Five years ago, Future emerged with an album that initially confused the masses but was quickly absorbed into the fabric of rap music.
Take a moment, if you will, to revisit to Future's debut album, Pluto, which crash-landed on this planet exactly five years ago. When compared to the rest of rap music in 2017, does anything about this album seem particularly weird or groundbreaking? Sure, Future gets a little more emotional than your average rapper, but even the open-hearted "Permanent Scar" isn't as openly emo as Lil Uzi Vert's "XO Tour Llif3" or Chief Keef and Rae Sremmurd's "Come Down." It's a little more psychedelic and inscrutable than most street rap or trap, but... Young Thug, anyone? If anything, the project feels more dated than revolutionary because of a few stale beats (the snake charmer strip club sounds of "Parachute" or the hair-metallic, "Party Like a Rockstar"-esque "Long Live the Pimp") and past-their-prime guests.
But look back at the reviews Pluto got upon its arrival, and it may as well have been beamed in from another dimension. Writers were simply flabbergasted by his vocals, both their timbre and their refusal to conform to either rapping or singing. Andrew "Noz" Nosnitsky deemed it a mix between Parliament/Funkadelic character Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk and famously elastic Faith No More singer Mike Patton, drawing an additional comparison to Lil Wayne's most zooted Auto-Tune expeditions, but bewilderedly noting that, "It sounds as if [Future]’s purposely affecting a Wayne-esque studio-treated water-gargle before the actual effect is added to his voice." Writing for Pitchfork, Jordan Sargent noted that "no one has explored those contradictions [between 'computerized precision and soul-baring imperfection'] so thoroughly and seamlessly across an entire album."
Others weren't as open-minded in their discussions of Future's then-alien style. "Hip Hop has had its fair share of novelty acts, and Future appears to be the latest flavor to emerge into the public eye," wrote HipHopDX's Edwin Ortiz, going on to call the ATLien's vocal stylings "a few shades away from absurd." A.V. Club's Evan Rytlewski also wondered whether or not Future was being serious with regard to his vocals, writing that his "bizarre performance makes it impossible to tell whether any satire is intentional" and claiming that his "demented, syrup-addled singing gives the song an air of outsider art."
Criticism that's only five years old rarely feels this outdated. Everywhere you look now, there's a rapper who sings and uses Auto-Tune to convey emotion. The fact that this approach was once deemed a "novelty" is almost unthinkable. Of course, Future was one of many to bridge this gap-- Wayne's work from Tha Carter III and onward blazed the trail, and Chief Keef was racking up millions of Youtube views with songs that were just as street and melodic as Future's around the time of Pluto's release-- but something about this album brought wounded, spacey, digitized rap-singing to the masses, and they were barely ready for it.
Future had been doing this style since he came out. The first track on his 2010 debut tape (above) might as well be a Pluto cut with its glossy synths, verses that could pass for Jeezy on paper, and a strained, skyward-reaching hook. What happened between 1000 and Pluto, unfolding on the tapes Dirty Sprite, Streetz Calling, True Story, and Astronaut Status, was a simultaneous sharpening of bangers and swan dive into the depths of Future's soul. It's not like 1000 and DS don't have anthemic heaters-- "Yeah Yeah" had potential to be a post-Gucci Mane hit, "Splashin'" ventured into infectious pop rap alongside "Swag Surfin'" architects F.L.Y.-- but none of them hit with the ton-of-bricks trap impact that a Lex Luger-obsessed, post-Flockaveli world demanded. The three tracks with the biggest hit potential from that second round of tapes-- Streetz Calling's "Same Damn Time" and True Story's "Magic" and "Tony Montana"-- all wound up on Pluto with guest features to increase the likelihood of radio play.
On the other end of the spectrum, we were introduced to Future Hendrix and Pluto (the persona, not the album) with a series of tracks that got progressively more forlorn and mystical: DS's psychedelic "Never Been This High," Streetz Calling's heart-on-sleeve "Unconditional Love," True Story's interstellar-themed "Blast Off," and especially Astronaut Status' Spanish guitar-inflected "Deeper Than the Ocean." These, along with the street hits he was cranking out at an unprecedented pace, meant that Future had a fully-formed persona and sound as he set out to make his debut album. It hadn't necessarily reached everyone's ears yet, and it certainly didn't seem like the next wave in hip hop yet, but the sound that astounded everyone on Pluto had been in the oven for a few years by Spring 2012, only now was it beginning to get golden brown around the edges.
