album review

Future Is Coiled Up on FUTURE, But Takes a Giant Leap Forward on HNDRXX

The future itself will always be out of reach, but from the start, the hope invested in Future was that he would bring things into touch. He was viewed, and viewed himself, as an artist capable of unique fusions of disparate formats: dope, moving bangers with R&B romance; Auto-Tuned lyrics with earthy speech; earthy speech with unearthly bellows; mainstream smoothness with avant-garde grit; promise with reality. During the period running from his initial mixtape run through his 2012 debut album, Pluto, up to 2014’s sophomore effort, Honest, Future was envisioned as a bridge, aesthetically and personally: Nothing summed up his essence more than his willingness to combine it with another.

The twin peaks of this phase in his career were the Honest ballad “I Be U” and Ciara’s “Body Party,” a hit that he co-wrote: In both cases, what’s set out is a vision of seamless continuity, whether between man and woman or fate and choice. Life imitated art: By the summer of 2014, Ciara and Future were engaged to be wed, and Ciara was already pregnant with their child, a son. Everything seemed ideal regarding the marriage between trap legend Cadmus and R&B Harmony. All that was left to do, it seemed, was to see the future vision come to pass in the present.

Ciara’s discovery of her fiancé’s infidelity, and her subsequent cancellation of their wedding, wasn’t the only factor in Future’s rebirth as a street-rap behemoth: Stung by the middling reception of Honest, the artist had already been planning to pivot away from pop back to his roots. All the same, the effect of this break was prodigious, radical, monstrous; Future returned to his mixtape origins with a vengeance. For all their glorious elements, his studio albums had been, on the whole, awkward amalgams, where rampages and crooners sat side by side without a unifying narrative. The breach with Ciara, by cutting off any possibility of composing love songs, freed Future to focus on what he knew best. The trilogy of mixtapes he released between October 2014 and March 2015 constituted a dark renaissance, in which the artist raised trap music to a standard of quality unprecedented in his prior work or in the work of others.

Forged by dissonance and fracture, the mixtapes were cohesive within themselves, yet drastically different from one another: Their spirit ranged from desperate, torturous transmogrification (Monster) to wistful decadence (Beast Mode) to calm, euphoric alienation (56 Nights). In much the same way that the hook in Monster’s “Fuck Up Some Commas” built up to a climax of cash, the mixtapes themselves culminated in DS2, a third album which netted Future his first platinum plaque. Bangers and sleepers and meditations and strip-club fodder were packaged next to one another, but the collective impression was no longer chimeric: DS2 was united not just by a name but a distinct sensibility. Finding himself suddenly alone, Future found himself more bitter and haunted, but also more brilliant and driven, than ever before. “The best thing I ever did was fall out of love,” he murmurs near the end of DS2. The words are focused, candid, and accurate, but his voice is unmistakably suffused with regret.

It was then that Drake, a featured guest on all three of Future’s albums and thirsty for street cred in the wake of being exposed as a karaoke rapper, proposed to him, offering to take their relationship to the next level. There was some irony in the situation: Having lost out on marriage to one R&B icon, Future had rebounded with music that led to a partnership with another. The arrangement was financially profitable, but the aesthetic toll was heavy: Future had to give up sole custody over a sheaf of prime Metro Boomin beats for their collaborative project, the oil-and-water mixtape What a Time to Be Alive. It wasn’t long before he was stricken by the anemia that pursues prolonged association with Drake: In 2016, Future turned out three mixtapes and an album, which — though serviceable — were only occasionally superb, failing to match the novelty, sprightliness, and insight of their predecessors. The unity of purpose he had discovered in the aftermath of his breakup had yielded, for the most part, to monotony; he had become so predictable that it was possible to score a chart-topping hit by photocopying his voice and tropes, as Desiigner’s “Panda” shamelessly did. It was clear that, come 2017, he would have to change his identity in order to maintain his integrity, in every sense: Lawsuits with Ciara and his former friend and label boss Rocko threatened to sap his finances in the same way that Drake, Desiigner, and others had drained his aesthetic.

Released two weeks ago, FUTURE is clearly the product of a period of trial-related strain, a portrait of the artist, under pressure, doubling down on an established identity: Post-freshman self-titled albums tend to signify the consolidation of an existing aesthetic rather than the development of a new one, and FUTURE plays to type. Sonically, it largely consists of a battery of instrumentals gathered from the artist’s most trusted 808 Mafia producers, whose qualities — twisty, deft, nocturnal, involuted — will be familiar to listeners of the post-Honest era; thematically, the album revisits trails already blazed, circulating one- and two-liners touching on classic American obsessions: substance abuse, omnidirectional defiance, violent threats, getting lots of money, spending lots of money, guns, cars, and extramarital sex (with bonus points for cuckoldry). A new ad lib, “Pluto,” creeps into rotation, but FUTURE couldn’t be further from the love, optimism, and astronautical uplift that characterized his first album: Now, he’s Pluto as underworld monarch, king of the dead, sealed in the unremittingly dark world of his creation.

