What if Atlanta rapper Future is our best active rock star?
Set aside the fact that our “best active rock star” hasn’t been an actual rock musician since like, pre-solo album Jack White (unless you really want to give the title to Marcus Mumford), and it makes sense. He looks cool as shit. He’s brushed and then pulled back from celebrity drama. His music is packed full of (regressive/problematic) drugs, sex, and rock and roll decadence, and he’s released trendsetting material at a prodigious clip. And, even though he plays tons of arenas, is routinely a featured artist on other people’s singles and mixtapes, and is just a general presence in rap, he exudes aloof charisma. The guy calls himself Future Hendrix, for crying out loud. All he has to do is make sure he never picks up a guitar, and he’s set.
Almost as important, if not more so, in defining what makes a rock star: Future makes music meant to be loud.
“Shit to be played loud” is also the most favorable way to view FUTURE. The album continues in the vein of last year’s Purple Reign and EVOL, which themselves were extensions of 2015‘s DS2, and that record’s preceding series of mixtapes. It’s rooted in pretty familiar territory for Future and frequent collaborators out of 808 Mafia as an hour plus of loud trap filled with lurching bass, hard snares, and Future zigzagging between singing and rapping while fully embracing his rap villain role. And, however you feel about his post-DS2 work is going to probably dictate where you land on FUTURE; on one hand, it’s hard to argue anyone’s as locked into their sound right now as Future is, on the other, his work treads a fine line between a creative groove and a rut. It’s easy to see excitement for this album to be short-lived once the “loud shit” charm wears off, especially with HNDRXX being, y’know, right there. In short: who knows how often you’re going to revisit this thing?
Is that a fair shake for FUTURE? Eh, probably not. While it draws from the same sound as EVOL, FUTURE carries itself with a sense of purpose and single-minded intensity, whereas EVOL just sounded out of gas (exceptions aside). It’s an album that goes all-in on drug-dealing, girl-stealing Super Future; opener “Rent Due” leads with a hazy choir cheering Future on while he boasts about how your girl fucks him better when–wait for it–the rent’s due, and the album never veers too far from that mentality. While there are entirely too many mid-tempo, stomping #TrapBangers (of FUTURE‘s 17 tracks, 7 fit this mold, a number you could easily halve), there’s some variety here, too. “I’m So Groovy” and “Outta Time” are lyrically by-numbers, but there’s a rare smoothness in their beats and Future’s delivery on the tracks that comes across as playful, whereas he goes atomic over the chest-thumping beat of “POA,” bobbing and weaving over four thrilling minutes.
Then you’ve got the two most likely keepers: “Mask Off” and “Draco.” “Mask Off”‘s trademark is the pan flute that glides over the track and its hypnotic hook. The combination of flute, a pensive tempo, and Future’s lyrics about his gang days would approach cinematic if it also didn’t sound kind of dejected. Meanwhile, “Draco” is the most single-able song of the album: it’s a midtempo-plus boilerplate trap song, but with warbling, Starboy synths on top. What puts it over the edge is the repeated hook of “You ain’t never ever get you bitch back” that, like a lot of Future melodies, is made of enough half-steps that it sounds forlorn by default; you can’t tell if he’s talking to you or himself, and the song sticks more because of it.
FUTURE feels like the knowing end of a line. You take in enough of its fairly tired “Fucked your bitch in a trap house” mentality, and it gives off the air of being One Last Ride through this perspective and sound, blasting through its highest highs, and even contemplating a few lows (“When I Was Broke,” “Feds Did a Sweep”). At 17 tracks, it’s at least 5 or 6 longer than it needs to be, and I get the temptation to take your 3 or 4 favorites and drop the rest, like what inevitably happens with Future albums. All the same, FUTURE is worth a listen for having an actual surprise or two on it.
And then comes HNDRXX.
HNDRXX is one of Future’s best records. You’d have people making that claim from the jump because few things engender goodwill like an artist announcing a record as the one they’ve “always wanted to make,” but HNDRXX makes the case all on its own. For one, it’s as close to a beginning-middle-end Album as Future’s ever tried; opener “My Collection” doesn’t jump right in, but gradually unfurls, and closer “Sorry” brings (what’s hopefully) a definitive end to the anti-Ciara bend of his work since their breakup. For another, there’s melodic invention and purpose here that hasn’t been on Future’s albums for a while. He doesn’t spend entire songs going off or riding a beat, instead, takes his time, even on something like the fairly extroverted “Lookin’ Exotic.” These changes look good on an album that lands in more pop or R&B territory than straight up rap.
Honestly, the album HNDRXX reminds me of most is Take Care. Sure, the two share surface details like slow pacing, The Weeknd and Rihanna features, and are both about dudes being moody and vulnerable but also gross (“My Collection” gets kneecapped by “Even if I hit you once, you’re part of my collection”). But, more than that, both albums flip studio-processed hybrid R&B/hip-hop trends inward to reveal artists lonelier than they first appeared. If Future’s albums starting with DS2 were about him pushing everyone and everything away in a blast of codeine, women, and gang violence, HNDRXX is the first time he’s aware of, and using, the resulting empty space. Sounds float instead of beat the listener over the head.
For a project billed ostensibly as more personal, HNDRXX is the most pop radio friendly thing Future’s ever done outside his Drake collaboration What a Time to Be Alive. Any number of tracks, particularly from the fairly robust section between “Incredible” and “New Illuminati,” could conceivably get radio play, and a few outright demand it. “Selfish” with Rihanna is a likely airplay candidate by virtue of two superstars doing a pretty boy-girl duet (that also sounds great), but “Incredible” is the album’s best song. This evolved version of a snaps-snares-synths Mustardwave beat is catchy in like, three different ways and has the perfect amount of sway, while Future sounds as gleeful as he has since “Turn On the Lights” describing his new girl who makes him feel, “In-in-incredible.” It’s a great look on a guy who was described by me about 400 words ago as Mr. “Fucked Your Bitch in a Trap House.” “Incredible” is where HNDRXX‘s sense of melody comes through in a big way, too; it’s Major Key in a major key.
Not everything on the album works: “New Illuminati” seems like a too disposable radio chaser, and you could probably lose “Damage” and “Turn on Me” or “Keep Quiet” without consequence. But what’s good on HNDRXX is real good, and Future lets his guard down fairly often on songs like the Ciara comedown “Solo” and personal favorite “Testify,” a flip of “Incredible” that pleads someone to stay so you can have that feeling. And the album comes with its own “Marvin’s Room” in “Use Me:” a car crash of bruised ego and emotions that’s hard to look away from even as its undercurrent makes you squeamish. Your mileage may vary on how much “Sorry” works as an honest apology to Ciara or as a worthy sequel to “Codiene Crazy,” but it’s a relatively clear-eyed look at the realities of Future’s post-Monster era, and sounds interested in trying to move on from it. If FUTURE was about endings, “Sorry” is about closure.
So, the question is could these albums have been combined? I’ve thought about it, and my answer is not really. Especially for a guy whose records aren’t known for thematic diversity (FUTURE and HNDRXX included), putting “Mask Off” and “Testify” near each other is just going to induce whiplash. It’s possible that a Speakerboxxx/The Love Below deal could work if you pared back each side–FUTURE, more so–to 12-14 tracks, but even then, I feel like they lose their identities. FUTURE is the big, loud, banger whose snarling means more knowing that something is about to change. And HNDRXX sounds deeper with its companion to provide the flash and attitude. They’re best taken as two separate units; that’s the rock star move. That’s the experience.