In an interview for Complex in early 2013 (when Honest was still going to be called Future Hendrix, and was still coming out that year), Future discussed “dumb[ing] down” his music. “You’ve got to dumb it down for your audience so they can get it, can understand it and comprehend,” he insisted. For Future, Atlanta hip-hop’s current biggest hitmaker and premier Auto-crooner, this meant a more melodic sound, based as much in R&B as trap music, and remote from the rapid-fire battle rhymes on which he (as either “Meathead” or “The Future”) had cut his teeth in the mid ’00s as a Dungeon Family affiliate.
Any artist who admits to simplifying for the sake of sales opens themselves up to fierce criticism — to anyone who thinks AutoTuned vocals are inherently ridiculous, it may just add fuel for the fire. For Future, though, “dumbing down” is just an unfortunate way of describing an impulse that’s both common and reputable: the desire to do more with less. Miles Davis acolytes might call this effect playing only the most “important notes“; when discussing his early hit “Tony Montana” with HOT 97′s Peter Rosenberg, Future said he was focusing on “a moment or a phrase that just change[s] your whole perspective…the way you look at somebody.” Like Davis — at one point jazz’s leading specialist in “space music” — Future’s decision to streamline his own “astronaut music” allowed him to carve a musical niche, which is still one into which no other rapper quite fits.
The most recognizable element of Future’s sound — eked out over the course of his 2010 and 2011 mixtapes — is his use of AutoTune and its strange texture. The computerized effects are derailed, to expressive effect, by the organic cracks and crevasses in the smoked-out voice they regulate. Future’s music exists in a nexus where the hook, the verse, the R&B break and even the dancehall toast are all part of the same impulse. Many of the rapper’s greatest records (“Turn on the Lights” and “Mark McGwire”) have a stylistic and structural fluidity that make them feel more like freestyle soliloquies than carefully worked-out song forms.
Future sometimes creates this effect through a jagged and asymmetrical delivery, speaking (“Special,” “I’ll Be Yours”) or yelling (“Sh!t”) his lines more than rapping them, and leaving plenty of space in between so that each distinct warped phrase becomes an earworm. On other tracks (“Honest, “Karate Chop”), the hook and the verses are based around the same melodic kernel, which Future twists, turns and ornaments to dizzying effect.
Future has been widely imitated, by everyone from ATL up-and-comers like Rich Homie Quan and Ca$hout, to Chicago drill rappers like Lil Durk and Chief Keef. The frantic ululations of Bricksquad associate Young Thug expand even more on Future’s flow, pushing out against the confines of song form in every direction. But Future, unlike many of his followers, has already become a verifiable pop star, and (even more impressively) the rare street rapper with a major-label deal who got two album release dates, rather than the more probable zero. With the critical accolades, Top 10 singles and song-stealing features comes great responsibility: channeling copious early promise into a major sophomore Statement.
Honest, which was finally released this week, delivers plenty of prototypical Future fare; songs like “T-Shirt” stay in the lane of his strongest mixtape work (see “Same Damn Time”), and “Special,” “I Be You” and the title track are beautiful mid-tempo anthems that update the sound of Future’s debut LP, Pluto. But though Honest‘s beats are rooted in the post-Lex Luger production the rapper has always favored, they traverse far-flung borders (note the triple-meter Amadou and Miriam/Santigold sample on album opener “Look Ahead,” and the dense ’80s reverb sheathing the toms on album highlight “I Be U”). The throwback posse cut “Move That Dope” and the psychedelic, country-fried Andre 3000 collab “Benz Frenz (Whatchutola)” — two particularly drastic experiments — give the A and B sides of the album, respectively, refreshing jolts of left-field energy.
The album’s weak points come when Future tries to imitate his imitators. There’s a slight overload of the notorious “Migos flow,” an instantly recognizable pattern of staccato triplets that became ubiquitous after the Atlanta trio struck gold with their single last year, “Versace.” It’s worth noting that the most recent pre-Migos appearance of this flow was on Pluto‘s “I’m Trippin,” and that the group’s first mixtapes (prior to Y.R.N. , their breakthrough release of last year) featured the group dealing heavily in meandering, distinctly Future-esque AutoTune. As a result, Migos-esque tracks on Honest like “My Momma,” “Covered N Money” and “How Can I Not” have an oddly counterintuitive feeling, like listening to George Jones’s “Bartender Blues,” a song James Taylor wrote for Jones in his own style.
But despite some weak, nebulous moments, Honest is largely another successful exercise in Future’s definition of “dumbing down”: subverting expectations with eccentric populism. Though the particulars of the music could not be more different, Future’s tactics are not so different from those of two other rappers in Future’s extended Dungeon Family — Andre 3000 and Big Boi — who catapulted into superstardom in the late ’90s. It’s a rare artist that can simultaneously distinguish themselves stylistically, challenge their audience, and build a home on the charts. Future has managed to consistently do all three at the same damn time.