In a couple of ways, the same fate befell Pluto that befalls the vast majority of major label debuts by commercially untested rappers. The first track we hear on the album is "Parachute," which is possibly the biggest stylistic outlier and is dominated by R.Kelly (Future doesn't even get a word in until 1:40 has elapsed). We get completely unnecessary, and weak, verses from Drake, Trae Tha Truth, and Snoop Dogg that are thrown in just for name recognition or, in Trae's case, because they probably couldn't get Bun B on "Long Live the Pimp." The commercial watering-down of Future's sound isn't nearly as bad as it could have been though, and in my opinion, Future has one person to thank for that: Mike Will Made It.
When "Turn on the Lights" was released as a single on the same day Pluto came out, Mike had only been behind three singles, none of which hit the Billboard Hot 100, and none of which cracked the Top 20 on either the R&B or the Rap chart. He was just a few months away from dominating the rap world with G.O.O.D. Music's "Mercy," 2 Chainz and Drake's "No Lie," and Juicy J's "Bandz A Make Her Dance," and only a year out from becoming a household name in pop with Rihanna's "Pour It Up" and Miley Cyrus' "We Can't Stop," but I'd argue that Pluto, more than anything else, laid the groundwork for both campaigns of commercial dominance. "Turn on the Lights" and "Neva End," the two album tracks outside of the aforementioned remixes of mixtape hits that were released as singles, were both produced by Mike, and showed pop instincts unlike anything else that had appeared in his music to date.
Imagine being Epic CEO L.A. Reid, who being the founder of Outkast/Dungeon Family home LaFace Records, was already familiar with Future's tapes. You enter the room expecting to hear another gruff street rapper, and you're sweating because you think his album will be a tough sell to pop audiences, and then he plays you "Turn on the Lights." A weight is lifted. Maybe you don't need that Nicki Minaj verse or Chris Brown hook that you budgeted for when expecting this shit to sound like The State Vs. Radric Davis 2.0; maybe this thing will cross over without any additional meddling.
Outside of those Mike songs (the second of which did admittedly get a Kelly Rowland remix when it came time for its release as a single), a good chunk of Pluto is similarly poppy. "Straight Up" is in the same vein as F.L.Y.'s biggest hits; "Astronaut Chick" and "You Deserve It" are ballads masquerading as trap-pop bangers, and bonus cut "Paradise" is as aspirational and uplifting as it is catchy. With these songs, it's not as if Future was chasing contemporary trends in pop (which is a relief because in early 2012 it probably would have been the faux-EuroHouse of Calvin Harris and Rihanna's "We Found Love" or LMFAO's "Sexy and I Know It"), rather, it seemed as if he was dragging pop into orbit around his own carefully-crafted sound. Looking back now, we all know what this flirtation with pop success would eventually wreak upon Future's career, but even though its creator would recoil a bit from its glossy sheen, Pluto was a wildly important moment for Southern rap, trap, sing-rapping, and Auto-Tune in the national spotlight.
Five years have passed, which is about three generations in Atlanta rap's hyper-accelerated, Narnia-style time warp. A year or two after Pluto, once Future's sound was naturalized and no longer in any danger of even being mistaken for a "novelty," Young Thug emerged as the most hated rapper in the world (which usually precludes being the most influential rapper in the world). Migos, Rich Homie Quan, Rae Sremmurd, and iLoveMakonnen were also of this class of 2013/14, each indebted in some small way to Future's rise. 2015 brought us melodic explorers Fetty Wap, Lil Uzi Vert, and PNB Rock, and last year, 21 Savage and Lil Yachty split up Future's discography into "hard" and "melodic" halves, respectively, and ran with it. That's not even mentioning Future's own five-year journey, which has steered modern rap in its own right, but even if his career crated after Pluto, I could see most of the above artists still sounding more or less like they do today.
The fact that parts of Pluto sound dated today is not a knock against any production flaws or trend-chasing, it's a testament to a fast-evolving music scene that more often than not leaves the rest of the country in the dust. Future was one of the first of this new wave of ATLiens to completely befuddle listeners, a phenomenon that, considering the neon hair, Hot Topic styles, and Rugrats samples of the city's latest viral class, seems totally commonplace now. Pluto created an unspoken rule for popping Atlanta rappers: if your sound doesn't piss anyone off, or at least leave someone at a loss for words, it's not groundbreaking enough. Rap incorporates and absorbs these once-mystifying attributes into the accepted "norm" faster than ever these days, to the degree that the most game-changing five-year-old rap album now seems like a dinosaur. All of this isn't to say that you should swallow down whatever new sound the kids are talking about, no questions asked and no critical thought applied, but just know that if you approach whatever sound it is as a novelty, or make assumptions about its creator's intelligence, you're going to look like a jackass five years down the line.