Future is our bard for these atemporal times — a rapper whose psychedelic mumbles have become one of the most pervasive sounds in pop. Even his stage name is a little revolt against time. He’s a visitor from tomorrow, disguised in big hats and dark shades, hiding out from death along with the rest of us.
Unlike the rest of us, he’s released seven mood-altering albums over the past 16 months — “Monster,” “Beast Mode,” “56 Nights,” “DS2,” “What a Time to Be Alive,” “Purple Reign” and “EVOL” — all of which can be heard as a sumptuous, monolithic whole. Instead of developing a style or telling a story, this is music that establishes its own continuity, and its sheer abundance gives you options. You can try to remember which Future song is your favorite, or you can lose yourself in the profusion and try to forget who you are.
Either way, his consistency is freakish and it makes us twitchy. Is the new mixtape as good as the old mixtape? Is he just doing the same thing over and over? How long can he stay this hot? How long before we cool off?
These are questions for the initiated. For those who haven’t yet fallen under Future’s spell, know that he’s a native of Atlanta, hip-hop’s roiling epicenter, and that he does high-definition, long-view rap music that will make you feel the slow, cosmic heave of time — music as a force that pushes us through life, all the way into the big sunset.
The entirety of music acts this way to some degree. Songs help memorialize the present as it perpetually evanesces into oblivion — which charms us, but also makes us worry about how we might spend tomorrow. So while Future’s lyrics invoke various shades of melancholy, despondency, paranoia and panic, the drama of his work is always rooted in its grieving of the passage of time. What’s crazy is how the cumulative effect feels so ecstatic. One after the other, these songs free us from the dread they conjure.
And they keep piling up, which means we’re surrounded. “Stick Talk,” “Rotation,” “Jumpman,” “Codeine Crazy” and dozens more continue to ooze out of house parties, nightclubs, strip clubs, NBA stadiums, Super Bowl commercial breaks, the set of “Saturday Night Live,” the radio, the Hyundai Elantra idling next to your Hyundai Elantra at a stoplight at 3 a.m.
This music spikes the mood of our civic airspace in trippy bursts, but the best way to listen to it is through prolonged, intense exposure — preferably through expensive headphones. You’ll hear tremulous groans pressed through Auto-Tune until it’s all luxurious curves and hallucinogenic vapor. It’s a sound that doesn’t really catch in the head the way pop songs do; it decays in the back of the brain like the half-memory of a sexy dream.
[To hear the sound samples in this story, click the headphone 🎧 icon. Warning: Some samples contain explicit lyrics.]
Which is to say that Future’s words exert an exponentially stronger magic over our ears than they ever do off the page. Combing his lyric sheets, we repeatedly encounter an oversexed nihilist dying to taste the rainbow. 🎧 “They tryna take the soul out me,” he declares over the chemical sizzle of “I Serve the Base,” then tries to smother his paranoia in heroic doses of MDMA, Xanax, weed and Promethazine.
Literalists like to parse this stuff under the presumption that their druggy antihero is setting himself up for redemption, but Future’s performative misery doesn’t establish a legible narrative so much as an ineffable mood. He raps about his ravenous pharmacological appetite in anxious gasps, as if he’s been trapped in a room where Percocet is more plentiful than oxygen. But that room doesn’t actually exist. Only the feeling does.
🎧 “Dress it up and make it real for me,” he announces in the opening seconds of “March Madness,” but before the song’s blissed-out beat comes alive, he laughs and doubles back: “Whatever that f—— means.” It’s a quick reminder that 21st-century rap music isn’t a diaristic practice. Also, that the unreal can be more meaningful than the real.
Future’s voice usually sounds most superhuman when he’s flanked by Metro Boomin, his most dependable and simpatico producer. Metro likes to hang delicate chimes overhead, then bury land mines of bass down below, allowing Future’s words to spread toward the horizon like melodious fog. When other rappers barge into the frame, the air clears up and the illusion goes poof — which is why “What a Time to Be Alive,” Future’s half-great duet album with Drake, feels like a whiplashing sequence of vibe-transfusions. Future raps best alone.
And he raps well, frequently tossing clever verbal wrenches into his hypnotic chants, making the “wrong way” sound right, or at least artfully wrong. He loves to violate the fourth rhyme in a quatrain, then rhyme the next couplet with the offending word. (You can hear this in the downcast 🎧 “Perkys Calling,” in the bumptious 🎧 “Lil Haiti Baby” and in other songs.)
He’s also prone to repeating lines, seemingly at random, changing his inflection just so. He’s daring us to feel inured, daring us to forfeit our sensitivity. Listen long and close, and your numbness mutates into a strange kind of alertness.
But nearly all of Future’s musical gravity can be traced to his gift for loosening words inside of his mouth. His slack enunciation gives him tremendous technical flexibility, allowing him to 🎧 rhyme “bulletproof” with “pinnacle,” for instance. But the aggregate effect of this loosening, line after line, verse after verse, hints at a sort of metaphysical freedom.
Rap is built with words, and when those words are made soft and slippery enough to feel like they’re bending rhythm and time, they plunge us into the freedom of an eternal present. To feel that freedom is to begin to understand exactly what makes this haunted music feel so deeply exultant.
All of this made perfect sense inside the walls of a Maryland nightclub last month, where Future was dancing beneath purple stage lights, clad in an all-white outfit that made him look like a bioluminescent ghost.
The bass was loud enough to feel in your molars — loud enough to make you aware that, in this happy gathering of bodies, you were the only one living inside your own. It was all-alone, all-together music. It was perfect.
Halfway through the gig, when he gave a shout-out to his “day-one” fans, the whole place went nuts, which means pretty much everyone was faking. Or maybe not. If the past and the future both radiate outward from the present, doesn’t every moment on the endless tightrope of time qualify as day one?
The fact that this took place on Feb. 29, 2016 — leap night, a twinkling extension of our brief coexistence in this weird, unknowable universe — felt significant.