Why ‘DS2’ Is the Culmination of Future’s Musical RedemptionParas Griffin/Getty Images
Future’s rocky 2014 may seem like a distant memory — some forgotten period of a movie star’s career, spent playing weirdly against type. The rapper’s stylistically scattershot sophomore album, Honest, performed worse with consumers and was less well received by critics than his debut, Pluto; its singles charted more modestly (only the star-studded posse cut “Move That Dope” cracked the R&B/Hip-Hop Top 20). Future seemed to be slackly chaining his artistic identity to the whims of executives and expensive collaborators; feature checks rolled in from Top 40 royalty like Rihanna, Justin Bieber, and Miley Cyrus, all of whom wanted a piece of his once unmistakable sound. Honest affirmed Future’s consistency as a songwriter with an instinct for hooks and atmosphere, but the heavy-laden samples, military drums, and R&B colorations edged him out of his own songs. The rapper, often an indefatigable force, was becoming the vehicle by which the songs were realized, rather than the force breathing life into them.1
The bubble of goodwill that had floated toward the Atlanta star burst when his high-profile relationship with beloved R&B diva Ciara imploded; the diagnosis was textbook infidelity. Future’s ugly musical reaction to the split, “Pussy Overrated,” was the decrepit, perverted mirror image of his pseudo-autobiographical love ballads of the previous 18 months (“I Won,” in particular) and a career low point. All of this made for a lethal combination of dubious artistic prospects and press unpopularity; this was trauma from which it would be easy to assume that a still-burgeoning career in the spotlight might never recover.
Future and Ciara’s split was dramatized in their career choices; Ciara turned toward industry-grown capital-P pop alchemist Dr. Luke as a new mentor, while Future pushed as aggressively as possible in the opposite direction. Eschewing genre-bending and marquee coconspirators, he sought to get back in tune with the trends developing in trap, figuring out new ways to bend them to his will across a trilogy of modest mixtapes: November’s Monster, and this year’s Beast Mode and 56 Nights.
Future began to zero in on a sparer, more muted aesthetic, the new vogue in Atlanta hip-hop, thanks to the work of producers like London on da Track and Metro Boomin. Peppered with unapologetic rants against an unnamed ex-lover antagonist, the releases were not meant to repair anyone’s image of Future, who is 31, as a man; however, they rubbed his continuing musical resourcefulness in the face of an increasingly dismissive public. In the crushed-velvet folds of Future’s voice, Migos-esque fast flows sound fresh and decontextualized on these records. He dwells on two-note, psalm-tone-like melodies. The production spins its wheels hypnotically; choruses take the full duration of songs to clarify, rather than loudly announcing themselves. The overall sound is distinct and eminently revisitable, the result of the rapper’s tireless struggle to find what he can do that no one else can.
New album Dirty Sprite 2 — Future’s third release on Epic — feels like an eloquent term paper that explores, at length, the ideas introduced in the preceding tapes. There are bits of Monster’s snarling, baiting, and atonality; Beast Mode’s congregational funk; and the exoticist noir of 56 Nights: alluring, irresolute, mythical. The record’s first half juxtaposes the more aggressive, buzz-saw palette of Metro Boomin’s production on Monster with some newfound lyrical suave and focus (see “Groupies” and “Freak Hoe”). Elsewhere, Future monologues in a whisper, morphing seamlessly from boasts into defeatism into debauchery. Loping opener “Thought It Was a Drought” encapsulates the album’s dominant seedy ambience — painting scenes of conscripted group sex and dipping back into one’s stash in the wee hours. Future is creating a world of desperation rather than recreation.
The album sustains an undirected tension, the final scene of the Sopranos’s series finale strung out for 45 minutes. There is an aura of suspicion and instability, created through lyrical juxtapositions that are as humorous as they are uncomfortable: “My Cuban links bigger than the Wu-Tang / Lil’ n---- take your head off for a new chain / I send my side bitch out to St. Bart’s / I ride around town with an AR.” Future works in linear trajectories, sometimes rapping with an auctioneer’s intensity, chasing thoughts to their logical conclusions and then past them. At turns he runs through lists in his mind, taking stock, reminding himself of where he is or that things are OK. Every strut or boast is presaged by some bit of displaced sadness or a fallible moment. The conundrum of “being a millionaire” is having to keep your eye on everyone around you; if you sip once, you won’t be able to stop; you’re doing a walk-through in Tom Ford, but you still feel like a “zombie” — a stranger in your own skin. Ultimately, there’s no rest for the restless — no time left for celebration or catharsis.
DS2 takes a while to sift through. The difficulty is accepting the unchanging tempo and brooding affect; the knee-jerk reaction will be to marvel at Future’s almost pathological refusal to diversify. But think of this, simply, as music that casts a smaller net. Minute changes mean more when fit to scale (see also: rock and roll before the Beatles, Robert Johnson, Mozart symphonies). Each song seems to expound on just one idea, and each individually scans as a separate run-through of the same basic thesis. The difference and dynamism is in the sordid particulars.
Success is usually in opposition with the serpentine textures running through the beat, whether it’s Zaytoven’s New Age-y piano on “Colossal” and “Blood on the Money,” or Metro Boomin’s overdriven No Limit–meets–Beastie Boys fusion on “I Serve the Base.” “The Percocet & Stripper Joint” is a fascinating outlier; with its underwater horn break, down-home guitar, and fragmented storytelling (“Treasure bring misery, codeine in my delivery / I pulled up in a big B, swerving like a hippie”), it reminds us that Future cut his teeth among the Dungeon Family.
Somehow the Future sound of ’15 — which at times is almost unwelcoming in its introversion and paranoia — seems to connect easily with audiences. See the revelatory #FutureHive memes of late, in which our hero’s grinning face is superimposed on the heads of everyone from Steph Curry to Usain Bolt to Jesus Christ, captioned by some of his recent humorous or hyperbolic one-liners. The album is reportedly projected to sell 130,000 copies this week.2 Something in Future’s confident posture and gently seething energy has facilitated this mythologizing, helping him transmute into an abstract, Kanye-level antihero. Future’s rhymes on DS2 are multipurpose in a way they never were in his promising freshman phase (see Pluto’s jagged strands of melody and collage-y lyrics). The Future of DS2 can make us laugh, cringe, or get lost in some extended stream of narrative. But when highly emotional and even claustrophobic, his music can also function as mesmeric dance-floor fodder, suited for dimmer lighting and later hours. DS2 is worth sticking with; it seeks to deliver not the high peaks and offbeat valleys of most major-label rap albums, but instead a thick and intoxicating atmosphere. It’s Future’s new signature — a sound he built from the ground up — and it’s cause for celebration.
Winston Cook-Wilson (@ratsonly) is a writer and musician living in Brooklyn. His writing has also appeared at Pitchfork, Wondering Sound, and in The Village Voice.