I NEVER LIKED YOU: Future’s Still Got It, Even If He’s Going Thru the Motions

“They tried to make me a pop-star, and they made a monster” bellows Future midway through “I Serve The Base”, the second track from his 2015 opus DS2. While there are undoubtedly more recognizable lines on the album, none truly encapsulate the era known as “2015 Future” quite as well. As the grinding Metro Boomin’ instrumental descends further into madness, Future drags us deeper into a twisted nocturne from which it becomes clear we are not resurfacing. His snarl is equal parts tortured admission and chest-beating triumph. It’s that juxtaposition that finds fans returning to Future again and again. 

The 3 years that elapsed between the release of his debut Pluto in 2012 and this moment were the most formative in Future’s career. Despite establishing himself as an inimitable force in the new Atlanta trap scene, he was suddenly being placed on songs with Miley Cyrus, sold Beyonce a throwaway track that would become arguably the biggest hit of her career (all due respect!), and became engaged in a now-infamous relationship with R&B star Ciara.

His second studio offering, 2014’s Honest, is an excellent representation of this dichotomy – his now sought-after pop sensibilities clashed with his ability to conjure a street anthem out of thin air. Take the back-to-back tracks “I Be U” and “Covered N Money”, for example. Both are excellent illustrations of Future’s intricacies as an artist, but they don’t SOUND like two songs that should be on the same album. Hindsight being what it is, Honest was an important and underrated release. While it reeked of major label industry politicking (see: Wiz Khalifa’s horrible feature on the otherwise timeless banger “My Momma”) Future had clearly been sharpening his craft. Compared to Pluto, his writing was more cohesive, his singing voice more emotive, and his song structures more robust.

Within a few months after the Honest release, Future and Ciara’s relationship went from an engagement and a newborn son to a high profile separation. In the immediate wake of this dissolution, Future turned to the studio rather than tabloids and twitter. He had tried his hand at pop-stardom, but the hedonistic trappings of wealth were far more powerful creative inspirations. In the aftermath of a year in which he finally attained a level of success he had spent his 20’s working for, he promptly removed himself from that limelight, channeling his emotion into his songwriting and his frustrations into recreational drug use. 

The next we would hear from Future came in the form of a mixtape called Monster, appropriately released on Halloween 2014. Executive produced by a relatively unknown 21-year-old known as Metro Boomin’, this dark and vulnerable collection of tracks seamlessly bleed into one another as Future offered us his most brooding and candid reflections to date. It was raw, focused, and devoid of superfluous T.I. and Snoop Dogg features and pop-tropes that plagued mainstream rap in the early 2010s. Instead, Future and his small circle of ATL producers in 808Mafia crafted an album-quality tape to begin a legendary run of releases that would come to serve as the blueprint for trap music in the latter half of the decade.

The lore of the mixtape trilogy that culminated in DS2 has been detailed many times. Released within the span of 6 months, Monster, Beast Mode, and 56 Nights were indicative of a creative titan harnessing an inner fire like Prometheus. Future treated us to a schematic of his soul with brooding sagas like “My Savages” and “Codeine Crazy”, hedonistic anthems like “Lay Up” and “Never Gon Lose”, and often the perfect mix of both in a single track like “Throw Away.”

It’s a fool’s errand to expect any artist to remain at their peak forever, despite how invincible and influential they seemed on the mountaintop. Since 2017’s HNDRXX, Future has released plenty of quality music but, with the exception of his underrated collab tape Super Slimey with Young Thug and 2018’s Beast Mode 2, his descent from this new decade’s apex of influential creatives is evident. 2019’s The WIZRD and 2020’s High Off Life are not without their highlights, but were indicative of a man comfortably lounging in his throne, unconcerned with pushing boundaries. At the risk of editorializing, I often find critiques of Future’s post-2018 output to be unfair or at least devoid of rational context. In 2022, dark and heavy 808-based trap has been recycled ad-infinitum. Rappers from every city in America and beyond have made names for themselves hijacking a style popularized and originated largely by Future himself. If this sounds like hyperbole, please recall a certain #1 Billboard hit from 2016 that was, quite literally, just a kid from Brooklyn doing his best Future impression

