album review

The Astounding Consistency of Future

Photo: Future/YouTube

When Future announces a release date, we brace ourselves. He’s going to get inside our heads and stir up feelings we try to contain. Future records are playgrounds for the unrestrained straight male id. He says shit a lot of guys wish they could. He dates the women everyone else ogles on Instagram. He’s affluent and influential, well liked and well connected, and almost impossibly nonchalant about it all. The hunger for more animates the records, which strike a delicate balance between sated, smirking luxury and burning listlessness. He makes music about drugs that feels like a high, splendidly haughty on the way up but cavernous and lonesome on the downswing. If the emotional range of the catalogue can be summed up in a single song, it’s “Throw Away,” the pinnacle of the 2014 mixtape Monster, in which the careless alpha-male façade cracks and he admits to feeling wounded. This drama played out on a wider scale later in the decade as 2017’s FUTURE and HNDRXX, both studies in extremes, funneled the reckless songs into one album and the romantic ones into the other. He’s been negotiating a sensible balance between the two moods ever since, leaning into meanness on 2019’s The Wizrd then sadness on the same year’s Save Me, then blending introspection and rage on 2020’s High Off Life. Future is a curious case: You know exactly what’s in store with a new release, what the subject matter will be and who is likely to show up. He’s not like Ye and Kendrick Lamar, guys who throw out a massive curveball from time to time. He’s astoundingly, almost frustratingly consistent. He favors fast, foreboding trap beats and atmospheric R&B. He uses the former to blow your hair back with the horniest, evilest one-liners you can think of and the latter to promise the world to you. Sometimes Future needs companionship. Sometimes he’s inviting you to get flown out and thrown out.

Nine albums in, this is all still working because Future understands his strengths. He’s got a unique and unusual instrument and a diabolical imagination, a sincerely inimitable delivery — though many have tried — and a commitment to warping your mind as he bends his vocals. It’s hard to tell where Future’s natural voice ends and the Auto-Tune begins, just as the line between the designer-thread and pill addict on record and the entrepreneur and father off record seems blurry (depending on how much you need to believe he’s actually out guzzling lean and shooting people when he’s not making music). He skirts cliché almost purely by force of personality. His new album, I Never Liked You, is a perfect snapshot of the character he has cultivated, for better or worse. It’s raunchy enough to appeal to fans of the legendary filth on 2015’s DS2, but the softer songs recall the somber, simple sentimentality of 2014’s Honest and the back half of 2012’s Pluto. The moods are all familiar, but the delivery excites. You’ve heard Future rap about blowing money before, but the spiteful chorus line from “For a Nut” — “That li’l bitty watch cost NUNN” — gives the Gunna collaboration the pop of action critics of the duo’s wan Saturday Night Live rendition of “Pushin’ P” were calling for this month. Dancing around his range in “Voodoo,” Future gets Kodak Black singing about mistakes and regrets. The guest spots on I Never Liked You show how infectious of a collaborator Future is. Gunna and Young Thug show out on “For a Nut” because Future pushes himself. “Keep It Burnin’,” formerly the most frustrating Donda 2 dud due to shockingly half-baked Ye verses, gets a redo here with West excitedly parroting Future’s melodies. Drake proves his mettle as a musical chameleon, matching the romantic pining in “Wait for U” and returning to pile on the disaffected arrogance in “I’m on One.” But it’s always clear whose album it is. Other rappers add to the scenery; Future is the breeze they lean into.

I Never Liked You spends a lot of time living up to its name, painting Future as a jerk, a dude who blows through relationships like he blows through stacks. He can be a ghoul when he applies himself. Lurid lines linger: “Got monkey nuts, spray shit on camera.” “Bitches still claiming me that I ain’t fucked in over a year.” “Told the waitress I don’t drink liquor, I drink lean.” “Fucked her in her ass, made her pee pee / I’m just a ghetto boy like Peezy.” But the more affecting records are the ones where Future checks the antics at the door and slides into a relaxed and emotional vibe. “Love You Better” charms with little more than a chorus, a call back to “Never Satisfied,” the two-minute Drake collab from Honest that cuts out just when it’s getting off the ground. “The Way Things Going” will excite fans who go back further than Honest, revisiting the blunt emotion and melodic repetition of “Neva End” and “Ain’t No Way Around It.” Like DS2’s “The Percocet and Stripper Joint,” “Puffin’ on Zootiez” manages to make a lavish lifestyle of late-night lust seem almost morose. It’s a more dynamic headspace than the deadpanned, calculating “Massaging Me,” though the flatness of the delivery in that song almost feels like commentary of its own, the thoughts of a mogul who’s pretty sure his girlfriend is really only there for the money, another Scarface moment from a rapper who famously admires Tony Montana. I Never Liked You somehow feels both predictable and impressive, the work of an artist sorting out which buttons to press, what brands to flex, and which peers to invite over as guests. It is comfortable with the mainstream-rap album’s burden of crafting a sound that’s both instantly recognizable and easily distinguishable from past works. Like a Gulfstream or a Cartier, a Future tape offers careful variation on a winning concept. It’s possible to whiff it, but you really have to try.

The Astounding Consistency of Future