Future shows no signs of illness or fatigue when he steps on stage at 7:15 sharp. The arena is still waking up, with most of the crowd waiting in beer lines and shuffling through the sections to find their seats, but Future is wide awake. He bounces vigorously, actually rapping rather than letting the canned tracks do the work, his arms outstretched as if he’s dribbling each side of the room like a basketball. He’s opted for the red and black Jordans, black leather pants, and a black leather trench coat draped over a white T-shirt emblazoned with a cannabis leaf. Along with his usual sunglasses, he looks poised to take over for Wesley Snipes if they ever relaunch the Blade franchise. The only trouble with that bit of casting is Future doesn’t talk much; his stage banter is limited to one-sentence bursts such as “Single ladies, make some noise for me,” never mind that he’s engaged to the resurgent R&B singer Ciara. Credit some of Future’s energy to the contagious presence of DJ Esco, the skinny dreadlocked lightning bolt who’s long served as Future’s touring DJ and hypeman. (As Rico later explains, Esco is the Monday night DJ at the popular Atlanta gentlemen’s club Magic City, the inspiration for Future’s hit “Magic” and allegedly a classy joint where you barely even notice that the women are topless. Rico recommends the medium hot wings with the lemon pepper sprinkles.)
Future and Esco don’t have to keep the energy level up for long. Their performance is ungodly short but divinely potent. At this point Future can easily assemble a setlist full of club and radio smashes, so even though he’s only on stage for 17 minutes, he presents an impressive overview of his skill set. First comes the thunderous Rick Ross single “No Games,” for which Future provided the ominous hook, followed by YC’s “Racks,” the jubliant hit that lifted Future out of the mixtape minor leagues and put him on track to radio dominance. Then Esco drops “Karate Chop,” a lurching party monster that could only be Future’s. He delivers the whole song in halting Auto-Tune staccato, sounding like a turnt-up rap robot programmed to sputter phrases such as “Smoke a lotta kush/ And I have a lotta sex.” Laserbeam synthesizers stretch like taffy across the bottom of the beat while arpeggiated twinkles ripple across the ceiling. It is unflinchingly strange, irresistible music — Future’s specialty.
Metro Boomin, the 19-year-old Atlanta prodigy who produced “Karate Chop,” is mirroring Future’s every word with the rapturous enthusiasm of a kid who can’t believe this beat he made on his MacBook is being blasted to the far corners of a 700,000-square-foot hockey arena. We are standing amongst a handful of Future associates on the front-of-house soundbooth platform a few dozen yards back from the stage, feet reverberating with each bass burst. Snippets of hits rain down in quick succession — “Tap Out,” the YMCMB posse cut in which Future croons with questionable pitch about wanting to touch million-dollar pussy; “Loveeeeeee Song,” that beautifully bizarre and sappy Rihanna duet he co-wrote and produced; “Turn On The Lights,” the hopelessly romantic Pluto single about hunting down the dream girl you spotted in the VIP line. All that loverman talk was a surprising turn for a performer whose early hits “Tony Montana,” “Magic,” and “Same Damn Time” were notable mostly for their eccentric take on standard hip-hop tough-guy tropes. The pinched-nose hooks and impassioned croaking betrayed a true individual, but there was nothing remotely sensual about those songs. Not until Pluto interspersed that material with starry-eyed ballads like “Neva End” and “You Deserve It” did Future hint at the true extent of his unusual talents. He didn’t want to give us the wrong impression; he needs love and affection.
All sides of the man are on display tonight. Those love ballads give way to Rocko’s creeping, off-kilter “U.O.E.N.O.” and Ace Hood’s concrete-shattering “Bugatti,” two hits on which Future is technically a guest but commands the spotlight to an extent that performing them without him present would feel as anticlimactic as a Radiohead concert without Thom Yorke. Future has that kind of power now, an imprint so strong that he absorbs everyone else into his strange sonic headspace. He hasn’t yet conquered pop radio, but in the rap world he’s on the same plane as Drake, and he knows it. Why else would he feel confident enough to tell a Billboard reporter that Drake’s Nothing Was The Same “is full of hits but it doesn’t grab you” and “they don’t make you feel the way I do,” thus endangering his spot on this tour? He’s already proven that he can get away with just about anything on a track; though he claims those remarks were misconstrued and off the record, the shots at Drake could just as well be Future figuring out whether that omnipotence extends to real life too.
For the moment, he hasn’t completed his rise to power, but he’s hoping Honest will be that album for him. A lyric on the title track tells the tale: “Live a rich nigga life, I’m just being honest/ Real street nigga ain’t get nothing but pain from it.” For years he’s been rapping about escaping his painful past — a past that includes a gunshot wound suffered as a teenager and arrests for contempt of court and receiving stolen property in his early twenties — but as with all his other business, he keeps the details to himself. This much is clear: Keeping it real doesn’t necessarily mean living his old life, and heartbroken mewling can be every bit as raw as breathing fire, especially when your throat sounds like mucus-encrusted sandpaper. “Honest,” which closes tonight’s set, is the pop equivalent of “Same Damn Time,” a laundry list of Future’s many lascivious exploits, this time sung sweetly over emotional keyboard melodies rather than hollered with the fury of a wrathful deity. It’s a power ballad fit for an arena, but Future doesn’t yet have the clout to headline rooms this size. He can bring the masses to their knees when he gets the chance, though. His whirlwind performance ends with superstar levels of applause, and when he returns later for a guest spot during Drake’s set, his cameo inspires a more fervent response than many of the brooding diary entries from Nothing Was The Same. Those songs did not, in fact, make them feel the way Future did.