Something just feels off about criticizing an artist like Future for retreading familiar ground when he is the one who charted the territory in the first place. To me, it’s like watching a Ken Burns documentary and complaining about the familiarity of his zoom and pan technique, or reading a Vonnegut novel and getting irritated at his inclusion of extraterrestrial characters. Try for a moment to place yourself in 2015. There was no blueprint for the soul-snatching exorcisms of tracks like “Groupies” and “Rotation”, or the despondent dirge of “Thought It Was a Drought”. DS2 was a concept album about lost love and a subsequent descent into a vice-laden dystopia. The bleak and unforgiving musical stage set by producers Metro and Southside put Future front and center, spilling his guts in between sips of promethazine-spiked sprite. It was a novel, pure product of pain, renewed creative focus, and roaches overflowing in an ashtray. In this way, I feel Future is a victim of his own seismic influence. That said, when you speak of the greats, it is often their drive for constant innovation that propels them to legendary status, and innovation has been relatively absent from Future’s music over the past 5 years.

Preambles aside, let’s focus on the subject at hand. Future’s 9th studio album is here, making it two full years since his last major release – the longest such gap since the release of Honest in 2014. I NEVER LIKED YOU arrives to relatively high expectations due largely to how long it took. Recall this is an artist who once dropped 7 critically acclaimed projects in the span of 15 months. INLY clocks in at 49 minutes,16 tracks and is noticeably devoid of extraneous features. Helmed by a small circle of producers (mostly ATL Jacob), the album has all the tailoring of an excellent Future release. Let’s be clear: this is the best Future album since HNDRXX, and that alone is worth celebrating. And people are indeed celebrating! A cursory search of Twitter during release week would have you convinced this is his second best album behind DS2 and an early contender for AOTY. Future is indeed a master of his craft, but in-depth analysis will only convince the listener that there could have been much more here. That familiar re-treading of his sound is once again present, and it is admittedly hard to critique when it SOUNDS this excellent. At this point, Future is a LITERAL wizard levitating above the beat. A sanctified master of the realm he’s created. You can almost see him sitting cross-legged, eyes rolling back in his head as he seamlessly dissects and weaves through the beat on early highlight ‘IM DAT N****’. Effortlessly flexing through a series of rhetorical questions about his legacy and status, he reminds us of his presence as an inimitable force of melody while threading his twisted flow through every available pocket of space. ‘GOLD STACKS’ is another flash of innovative brilliance, with Future’s erratic bars hitting every percussive note like a game of whack-a-mole, all while maintaining a singular arpeggiated melody that serves as an irresistible ear-worm hook. ‘CHICKENS’ is a potent throwback. A pulsating 808 scaffolds a gliding bright synth line over which Future and EST Gee take us to the kitchen of an Atlanta bando for a brick cutting theme song. You can’t help but bounce along to the hook that simply repeats “Chickens.. chickens… chickens…”, once again demonstrating that Future can still whip a mechanical chant into an anthem a-la Tony Montana.

Unfortunately, we too often find him on auto-pilot. Intro tracks have always been a Future specialty. “712PM” doesn’t clear this bar. The haunting, foggy instrumental rips out of the gates to signal that the Wizrd is about to take the stage, but his opening this time around isn’t the aggressive overture we have come to expect. “I just fucked your bitch in some Gucci flops” wasn’t exactly an eloquent entrance, but it couldn’t have been a more perfect declaration of what we were about to experience. Here, Future resigns to low-effort bars about Maybach trucks, plain janes, and his money making a woman “so gay” even after she claims not to like girls. ‘KEEP IT BURNIN’ has the potential for excellence, but it sounds like we got a demo version of a DONDA 2 song that Ye gave away after his primary focus shifted to making memes of Pete Davidson a few months ago. Future goes absolutely bananas on it though – maliciously detailing a time in which he got so high he almost scraped the paint off a pyrex – so it’s a shame that it’s sandwiched between two unhinged Kanye verses about his ex-wife. The Kanye sections aren’t without their redeemable moments – I get flashes of Yeezus when he says “visionary thoughts, ‘fore I could barely talk. Mind running laps, ‘fore I could barely walk”, and his hook is actually quite good once it grows on you. With more polish, the song could have been one of the best offerings on the album. “WE JUST WANNA GET HIGH” and “MASSAGING ME” are raucously fun, albeit overly-familiar, bangers, the latter of which I’m quite partial to. It feels like the spiritual successor to “MASSAGE IN MY ROOM” off his 2017 self-titled, as both are vapid odes to having thirsty women massage you over twinkly minor-key synths.

