On Friday, Future released Future, his fifth album, which he’d only announced a couple of days in advance. It came more than a year after the release of EVOL, the album that marked the unceremonious end of the rapper’s post-“Commas” mixtape streak. On the strength of those tapes — Monster, Beast Mode, and 56 Nights — Future was among the hottest rappers in the game, second only to Drake in the informal metric we call hype.
Since it marks the end of Future’s best chapter yet, it’s worth dwelling on EVOL briefly. There, Future sounds more sober and dogmatic than ever: an earned posture for a guy who was two months away from his first GQ cover, but a bland, spent mode for a man whom people otherwise love partly for his bizarre musings about orgies. Future had, for a full year, flooded the market with his voice and sound, and by the time Apple Music got around to cutting him a check for exclusive first-run distribution rights for EVOL, the bottle had run dry. Future was tired of Future. Quickly after EVOL’s release in February 2016, hip-hop’s hoi polloi moved on to heated discussion of younger acts such as 21 Savage, Lil Uzi Vert, and Lil Yachty. Also filling the attention vaccum were returning ATL champions Gucci Mane, who was released from prison in May 2016, and Migos, who launched a comeback with the no. 1 single “Bad and Boujee,” in the fall. When Migos broke back into the zeitgeist to reclaim the title of “best thing smoking out of Atlanta,” Future had slipped from the scene, nowhere to be found (minus a couple of forgettable collaborations with DJ Esco).
Of course, there was a zero percent chance that Future was ever off somewhere simply enjoying his time out from the spotlight; the Book of Exodus reveals that our God is a jealous god. “I was preparing the feast,” Future tweeted recently. “U walked away from the table too soon.” It’s so Future — such a delightfully passive-aggressive, shit-kicking dispatch from a guy whose default recourse to alleviate boredom is to pick a fight with someone, be they enemy or friend. He tweets from a lair, I think. It’s a disposition that defines nearly everything he raps, says, or does as an artist. On the morning when his album leaked, Future tweeted, “NO FEATURES.”
Future’s potential guests might simply be too busy these days. Migos, once simply hailed as a great singles band, has moved on to extinction-event-level album promo, with rave reviews for Culture to match. 21 Savage, who snuck into the zeitgeist on the strength of a single mixtape, Savage Mode, seems content with his trial version of celebrity. He’s currently enjoying the sort of hiatus that Future only earned after not one, not two, but three sensational mixtapes released within a five-month span — a gap year that nonetheless translates into an eternity in contemporary hip-hop time. It’s the sort of hiatus that Future seems basically incapable of enjoying at all.
In the span between the Great Drake-Future Bromance of 2015 — which peaked with the two rappers releasing a duets mixtape, What a Time to Be Alive, in September of that year — and now, Future did at least enjoy the one accomplishment that eludes most rappers: a platinum-selling commercial peak. It’s strange that a street rapper has accomplished so much in the way of crossover while compromising himself so little. The appeal of pop-friendly rappers is now largely a matter of broad relatability. Lil Yachty is nostalgic for Nickelodeon cartoons; J. Cole is a modern slave to student loan contracts; Drake is an oversexed nihilist who is bad at dating (and so are you). Future is tough and unavailable. But in his own way, he’s pretty relatable, too: he is petty and personally besieged, an underdog even when he’s clearly winning. More than anything, he sounds lonely. Generally, this sort of malaise is what’s long distinguished street rappers like Future, Gucci, Boosie, and Biggie — and even Plies! — from hip-hop’s general population. It’s a solitude that rings clear even when they turn up on other people’s songs. In isolation, they’re most dangerous. Future knows the ledge. It’s not a friendly place. You don’t bring guests. There are no features.
After a year of billing himself as a collaborator, Future now sets out to prove his independence all over again. On Future, he’s reclaiming flows and melodies that now belong to hip-hop generally, their provenance obscured by the commercial heights to which Drake, Migos, and Rae Sremmurd have taken them in recent years. For Future, it’s a classic formula. He did it first. “I’m So Groovy,” the best song on an otherwise long and spotty tape, best encapsulates how rap that sounds raw and undoctored can nonetheless sound so much like pop music. Humming simple, self-satisfied affirmatives as a chorus and rapping about Steven Seagal is about as charming and catchy as Future gets — the rest is pharmacology dirges (“Mask Off”) and fight night over Castlevania harpsicords (“Poppin Tags”). There are a few skits on Future, too, including one tacked on to the end of “Zoom,” when a fictional podcast host spoofs the Future-lite rapper Desiigner’s rat-a-tat style of ad libs. Interpreted more broadly, the skit is clowning rappers who talk fake about gunplay. Naturally, the skit leads right into an uptempo gun ode, “Draco,” in which solo Future — a few months late to hip-hop’s latest obsession with a fetishisized firearm — shows us how it’s properly done.
It’s no great feat of armchair psychology to observe that Future — in his music, career, and public life — struggles with matters of love, friendship, collaboration, and the basic grade-school exhortation to play nice. Future has repeatedly feuded with his longtime frenemy and benefactor Drake. He has trolled and berated his ex-fiancée Ciara (and her new husband, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson). For the past couple of years, Future and Young Thug have gone back and forth for reasons that never render themselves entirely clear. As much as loneliness is Future’s default mode, so is this combativeness. On Future, and on most Future tapes, the only difference between crooning (“High Demand,” “Might As Well”) and quarreling (“Draco,” “POA”) is production, really; short of “Fuck Up Some Commas,” there are few truly happy Future songs. Since his mixtape spree immortalized his knack for melodies, fans and critics have (at least playfully) begun to regard Future as an R&B artist. I’d go further than that: I’d say he’s the future of R&B. He once spent a whole mixtape rapping Drake under various tables, but the kids still call him Future Vandross. He could win a Grammy for “I’m So Groovy” and still be miserable. Future is always singing the blues.