low point, a brief and failed attempt at pop stardom when he's always had different intentions. Everything he's done since Honest has been a direct response what he felt were mediocre sales and lackluster reception, even his latest album, FUTURE.
This self-titled follow-up to last February's EVOL has the fewest clear references to Ciara of any of Future's post-Honest work, as well the least vindictive vibe; instead, the clues suggesting that Future's still trying to erase that one "L" in his book lie more subtly in the album's construction and intent. Last week, he sat down with Zane Lowe for his sole pre-release interview, and it was surprising how much he still seemed to be on the rebound from 2014. You'd never guess this from his sometimes-blasé music or secretive public persona, but Future seems quite invested in his fans' opinions. He addressed those who still view his relationship with Ciara as the "focal point" of his career and claimed that he wants to "go back to being a more underground [rapper].” He also said that fans were responsible for him getting more "ratchet" after Monster, and when mentioning that FUTURE marks a departure from that mindset, and a return to his earlier days, he again blamed his fans: "They wanna hear that Pluto talk."
FUTURE seems to be better-received by #FutureHive than any of his 2016 projects, but the main complaint is the same one they had on last winter's Purple Reign and EVOL, namely that Future's treading water, stagnating in what used to be a revolutionary career. What immediately separates FUTURE from last year's work is the production, which is more varied and inventive than the stuff we've heard on the rest of Future's recent output, but otherwise, he still seems very reluctant to color outside of the lines. His subject matter and delivery, outside of a few odder-than-usual ad-libs (on "High Demand," "I'm So Groovy," and "Poppin' Tags"), remain largely unchanged outside of the aforementioned lack of vengeful, Ciara-related sentiments. Oftentimes the music is so blatantly Future-esque that it starts to resemble Young Thug's tribute to him on Jeffery, "Future Swag," with the themes of "Rent Money" and "Massage in My Room" easily summarized by Thugger's hook: "I fuck on your baby momma." Outside of his more emotive and depressed sentiments, Future was never really out to thematically reinvent trap music, so I'm not sure what naysayers were expecting in that arena, but in terms of melody, delivery, and songwriting, I can see why members of the Hive are disappointed there's nothing as revelatory as recent triumphs "Codeine Crazy," "March Madness," or "News Or Somethn" on here.
What FUTURE has that no other post-DS2 release does, though, is depth and relative consistency. As promised, Future does dip into many of his pre-existing personas, including Future Hendrix, Fire Marshall Future, Pluto, and Super Future, each of them a little difficult to distinguish, but each drawing clear through-lines to past moods and sounds in his catalog. He broadcasts this more blatantly than ever before, mentioning most by name instead of making us guess who is who, which diehards may view as a little too paint-by-numbers, but regardless, it does make FUTURE more of an all-encompassing career retrospective than any of his other albums. Here, we get Future at his most ratchet on "Rent Money," his most gleefully boastful on "Draco," his most street on "Super Trapper" and "POA," his trippiest on "Mask Off," his most soul-baring on "When I Was Broke," and his most poignant on "Feds Did a Sweep." While it's totally reductive to say that all Future was focusing on from Monster to EVOL was his breakup with Ciara, it's undeniable that in terms of mood, FUTURE is his most varied work since Honest. There are still weak tracks towards the back end like "Scrape" and "Massage in My Room," but because the album's goal seems to be showing us as many sides of Future as possible, the hour-plus glut's more easily forgiven than it is on other projects.
Future may never again be the game-changing force of nature he was between 2010 and 2013, a period when his auto-tune sermons and romantic take on trap music forever altered Atlanta's dominant rap genre. He was the bridge between Dungeon Family's mysticism and Jeezy's hardness, between Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane's weirdness and La Face's pop instincts, and the flows and methods of rap-singing he invented during that time influenced an entire wave of rappers who are still working today (including Desiigner, who's ruthlessly roasted on one of FUTURE's skits). But Atlanta, with what is still the fastest-evolving scene in rap, has moved onto other things, best represented by the contrasting poles of Lil Yachty's day-glo trap-pop and 21 Savage's murky murder music. There may never be another new Future song that absolutely startles fans and infuriates rap conservatives with its boldness and inventiveness, but that's fine because he's already done that many times over.
At this point, Future seems dead-set on satisfying his fans, and in that regard he's the complete opposite of his rival/friend (?) Young Thug, who has made his dearth of fucks given impossibly clear and seems to reinvent the wheel with each ensuing year. We may never get another "Benz Friendz" or "I Be U," moments on Honest when Future radically departed from his past, but that means we'll also never get songs as lackluster as "I Won" or "My Momma." He's got a boundless well of inspiration to draw from in his past work, and if that's what he's actually set on doing, I'm interested to hear more 2017 incarnations of his various 2010-2013 swags. FUTURE is what Future's deserved from the start but never given himself: a retrospective victory lap.