In some ways, Future’s in the most difficult position in hip hop right now. After a year-long, nearly unimpeachable run, everyone expects nothing but brilliance. His fans judge him harder than ever because new material needs to be exceptional for them to forsake 2015’s bangers, and his haters will use each new tape as further evidence that he “makes the same song over and over,” unless there’s a discernible change. The dust has barely settled on Purple Reign, a tape that made only a shred of the impression of any of his 2015 releases, and we already have another one. Many were ready to say Future was “falling off” after last month's project, which isn't necessarily true-- Purple Reign may not have displayed a ton of progression, but it was still just as listenable and chock-full-of-highlights as any Future tape, despite there also being some boring tracks ("Never Forget," Salute"). Had that tape come out before Monster, it would have made a much bigger impact. To some extent, the same is true with EVOL, but it's a much stronger piece of work.

Part of that is in fact due to some change in mood from Future's past six releases, as there's nary a depressed track on here, although he's still as vengeful, bitter, and biting as ever. It's not anywhere near the major sea of change that occurred between Honest and Monster, but Fewtch seems to finally be enjoying the position he's in right now ("I don't got no regrets, I got to live with this crown on my head"). The lyric that I keep coming back to as the crux of the tape is "You n*ggas don't exist, we eat filet mignon"-- he still recognizes his problems, rivals, personal drama, but is finally allowing himself to be distracted by the high life (though he is still very, very much a "Low Life"). Maybe that's why he seems to be reinvigorated on EVOL, incorporating new flows and going back to old sounds and personas to breathe new life into them, namely Fire Marshal Future on "Lil Haiti Baby" and Astronaut Status-era Future Hendrix on "Lie To Me." To the untrained hear, these tracks don't sound too far off from the rest of the tape, but Future's strength now lies in the subtle ways he tweaks his delivery and beat selection. He's got such a strong handle on his sound that he knows just what'll please his day one fans without upsetting the newcomers. 

What's arguably been the biggest improvement from his early tapes to his post-2013 output is the production, with the rock-solid team of Metro Boomin, Southside, and DJ Spinz putting in stunningly consistent work that never seems to stagnate. In a rare exception, Southside got called out for recycling drum patterns on his Purple Reign tracks, but he's back in forward-thinking form, especially on the shimmering "In Her Mouth." Metro and Spinz are ever-devoted to exploring new, weird sounds, continuing to tweak EQs and filters until their melodies seem beamed in from another dimension. If space distorted sound, rather than silencing it, EVOL's instrumentals are what would land on Pluto if we broadcasted more organic-sounding music out into the galaxy.

Despite this otherworldly sound and Future's somewhat-improved outlook on life, EVOL still leaves us wondering where the influential rapper will go next. In his six-year career, he's rarely stayed in the same spot for long, and wherever he ends up going, scores of other artists have followed. His True Story/Streetz Calling era set off a shockwave of auto-tune and emotive wailing among street rappers who previously never would've touched the technology. Astronaut Status made certain that "weirdo" and "gangster" were no longer mutually exclusive terms. 56 Nights... I don't even have to explain, just listen to how everyone else is rapping right now. But we've been without a wholly new incarnation of Future since he flushed his pop-friendly guise down the drain after Honest, and while I'm still not tired of his current sound (at least when he's not on auto-pilot), you have to wonder whether this reputation of creative restlessness will come to define his entire career or just the years before he became the hottest rapper in the game. I often hope it's the former, but when his current steez seems more and more like a bottomless wellspring of undeniable hits with each ensuing release, it'd be hard to blame him if this is the rut he's chosen.