In 2015, Future wields an omnipresent influence. His voice powers two Billboard topping albums: DS2 and What a Time to Be Alive, the latter with Drake. Nearly every track on DS2 is being promoted by a video, and the clips have drawn over a million YouTube views each, especially his “Rich $ex” interlude with model and sometime-girlfriend Blac Chyna. He has logged too many guest appearances to count, and it often sounds like every new major rap album has a Future-like song on it and uses his numbed and slurred approach to Southern trap.
The qualifications for “rapper of the year” can be vague, just like picking a sports MVP. It’s a statistical-like mix of record sales, creative output and critical acclaim. Most importantly, there’s the alchemical quality of consensus, or at least enough people writing/tweeting/blogging that someone deserves the honor.
Future didn’t release as much music as, say, Migos or Young Thug. (There is a possibility he may drop another mixtape, Monster 2 by the end of the year.) Much of DS2 was taken from earlier mixtapes like 56 Nights, Beast Mode and 2014’s Monster. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly was the most talked-about album of the year, and Drake logged more radio hits than anyone, partly due to his collaborations with Future on “Where Ya At” and “Jumpman.”
Still, no one hit all of those metrics with as much consistency as Future. It was partly due to a widely propagated if somewhat overstated narrative. The Atlanta rapper’s 2014 album, Honest, was a solid sophomore effort, but it didn’t fulfill its commercial expectations and didn’t sound any better or worse than his major label debut, either.
In the wake of Honest, numerous observers claimed Future’s year marked a “comeback” for him. (Never mind that Honest *was released a mere 18 months ago.) His supporters call themselves the #FutureHive, perhaps inspired by Beyoncé’s #BeyHive and Lady Gaga’s #LittleMonsters. When Future organized a free concert at in L.A. in support of *DS2, so many fans showed up that authorities nearly canceled the concert.
A friend remarked that Future is similar to hard rock gods Motörhead: He can only do one thing, but he does it really well. That characterization both describes and underestimates him. He’s not a traditional MC who can rhyme 16 hot bars like Lamar or Drake. He mostly harmonizes, twists and repeats lines until they shine like diamonds in earthen crust. His hooks are remarkably sticky and memorable, like when he chants on “I Serve the Base” or sings on “Blow a Bag.”
Future’s rise is yet more evidence the mainstream values rhythmic flow, melodic hooks, and aural charisma. Being a great rapper no longer means writing witty and metaphorical verses because rappers are now judged on how they package their words and communicate them. Hip-hop traditionalists who would rather listen to Kendrick Lamar eviscerate an opponent with sharp-edged lyrics might object to calling Future an MC. Yet Cold Crush Brothers, Grandmaster Flash’s Furious Five, and other old-school pioneers used to sing and harmonize, too. (Much of the Furious Five’s 1982 debut The Message consists of winsome R&B songs.) Future takes that party rocking aesthetic to an extreme.
Perhaps in response to those naysayers, Future attempted to rap prosaically DS2, but on “Where Ya At,” his voice descends into unintelligible muttering. It’s hypnotic because his voice still rings as it generates a rhythmic sludge. He uses his speaking voice on “I Serve the Base,” and his rhymes impress because of how he delivers them, not because they add up.
DS2 is reportedly inspired by Future’s messy public breakup with Ciara, as well as the relative failure of Honest, which he blamed on label executives who “tried to make me a pop star.” There’s a heavy drug element and on “Thought It Was a Drought,” the sound is reminiscent of 2013’s “U.O.E.N.O.,” a single by ATL scenester and occasional rapper Rocko that also features Future and Rick Ross. It is one of the most controversial songs of the decade for Ross’ impolitic line about dosing a woman and having sex with her; his career hasn’t recovered from the ensuing backlash. Equally remarkable is its bizarrely fascinating cold wave synth lines — it’s like an alternate soundtrack for the new wave crime thriller Drive.
“U.O.E.N.O.’s” producer, Childish Major, hasn’t made anything as popular since, but his track’s aura permeates DS2. Produced by Metro Boomin and TM88, “I Serve the Base” flips over noisy static. On “Where Ya At,” Metro Boomin speeds up the sound of a guitar being picked, mutes it, then tosses it over a hypnotic bounce tempo. “Freak Hoe” is a typical trap beat, but Boomin’s keyboard work makes it unique.
At the center are Future’s incessant boasts. If we take him at his word, he flips more drugs, bones more women, and sips more codeine than anyone in the Dirty Dirty. Many critics have speculated that DS2 is a descent into drug-induced madness, but that’s only because they’ve been thoroughly convinced by his performance. For now, he’s the best at it.