It is nearly impossible to have a conversation about mainstream rap music today without mentioning Future. The 33 year-old Atlanta native who began his career quietly churning out quality free mixtapes (Dirty Sprite, Streetz Calling, Astronaut Status) and penning sleeper hits (“Racks” with YC, “Tony Montana” with Drake, “Same Damn Time”) with an off-kilter approach to auto-tune is now an A-list celebrity and one of hip-hop’s most influential stylists. His transition from Atlanta rap mainstay to Apple-Music-endorsed hit machine did not happen overnight. Hardcore fans considered his 2013 studio album Honest a creative compromise, and his relatively low output in the year following that project gave some spectators the impression that his star was dimming.
Then on October 31st 2014, Future released Monster. Over beats by some of Atlanta’s brightest young producers (Metro Boomin, Southside, TM88, DJ Spinz, DJ Plugg, Nard & B), he sounded hungrier and more wounded than ever. He followed up Monster with two more album-quality free mixtapes, Beast Mode (produced in-full by Zaytoven) and 56 Nights (produced nearly in-full by Southside). Both releases were fully formed conceptual projects with runaway hits (“March Madness”, “Trap N*ggas”, “Real Sisters”, “Lay Up”) and rich deep cuts (“Diamonds from Africa”, “No Basic”, “Peacoat”).
Future capitalized on the popularity and influence of this mixtape trilogy by releasing Dirty Sprite 2, a masterful for-the-fans studio album that showcased his many forms, from wistful autobiographer (“Blood on the Money” “Kno the Meaning”) to triumphant club dweller (“Stick Talk” “Freak Hoe”).
The man has continued releasing music at an astonishing pace, quickly following DS2 with Purple Reign, EVOL, DJ Esco’s Project ET, and now the back-to-back studio albums Future and HNDRXX. While Future’s post-DS2 output includes dozens of great songs (“Too Much Sauce”, “Perky’s Calling”, “Ain’t No Time”, “Married to the Game” etc.), some fans and critics find themselves pining for a definitive statement of 56 Nights or DS2 caliber.
Future and HNDRXX are not that, but they are nonetheless two engaging albums by one of the most gifted and innovative rappers working today. Future embraces the boastful, aggressive persona he embodied on much of Monster and 56 Nights, with a few poignant outliers towards the album’s conclusion (“When I Was Broke”, “Feds Did A Sweep”). The mood of HNDRXX is closer to that of Beast Mode, with Future softening his delivery and crooning about the joy and anguish of romance.
Neither Future nor HNDRXX manage to sustain the energy that invigorated his 2014-2015 mixtapes, which were 12 songs or less a piece, over the course of 17 songs. It is an unfortunate reality in the era of streaming services that labels and artists have financial incentives to release longer albums for more streams.
Some diehard fans will dismiss the Future/HNDRXX combo for their excessive length or Future’s somewhat diminished level of energy. But for the vast majority of curious listeners, there are plenty of infectious anthems and strong showcases of Future’s songwriting skills on these projects.
Future is the more accessible album, relying on heavy bass and 808s, and it contains more bright spots than HNDRXX. “Mask Off” is already a standout hit, and songs like“Draco”, “Might As Well”, “Zoom”, and “I’m So Groovy” are taut displays of the ATLien’s effortless knack for writing one-liners and melodic cadences that stick.
The production on HNDRXX is riskier, but the risks are mostly for the worse. Songs like “Fresh Air” and “Never Miss Lost” border on melodramatic, and the unhurried tempo of the production can make the album feel like a slog when consumed as a whole. Still, Future’s talent shines through at various points (“Coming Out Strong” with the Weeknd, “Lookin Exotic”, “Incredible”, “Selfish” with Rihanna, “Hallucinating”), and none of the songs register as offensively bad or corny.
That is the ultimate triumph of Future and HNDRXX. They may not stand up to the artist’s best work, but they just became the first pair of albums by the same artist to reach #1 on the Billboard charts over back-to-back weeks. The success of these albums represents the momentary triumph of an unlikely generational icon, an Atlanta rapper/singer/auto-tune warbler who overcame poverty and incarceration, over a predatory music industry that was once reluctant to acknowledge him.
Even if he’s releasing overlong albums for streaming royalties or doing songs with Maroon 5 and Arianna Grande, Future has made few if any creative compromises in his solo work. His content, with all of its rough edges and brutal honesty, has not been smoothed out or censored by his growing fame (it is difficult to imagine any label executive instructing Future that “Percocet, molly, Percocet” should be the hook for his album’s lead single). And he is still enlisting the same group of Atlanta producers that have helped craft and evolve his sound since 2011. Both of these albums, especially Future, are worthy contributions to an enormous body of work that has both defined and influenced the current generation of hip-hop. Anyone who has appreciated Future’s music in the past should find something to appreciate here.
FUTURE – FUTURE – 8/10
FUTURE – HNDRXX – 5/10
- Jack Ellis