The first words Future says on Honest are a half-conscious mutter, but that doesn’t make them any less heartfelt: “Be bold. Smell me?” As if to show and prove on those four words, the music underneath him is not what you might expect from the intro track to the new Future album. It’s a warm, reverby, full-bodied guitar loop, and the first time I heard it, I assumed it was a Fleetwood Mac sample or something — mostly, I suppose, because it reminded me of the circular grace of the Fleetwood Mac sample on Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Wind Blow.” But no, Future’s sample comes from Amadou And Mariam, the blind Malian guitar virtuosos. And when he’s rapping on it — feverishly, frantically — Future sounds like he’s declaring intentions of epicness. He’s earned the right. Future has spent the past few years dragging the entire rap mainstream into his zonked-out headspace, to the point where his voice, at its most strained, is about the most exciting sound you can possibly hear in a nightclub right now. (If you haven’t seen a big crowd lose its mind to “Sh!t” or “Bugatti,” I would argue that you are not experiencing rap music in the right ways. Adjust.) Honest is Future’s first album since becoming a straight-up star, a known quantity, which means that it can’t conjure the same weird magic as its predecessor, 2012′s incredible Pluto. Because of the baroque intricacies of the present-day rap industry, established rap stars have more trouble getting their albums released than unproven upstarts do, and we’ve already experienced many of the songs on Honest over the past year or so, so the new album ends up feeling half like a new album and half like a greatest-hits collection that only covers the past year or so. And yet the Future of Honest still does what he advises you to do on the intro. He is bold.
In the several years I’ve been writing this column, my greatest regret is this: I didn’t give Album Of The Week to Pluto. Instead, I gave it that week to Spiritualized’s Sweet Heart Sweet Light. Sweet Heart Sweet Light is a great album from a band that I’ve always loved, and its greatness was immediately apparent. (Also, I got a promo of it a good month before it came out, instead of hearing the leak a couple of days before it came out, which helped.) But it wasn’t a transformative event. Pluto was a transformative event. Before Pluto, I regarded Future as, more or less, one of the many, many robotized Auto-Tune hook-slingers working the Southern rap circuit. And he’s that, sure, but he’s a whole lot more as well. As much as he uses that Auto-Tune technology, Future found a way to do something innovative with it: To make himself sound more human, rather than less. His voice cracks and croaks and rasps through the tech-storm, conveying enthusiasm and weariness and gratitude and fear and hunger and a hundred other emotions in the spaces where his peers can only convey triumph and/or hater-dismissal. He could do bangers better than most — “Same Damn Time” is an all-timer — but many of his best songs, like “Magic” or “Astronaut Chick,” brought us into some sloshing amniotic psychedelic weightless place, unmoored from gravity entirely. And the album ended with the most open-hearted, tender, empathetic one-two punch I can remember hearing on any album, in any genre: The longing and wounded love song “Turn On The Lights” and the ray-of-positivity affirmation anthem “You Deserve It,” a song that quickly became more than just a song.
Honest probably won’t fuck up your understanding of what a rap album can do, the way Pluto did. It’s not possible. Future’s entire approach is now deeply familiar comfort-food, a constant reassuring presence in rap music. And Honest has market considerations to worry about. There are the requisite superstar cameos: Kanye West rotely proclaiming ownership of Kim Kardashian’s ass, Drake cooing sweetly about how he needs to fuck everything in sight. (Thankfully, the dismal Coldplay-esque Miley Cyrus collab “Real And True” isn’t here, not even as a bonus track.) The ratio of bangers to thoughtful from-the-heart numbers feels as motivated by A&R meetings as it does by Future’s own relentless muse, though maybe I’m just projecting there. The whole album feels familiar in a way that Pluto never did. But the bold choices are still all over the place. There’s that incandescent, deeply-felt falsetto that flutters through the title track. There’s the tourettic-bersker drum programming on “Covered N Money,” backfiring-808 digital drum break that reminds me of “Blue Monday” or “Owner Of A Lonely Heart.” There’s “Benz Friends (Whatchutola),” the bummed-out all-this-stuff-sucks summit meeting with Future’s Dungeon Family precursor André 3000. There’s the way producer Mike Will Made-It channels the spaceship-funk of the early-’00s Neptunes on “Move That Dope” and then gets Pharrell to rap out of his mind, turning in the single greatest verse of his entire career.
And then there’s “I Be U,” the moment where Future’s sentimental-spaceman style finds its purest expression. Over some minimal amniotic hums and whirrs from producer Detail, Future doesn’t just sing about love; he sings about the sort of all-in physical loss of self where you lose any sense of where you end and the other person begins, where every moment feels like it means more than the one that comes before it: “I’m quiet, you quiet, we sitting here, we looking in silence.” It’s a beautiful vibe-out of a song, and it’s one built entirely out of empathy, out of seeing yourself in the person that you love. It’s vulnerable to the point of neediness. “I Be U” isn’t the only love song on Honest, and the thing that rankles me about “I Won,” Future’s Kanye collab, is the way the whole trophy-wife construct takes away all that gooey sensation and turns it into clumsily removed pedestal-pushing. But there’s sweetness there, too, at least on Future’s end; I’ll take his jubilant “You say that money don’t matter, it’s the times and the memories / Now that ass getting fatter, and I know it’s because of me” over Kanye’s “Timberlands by Manolo now / Till one day I put an angel in your ultrasound” every time. That all-out emo side of Future is on display, too, in “Special,” a bitter and broken-up breakup song, and in “Blood, Sweat, Tears,” the paranoid and mistrustful song about how he leaves his soul on the floor of the studio every time he steps in. And in the way we hear the grit of his voice, even through all the Auto-Tune, especially through all the Auto-Tune, those feelings become hard and real and tangible. This is a big-budget A-list album that lets us in, that runs on fuel that’s been distilled from insecurity and regret and love and optimism. We deserve it.
Honest is out now on Epic.
Other notable albums out this week (including some Record Store Day stuff):
• Neil Young’s lo-fi covers album A Letter Home.
• Thee Oh Sees’ bright psychedelic jellybean Drop.
• Kelis’s lively Dave Sitek-produced retro-soul move Food.
• The Menzingers’ full-throated grown-folks punker Rented World.
• TEEN’s tricky, kaleidoscopic The Way And Color.
• Fear Of Men’s muscular indie-pop debut Loom.
• The Merchandise/Destruction Unit/Milk Music split LP USA ’13.
• Eels’ latest orchestral-pop confessional The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett.
• Chad VanGaalen’s sci-fi bugout Shrink Dust.
• Black Monolith’s experimental black metal wallow Passenger.
• Iggy Azalea’s I-guess-I-have-to-mention-this pop-rap debut The New Classic.
• The DIY-punks-covering-fictional-bands comp Faux Real.
• The artists-sampling-cosmic-sounds collection The Space Project.
• Sacred Bones Todo Muere Vol. 4 comp.
• The Jason Molina tribute compilation Farewell Transmission.
• The female-fronted indie-bands compilation Non Violent Femmes.
• The WHAT?! – William Onyeabor Remixed comp.
• The Amazing Spider-Man 2 soundtrack.
• Bruce Springsteen’s American Beauty EP.
• Oneohtrix Point Never’s Commissions I EP.
• Glenn Jones’s Welcomed Wherever I Go 12″.
• David Lynch’s The Big Dream Remix EP.