Most writers can’t stand to read things they wrote years ago. Opinions change, tastes shift, people mature, and (sometimes, hopefully) writing improves. For me, the cutoff is usually around two years, so things I wrote at the beginning of 2015 are just starting to fray at the margins, but that same grace period wasn’t in the cards for the review of Future’s self-titled album that I wrote last week. I based a lot of my “take” off of Fewtch’s pre-album interview with Zane Lowe, in which he made it sound like he still viewed his bid at becoming a pop star on Honest as the nadir of his career, and had decided to appease his core fans with revivals of earlier mixtape personas, never again to leave the insular world he had created for himself. I wrote, “Future may never again be the game-changing force of nature he was between 2010 and 2013… there may never be another new Future song that absolutely startles fans and infuriates rap conservatives with its boldness and inventiveness.” Lo and behold, he not only proved me wrong, but did it less than 48 hours after the review was published.
When HNDRXX dropped, it was immediately clear that FUTURE was planned as a prequel (and perhaps the first part of a trilogy?), a collection of rugged, mixtape-style cuts slated to be juxtaposed with a much more ambitious, pop-leaning album. Those answers Future gave to Lowe? Probably just sly marketing moves rather than lines in the sand. FUTURE was good, a little less game-changing than anything from his Monster–DS2 run (but more exciting than anything that dropped afterward), however, it did raise some questions about Fewtch’s stagnation in the years since his unwieldy attempt at juggling multiple styles on Honest. On first listen, HNDRXX reads as an attempt to re-do Honest the right way– that is, make a pop bid without losing Future’s essence in the process– and coincidentally, it also sounds like his most honest album to date. Before this, most of his on-record responses to Ciara were vengeful plays into nihilism (the open-hearted second half of “Throw Away” notwithstanding), but given some distance from the failed relationship, HNDRXX finally reckons with the breakup via a full spectrum of emotions. All of Future’s post-Honest work can be separated into the first four stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression. HNDRXX is the final stage, acceptance, in album form.
“If we never speak again then I’m just glad I got to tell the truth,” Future raps in the album’s second line, the word “glad” sounding almost alien coming out of his mouth after dozens of surly, dead-eyed tracks. Of course, Future being the same petty low life as ever, “My Collection” also shames Ciara for her relationships with other celebrities and calls her a “possession” that’s part of his “collection,” but at least he sounds like he’s getting their past off his chest, where it weighed heavy on him and spawned escapist music. He finally addresses publicly-known issues that we’ve been waiting for him to expound upon, namely the fact that he co-wrote “Body Party” only to watch Ciara move onto a less successful sound on her next album (“I gave her new waves and I watched her turn on me”) and the mother of his child quickly moving onto professional sports’ biggest Boy Scout (“After I give you this game, you should never let a lame hit it”). These most direct references to Ciara aren’t pillars of morality, but they’re delivered with clarity that wasn’t there when Future was distracting himself with “Freak Hoes” and Fucking Up Some Commas, and they inform an album that’s brighter and more focused on the intricacies of romance than anything he’s done since “I Be U.”
Going hand-in-hand with this subject matter is a decidedly poppier sound that contrasts with FUTURE even more than the albums’ respective lyrical themes. Helmed by “Drunk in Love” and “I Be U” architect Detail, who produces or co-produces six of 17 tracks, HNDRXX doesn’t sound like any previous Future album, but unlike a good chuck of Honest, it all sounds unmistakably like Future. Pillowy background vocals replace eerie synth patterns as the melodic accompaniment du jour, a lot more high-sheen reverb is deployed, and tempos venture outside the 70-85 BPM range at least a bit more than they did on the nearly-uniform Monster–FUTURE run. The drums are still very much what you’d think of as “Future beats,” but a few different hi-hat sounds are used, unlike his last few projects, and “Fresh Air” even deploys some polyrhythmic handclaps (a first both for Future and for recent faux-Caribbean tracks by Americans). There’s no wild Amadou & Mariam or Salt ‘N Pepa samples (though perhaps a subtle sample or guest vocal from Animal Collective’s Panda Bear on “Use Me”? Am I crazy?), no awkward collabs, no Coldplay-style ballads, and very few fireworks outside of an 808 Mafia siren drop on “Lookin’ Exotic” that registers on the Richter Scale. Even if you like Honest (which I mostly do), you have to admit that it felt like it was trying a bit too hard, doing a bit too much to achieve its crossover goals. HNDRXX is effortless, but also more impassioned.
We’re not used to hearing modern-day Future saying things like “use me what you want me for” or “take my love with you everywhere,” and if deployed in questionable context, lines like these would feel too out-of-character for a rapper who just days ago was using FUTURE as an excuse to brag about sleeping with Scottie Pippen’s ex-wife. But the album finds Future mining his past for all types of romantic situations– lustful, sorrowful, jealous, enamored, mutually beneficial– and weaving them in with his usual backdrop of narcotics, luxury, and a criminal past. Hendrix is Future’s rockstar persona, and on the album named after it, he delivers some mystic, “‘scuse me while I kiss the sky”-level bars too. “Sometimes when you speak from your soul it sound like you’re singing,” he says (or sings?) on “Lookin’ Exotic.” “My life is more effective than a cocaine drop” and “When you get high enough, you can dodge raindrops” appear almost back-to-back on “Use Me.” This is the deep, Astronaut Status Future we’ve been sorely missing for a while.
HNDRXX concludes climactically with three of its best songs: pop single “Selfish,” the depressive “Solo,” and the epic “Sorry,” which is easily the longest song in Future’s catalog, and probably the wordiest too. It’s missing a trap banger, but outside of that, this triptych fully illustrates Future’s range, his deft control over flow and melody, and his emotive genius. The line I keep coming back to, especially in light of my outwardly wrong FUTURE review, isn’t uttered by Future at all, but rather Rihanna. “Nothin’ ever stopped you from showing your progression, suddenly,” she sings seconds into “Selfish.” Future led us to believe that he had fallen into a rut– a potentially enjoyable one, depending on your tastes, but a formulaic closed loop all the same– when all the while he had the best pop-rap album of the 2010s in his back pocket. HNDRXX is the product of pain, patience, and meditation, and it could very well be Future’s best album yet. I’m not sure though, ask me again in two years.