To be fair, Future has gotten very good at what he does, and FUTURE is a clear improvement over everything released post-DS2. Opener “Rent Money” swerves energetically into Meek Mill’s favored lane, flipping verbal birds while borrowing the Philly rapper’s production (and references to the Miami nightclub Liv); “Zoom” is a simple, tightly grooved, effective track along the lines of EVOL’s “Photo Copied”; “POA” feels like barreling through an endless series of red lights; “Super Trapper” and “Massage in My Room” prove that the 808s & Final Fantasy formula never gets old; the terse dicta on “Mask Off” are paired with a hypnotic flute sample fit to charm snakes. With that being said, the album, in its 63-minute entirety, is wearying, numbingly heavy: It ends up sounding the way that life with an inverted sleep cycle ends up feeling. Future’s voice has always been hard to read, splitting the difference between pained and painkilling, victim and assassin. It’s unclear, based solely on the evidence of FUTURE, whether he himself knows which is which by now: What to one listener is a groove is a rut to another, a trench to a third.

Late in the track list, there’s an interesting shift: “Might As Well,” “When I Was Broke,” and “Feds Did a Sweep” mark a step away from the chilly egoism and mordant contempt (most evident in FUTURE’s skits) that seems to have become his default interpersonal setting. Their notes, respectively, of generosity, gratitude, and mourning remind one that even at his most suffocating Future still has tremendous range: At any point, his cavernous ego can telescope into a trap house, the slums at large, anyone and anywhere besieged by white power. (He didn’t nickname his crew Taliban for no reason.) In the end, FUTURE, though it could easily have been cut to half its length without appreciable loss, confirms his status as an institution: Like James Bond films, even lackluster entries count because they extend a legacy, and middling recent performance is no proof of mediocrity to come. Yet one could only hope, after reviewing it, that he would find a special reason, or person, to activate in full all that latent potential — clearly the chemicals, alone, wouldn’t be enough.

The announcement of another album to be released a scant week after FUTURE was shocking in itself, but surprise at the speed of HNDRXX was soon dwarfed by awe regarding its contents. In keeping with the spirit of their maker, Future’s songs, as a general rule, can be split into two types: songs that require drugs to be enjoyed and songs that are better than drugs. From the first listen on, it’s evident that the songs on HNDRXX fall squarely in the latter group. Roughly a quarter of the music is polished, citrus-flavored, possessive-toned R&B with a strong affinity with the small batch of memorable tracks on Drake’s Views. The other 75 percent is gorgeous, inviting, incomparable, and above all else bright. The listener recovering from FUTURE’s claustrophobia is suddenly whisked into open space and summer daylight: One finds oneself enjoying “Fresh Air” as if for the first time. The hippie vibes implicit in Future’s Jimi Hendrix cosplay finally come to full fruition: Not since the Weeknd’s own groundbreaking mixtape trilogy has love been so convincingly equated with drugs, nor drugs linked so intimately to songcraft.

It’s no accident that the Toronto superstar figures prominently on HNDRXX, featuring on the pensively triumphant “Comin Out Strong,” and being name-checked on the eager, bouncing, rainbow-hued “Incredible”: like Future, Abel Tesfaye sat through the stagnant aftermath of an arranged marriage with Drake, before rebounding with albums effortlessly blending hip-hop tones with R&B themes and pop sensibilities. HNDRXX reveals that the R&B and pop lanes closed down after the break with Ciara weren’t closed forever, but closed for construction. The album is the realization of all the hopes originally placed in him, showcasing a unique combination of confessional candor, romantic ebullience, and a gift for discovering and sustaining strange, ecstatic melodies.

The word that sums up HNDRXX is abundance: The oceanside splendor and lakeside feasts described in the lyrics find their counterpart in sounds (concocted by a dream team of rap and R&B producers) that fairly overflow with space, light, and color. The gigolo hymn “Use Me” is representative of the album’s vision of desire; after a long bout of distrust, Future is making himself available once more, pouring his whole self into his verses, mixing sweetness into bitter memories. “Selfish,” an inevitable chart-topper whose spotlight Future gracefully cedes to Rihanna, sums up the new approach to the beloved. “Let’s not be alone / Let’s be one,” they sing together — they’re not halves of a whole so much as identical, self-congruent. If the mixtapes witnessed the revival of trap Future, HNDRXX revives the Future of “I Be U,” and the effect of this resurrection is nothing short of miraculous. (“I got a gift and I’m God-given / That’s why I’m gon’ live like God’s living.”) He’s fully activated — all potential has been converted into pure potency.

Even on such a powerful album, the fourth quarter of HNDRXX, in which “Selfish” is embedded, is a tour de force — the lights dim and the pulse slows, but the sense of strength in open space persists. Fusing conscience and grief, “Turn on Me,” “Solo,” and “Sorry” complete the embrace of suffering commenced on Monster’s cri de cœur “Throw Away”: the artist, reviewing the damage sustained and inflicted, ends in relief — exhausted, yet all the wiser. He did, in fact, fuck up hugely with his fiancée; he was, in fact, fucked over in turn, quite possibly far more than he deserved to be; he won’t be forgiven; it’s time, after one last look back, to move on.

As the smoke clears, the self-portrait we’re left with is of a figure charming, grasping, self-conscious, baffled, and above all honest: an artist transfixed by past pain and condemned to repeat it, yet curious enough and strong enough to advance toward new relations, sounds, and words. Though the process leading up to it wasn’t what anyone could have expected, it’s evident that he’s taken, with HNDRXX, a quantum leap in music. (God help us if his rumored third album somehow sets an even higher standard.) It’s not just trap or R&B: Everyone in pop is going to have to adjust to it — in other words, the future is finally now.

Future Takes a Huge Leap Forward on HNDRXX