The old rap star metrics of greatness? Future has no use for them. In his songs, he employs few true narratives, no real wordplay or punch lines. He raps mainly in free associative snippets, which, taken as pure text, can read as mundane.
But what Future excels at — what makes him an undeniable star — is his gift for emphasis, and his ability and willingness to rewrite his vocal approach. He doesn’t toy with character like Nicki Minaj, modern hip-hop’s peak changeling, does. Rather, he fiddles with structure on a phrase-by-phrase basis. He’s interested in mode over content, or rather, mode as a means of content.
More than anyone, he has used the frictions of modern hip-hop to his advantage — he is a rapper and a singer, a technologically aided aesthete and a raw emotional purger, a street-centric braggart and a hopeless romantic. He’s idiosyncratic and identifiable enough that he’s become the go-to man for bold collaborations — he’s softened the edges of Rocko’s menacing “U.O.E.N.O.” and Lil Wayne’s “Love Me” but also collaborated on heart-melting love songs with Rihanna, with his fiancée, Ciara, and even with Miley Cyrus.
In so doing he’s become the genre’s first fully post-Drake, post-“808s & Heartbreak” star. His voice is one of the threads that unifies the hip-hop mainstream, and his second major-label album “Honest” (A1/Feebandz/Epic) demonstrates — as did the excellent “Pluto” before it — how what might in an earlier era have been solely an accent piece can now be the centerpiece.
Lyricwise, Future tends to latch on hard to a word, an idea, a phrase, and work it over and again until it sticks. He does this on songs about drug dealing and on songs about relationship bliss — repetition for him is an effective tool. He complements that by choosing emphatic production, with roiling drums (notably by Mike Will Made-It and Nard & B), or smoothed-out floating-synth backdrops with hints of elegance (few producers love an ominous, stark piano more than Metro Boomin — three of his songs here feature them).
Those are the parts, the standard pieces of hardware that almost anyone could work with. Then Future really gets to work. He can switch vocal styles at the drop of a hat, and sometimes seems to be juggling multiple voices at once, as on “Special,” where he’s wistful, sleazy and tough in quick succession. On “I Be U,” there’s the quickest flicker of a Prince falsetto before Future eases into full-on Zapp computerized self-harmonizing. On “Never Satisfied,” he switches midsong from a digital croon to a melodic shout, and the chorus of “T-Shirt” sounds as if it’s rapped through a paper bag.
(And this is to say nothing of his experimentation with flow patterns, notably on two bonus tracks that serve as playgrounds for Future to deliver syllables in unexpected agglomerations.)
“Honest” features two of Future’s clearest forebears on back-to-back songs — Kanye West on “I Won,” a duet in which both men rapturously celebrate their better halves, and which has faint echoes of Drake’s maladjusted lonely cretin anthem “Marvins Room,” followed by a pro forma Drake on “Never Satisfied.” Both Pharrell and André 3000 serve up verses about renouncing material pleasures. Future is flexible enough to accommodate all of them.
Even if not everything on this album pulses with full intensity — the back half of it lags — Future is generally magnetic. In part, that’s because of the constancy of his voice, which is impassioned and reassuring. Even when he’s at his most indignant, like on “T-Shirt” and “My Momma,” his voice is unflustered.
The rise of Future coincides neatly with the almost complete removal of vocal aggression from mainstream hip-hop. The radio teems with tension-free voices, with almost no rasp or bite to them — the slurry mumbles of French Montana, the inward-looking semi-spoken-word of Kendrick Lamar, the catatonic boredom of Wiz Khalifa, the utter neutrality of Kid Ink. Lil Wayne is more given to croaks than barks, Jay Z is the sound of interest-accruing bank accounts and Kanye West sounds petulant but never harsh. And there’s Drake, of course — the genre’s reigning king, and its chief defanger.
There are a handful of exceptions — YG, or even 2 Chainz, though he’s more enthused than enraged — but mostly, Future is something of the Platonic ideal of the modern rising hip-hop star, providing his own melodies, and using software to sandpaper off any rough edges.
The sound of Atlanta, and by extension, the sound of hip-hop, has evolved from carnival barker to deadeyed corner boy to narcotized dreamer, leaving older models of success — like those of Lil Jon and Waka Flocka Flame — in the dust. Now Future has his own spiritual children — fellow Atlantans like Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan — who clearly see in Future what the new standard for greatness is.
By JON CARAMANICA The New York Times.
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