ATLien Resurrection: Future’s Journey To The Center Of The Musical Universe
Even astronauts get knocked back down to Earth sometimes. So it goes with Future, whose densely dreadlocked 6-foot-2 frame is passed out on his tour bus suffering from some undisclosed illness when I arrive at his hotel for our interview. The temperature in Columbus is 31 degrees fahrenheit, a full 28 less than the sweater weather they’re enjoying today in Kirkwood, the dodgy east-side Atlanta neighborhood where the rapper/singer/Auto-Tuned gurgler grew up under the name Nayvadius Wilburn (later legally changed to Nayvadius Cash). Flurries have been accumulating in the Midwest for days, which is making this Friday the 13th feel particularly unlucky for urban radio’s foremost android-warbler and his entourage. “All this snow everywhere’s killing us,” explains Future’s manager, Orlando, a small-framed middle-aged man in a gray sweatsuit. He asks me to come back to the hotel lobby in a few hours when Future wakes up.
It’s significantly colder in outer space, but Future’s made the final frontier one of his favorite motifs — appropriate for a guy whose husky digitized wheeze sounded so alien when it first began gracing hit singles. After rocketing to anonymous airwave saturation and club ubiquity in 2011 by co-writing and featuring on YC’s frolicsome make-it-rain anthem “Racks,” Future became one of 2012’s commercial and critical rising stars thanks to the Astronaut Status mixtape and his Epic debut, Pluto. The latter was a major-label rap album unlike any before it, a Tom-Waits-circus-freak-lounge-singer reading of Drake’s seamless rap tough guy/R&B sensitive guy convergence. Future truly seemed to be from another planet. Beyond Pluto‘s bizarre exterior, though, was a deeply emotional, innately melodic opus, one that spawned more hit singles than you can count on one hand. Since then he’s been an inescapable force in urban music, lending mournful croon-gurgles and violently spasmodic blurts to hits by just about nearly every major player in rap and R&B. Once a curiosity, he has become a legitimate rival for Drake as the nucleus of urban radio.
That’s not enough for Future. He wants to be a household name in every household. So now, in step with his favored producer, Mike WiLL Made It, Future is dipping his toes into mainstream pop. Their latest single together is “Real And True,” a moonstruck ballad that somehow crossbreeds Coldplay and T-Pain with assistance from collaborators Miley Cyrus and Mr. Hudson. The video is set (where else?) in a galaxy far, far away, with spacesuits, Gravity-inspired cinematography, and Cyrus as a glittering sexpot extraterrestrial. The lovey-dovey “Real And True” is Future’s most obvious gesture toward pop radio so far; it reeks of Timbaland’s post-FutureSex/LoveSounds lighters-up cash grab “Apologize.” But it isn’t necessarily softer than some of Future’s other crossover hits (his hiccuping leftfield romantic comedy lead on Rihanna’s “Loveeeeeee Song” is especially sentimental), and it doesn’t necessarily reflect the direction of his second album, Honest, due sometime in early 2014. One of the other advance singles, also produced by Mike WiLL, is “Sh!t,” arguably the most aggressive, least accessible song Future’s ever recorded. The hardboiled “Sh!t” is for the streets; the downy “Real And True” is for the radio. Like Drake, his tourmate, sometimes collaborator, and possible frenemy, Future wants to inhabit many galaxies at the same damn time, to cruise freely and fearlessly through disparate worlds, to bend reality in his general direction until he’s everywhere at once.
He’s nowhere to be found, though, when I return to the hotel lobby at the appointed time. Orlando tells me Future is upstairs showering and introduces me instead to Rico Wade, tall, slender, and gregarious. Along with Ray Murray and Sleepy Brown, Rico is one third of the OutKast- and Goodie Mob-affiliated production crew Organized Noize; besides all of Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and Soul Food, they did “So Fresh, So Clean,” TLC’s “Waterfalls,” and En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go (Love).” Rico also happens to be Future’s older cousin, which is how Future ended up with “DUNGEON” tattooed on his right forearm and “FAMILY” on his left. “I put Future in the studio for the first time,” Rico explains, eager to shed light on his own under-recognized legacy. As we bide our time in the lobby, he affably spills the beans about unreleased Andre 3000 solo songs from a decade ago and his hopes to score Future a cameo during OutKast’s reunion sets at Coachella. Eventually he pulls out his iPhone and plays me a Future/Andre collaboration he produced called “Benz Bitch” that’s earmarked for Honest. It’s yet another side of Future and one rarely heard: brainy, libidinous space-age funk mined from Stankonia’s dankest caverns, an homage to his Dungeon Family roots.
The Dungeon Family, the loose collective of Organized Noize affiliates that took its name from Rico’s basement studio, the Dungeon, paved the way for Future in more than one capacity. Long before Rico put his little cousin Nayvadius in the studio and started calling him “The Future,” the producer and his cohorts were building a legacy of oddball Atlanta rap. In the early ’90s the city’s scene was polarized into a few successful factions, among them lewd Miami bass music affiliated with 2 Live Crew leader Luther Campbell’s Luke Records, Jermaine Dupri’s pop-savvy So So Def roster, and conscious rap critical favorites Arrested Development. With Organized Noize at their backs, OutKast and Goodie Mob synthesized those sounds. The Dungeon Family showed that rap could be aggressively weird and still sell, that Southern-fried hip-hop could move the brain as well as the booty. Atlanta’s rap landscape has morphed significantly since those groups began to splinter into solo careers, but the city has continued to make stars out of bona fide weirdos, most notably Gucci Mane, one of the figures who helped Future break into the scene. So even though most of Future’s music adheres more closely to Gucci’s school of schizoid trap music than the Dungeon Family’s Dirty South funk and soul, he really does represent the next wave of a current that’s been rippling out of Atlanta since the Dungeon days. Hearing him on a track with Andre feels like a historic convergence of generations, even through Rico’s tinny smartphone speakers on a coffee table in a Columbus hotel lobby.
Orlando returns from upstairs to inform us that Future will rendezvous with us at the arena, so Orlando, Rico and I hitch a ride to Nationwide Arena with Zo, another one of the many Atlantans shivering through this tour. When we arrive backstage, Future’s dressing room isn’t particularly flashy — another associate, Shongo Owens, climbs atop the lone couch to unscrew the florescent lighting — but it’s sufficiently stocked with snacks and sneakers. To the left is a table piled with chips, candy, a fruit tray, and a cooler full of Grey Goose and various juices. To the right is the wardrobe area, freshly supplied with jackets, pants, T-shirts still in the plastic, and 21 pairs of shoes — high-tops, low-tops, and boots in red, green, yellow, black, white, and tan, mostly Jordans and Saint Laurent. I meet Future’s stylist, Stephanie, and his digital media guru, Spitty. The lot of them are friendly, but as the minutes accrue into hours I start wondering if this is going to devolve into “Future Has A Cold.” Finally, just 20 minutes before he’s scheduled to go on, an ailing Future arrives, a commanding presence even when he’s clearly not well. He ambles into the dressing room slowly but purposefully, a zombie on a mission. His countenance is frozen in a dead-eyed scowl — sick as death/ High as fuck/ At the same damn time.