Outside of the heaters that Fewtch can clearly compose in his sleep at this point, the success rate is not as high when Future Hndrxx rears his tender head. “PUFFIN ON ZOOTIES” is a track that sounds like a timeless Future song but leaves you with little to chew on. The beat is perfect R&B fodder for a self-reflective moment, but he only scrapes the surface of any of the topics he broaches. It’s unfortunate, because a more lucid take on these subjects would have been more than welcome as the years pass and his undeniable legacy continues to come into focus. “WAIT FOR YOU” will almost certainly be a public favorite but undeservingly so. Drake and Future getting into their simp bag is always going to hit. Over a gorgeous Tems sample that comprises the instrumental, Future croons about being vulnerable with an unnamed lover and it is uncharacteristically unconvincing this time around. Drake chimes in to do his best Drake impression, singing about being a dog in a kennel and petty fights over dinner. I honestly think this may have been recorded by an AI that was forced to listen to every Drake verse in the last two years on repeat. We have heard this melody at least 5 times on CLB alone. “LOVE YOU BETTER” is a passionate farewell to a partner, reminiscent of some of the more vulnerable moments on Save Me, but much like the songs on that EP, the best ideas sort of just end abruptly. 

“THE WAY THINGS GOING” – the best song on the album – is a reprieve to this trend. Here, we find Future telling us, well, the way things are going. Specifically, we are made privy to some of Future’s concrete takeaways from the way his life is going now. He feels he has to ride around with a weapon and that he may not see the backend of his life, but these fears allow him to realize what matters most. In the face of uncertainty he’s decided family comes first, home is a sanctuary, and a reverence for the past is crucial to securing a future. “HOLY GHOST” features possibly ATL Jacob’s best beat. A celestial choir transposes into a key change every 8 bars and evokes the feeling of being on a haunted ship at sea with Future standing on the bow like Leo in Titanic. “VOODOO” is fine, but it’s hamstrung by an incredibly cloying performance from Kodak Black that more than overstays its welcome – especially in the outro, where his off-key crooning plays us out with no beat for almost 30 seconds. 

Before I end this I have to address the wretched “FOR A NUT”, which features Future and the YSL boys trading stomach churning bars about buying groupies bags and watches in exchange for easy sex. This is the only thing Gunna ever raps about anyway but it’s never sounded this tired. His verse is the least egregious too. Future sounds the most animated and interesting of the three, but rapping “got monkey nuts, spray that shit on cam” is something I may never forgive him for. Young Thug saves the worst for last, proclaiming to put a diamond in his girl’s butt, and seeing it shine when she has an orgasm… I’m always down for some wild sex bars, but this song has all the appeal of watching someone clean the casting couch. A lot of these rappers are getting way too comfortable with low-effort semen bars.

The bittersweet paradox of this album is how quality it is in spite of itself. The beats are crisp and punchy, but the selection isn’t as cohesive and interesting as they are on Future’s peak albums. The verses and hooks are sonically and technically as good as they’ve ever been, but the actual lyrical content leaves you wanting more. The bangers SOUND amazing, but I find myself struggling to recall many interesting bars within them. The softer R&B tracks are warm and fluid, and Future’s singing is better than ever, but it lacks depth. His tales of love, drugs, and demons start to feel artificial. Recycled heartbreak isn’t an invalid source of inspiration, but you can’t come off as indifferent. He needs to sell us the passion – whether he’s actually sad or not is inconsequential. This time around, I’m not buying. I’ve got plenty of authentic heartbreak ballads in the Future back-catalog to fire up instead. Almost hypocritically, I am finally criticizing a Future release for a lack of innovation. It’s increasingly clear that despite the full maturation of his talents, he simply doesn’t have much to say in 2022. And, hey, who are any of us to bemoan that? The man is alive, happy, and has attained a level of fame and success that he certainly was nowhere near a decade ago. To still be receiving quality music from Future this far into his career is a blessing. Who could demand more? Especially with everything he’s already given. He’s certainly a star now – but he’s one of his own design. We can pray for the Monster to come alive again all we want, but it’s better to embrace the pop-star that evolved of his own volition.

I’ve always said Future’s music has an incredibly high floor. Even when it’s “mediocre” it still never bottoms out below a 7/10 for me. My power ranking of his ALBUMS are as follows.

  1. DS2
  4. EVOL
  7. PLUTO

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