Future is in the lobby of the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel, poking at a chicken wing from the Florida Avenue Grill.
“I had to go to Rayful Edmond’s favorite spot,” he says, a nod to the soul food haunt of the criminal kingpin who controlled Washington’s cocaine trade in the 1980s. A few mouthfuls of string beans later, the 25-year-old Atlanta rapper says he likes watching concert footage of Lady Gaga.
Gangters. Gaga. These are the influences rappers are comfortable claiming in 2012. There’s nothing wrong with flying high on the pop charts, so long as you don’t lose your cred on the way up.
He’s in town to plug his debut album, “Pluto,” out Tuesday, a collection of street-corner narratives Auto-Tuned into warbly, melodic, big-tent singalongs. Three of them occupy the radio waves — “Magic,” “Same Damn Time” and “Tony Montana” — placing Future in a domino-chain of rap stars who have smeared the line between rhyming and singing. (Think: Nelly, Andre 3000, Kanye West, Drake.)
He’s also the latest in a series of next-big-things from Atlanta, the hip-hop power center that continues to promote itself as a hotbed that refuses to cool.
“I feel like I’m doing something in Atlanta that nobody ever did, as far as rap,” Future says. “If it happens to end up on the top 40 or the pop charts, it doesn’t mean I meant to go pop. It’s just where the music took me. It started at the bottom and it rises.”
He rose from a charmed bottom. After seeing a concert in south Atlanta — a mega-bill featuring Jay-Z, Method Man, Redman and DMX — he decided he wanted to pursue music and approached his older cousin, Rico Wade, at an uncle’s funeral. Wade had already scored plenty of hits as a member of Organized Noize, the innovative production team behind TLC’s “Waterfalls” and dozens of OutKast tracks. But at first, Future wanted a cousin, not a collaborator.
“It was me just being around Rico for a whole year and not even wanting to do music and just learning him,” Future says. “Showing him it wasn’t about his money. Showing him I was a real dude.”
He made himself a barnacle in Wade’s legendary basement studio, the Dungeon, where he rubbed elbows with the Dungeon Family, a hip-hop collective that includes OutKast and Goodie Mob, the group that launched Cee Lo Green. When Future finally summoned the courage to get behind a microphone, he was embraced.
“I was, like, 17. Everyone else was 25, 26, 32,” he says. “Everyone’s saying, ‘You’re the future of the Dungeon, you’re the future of the Dungeon. Future, future, future.”
Future. It quickly replaced Meathead, the nickname that had replaced his birth name, Nayvadius Wilburn, for as long as he can remember. After recording with a group called Da Connect, he began releasing mix tapes as Future in 2010 and broke onto national airwaves with a cameo on rapper Y.C.’s 2011 summer anthem “Racks.” But Future wasn’t just rapping — he was singing the hook, too.
For him, it was a light-bulb moment: “People respond to something melodic.” Now, instead of taking cues from other rappers, Future says he watches concert footage of pop singers. “Rick James, Tina Turner, whoever it might be,” he says. “Lady Gaga, Bono. They got 50,000 people in the stadium and they got everyone singing along.”
Those pop smarts are likely what motivated L.A. Reid, the mogul behind OutKast, TLC, Usher and others, to slide Future a contract across his desk last year. The rapper knows he’s joining an elite cast of signees, but doesn’t feel pressure so much as a sense of possibility. After all, look at Cee Lo Green, a rap eccentric who, in the past year, rebooted his career as a reality show host and crooned with Madonna at the Super Bowl’s Halftime Show.
“In Atlanta, there’s no limitation to where you can take your music,” Future says. “You can be as creative as you want to be.”