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.

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.

About an hour after his set, Future is trying to be honest about Honest without actually telling me anything. The mood is friendly but vaguely suspicious; Future is still stinging from what he sees as sensationalist coverage of the Drake feud. (“We was good. The media wasn’t good,” Future intones in his baritone drawl. “That was the media trying to create something that wasn’t there.”) We’re on his tour bus, across the aisle from each other on tan leather seat cushions. Future has ditched the trench coat in favor of a white hoodie and a Joyrich varsity jacket emblazoned with a teddy bear in a spiked collar, as if someone spliced the Georgia Bulldog with Kanye West’s old bear logo. He’s passing a blunt with the audio engineer who’s perched behind a humongous iMac and mixing board, ready to commence recording as soon as Future finishes this interview. “You never know in this game,” he explains. “That’s why you gotta have it on deck.”

He’s been having these sessions almost every night, trying out new beats, toying with new ideas, tweaking his delivery until it’s just right. It’s been a long process; the album was already well underway in late 2012, back when it was supposed to be called Future Hendrix (unfortunately, his camp thought better of that after considering Jimi’s lawsuit-happy estate) and the guest list was to include Kanye, Drake, Rihanna, Kelly Rowland, and Jeremih. It’s unclear about how much the record has changed as Future’s sound has evolved these past 12 months. These days he’s pretty tight-lipped about what Honest will sound like, who’ll be on it, and when it will be unveiled. It was already supposed to be out by now, on 11/26/13, but after pushing the release back once already, he’s reluctant to commit to a new date until it’s absolutely certain. “I’m almost finished with it, but this time around I feel like just making sure I do everything possible on my end that I can do. I’m down to the final days of recording. I haven’t came up with a date, but I’m pretty sure. In my head I have a date, but I’m not going to put it out until I’m 100 percent sure because I don’t want to change it once I put it out.”

He describes the album’s sound in the vaguest terms possible. “It’s consistent, but it’s very versatile. It’s just about showcasing my personality through each song. Each showcases a little bit of my personality from in the club to just being a dad to, you know, certain issues and certain situations that I might have the chance to be able to speak on. And just finding a way to be creative through music, just take everything around me and make the best music possible.” When asked to compare it to Pluto, he offers two words: “More aggressive.” That seems odd considering his trajectory toward singles like “Honest” and “Real And True,” unless by “aggressive” he means aggressively commercial. Then again, when you factor in something as peculiar as “Karate Chop,” he could just as well mean aggressively weird. A title like Honest suggests he just means aggressively real, not putting any restrictions or labels on who he is and what he does. When I ask him if he feels like people will eat up anything he puts out right now just because it’s him, he responds, “At the end of the day, just stay true to yourself.” Is that how he explains his evolution from rapping to singing? “I just feel like I make melodic music. Like I’m not a singer. You know what I’m saying? I’m an artist. I’m an entertainer that’s willing to step outside of rap.”

Stepping outside of rap and no longer being known as “just” a rapper is a topic Kanye West has expounded on a lot this past year. Perhaps even more so than his lineage of Atlanta iconoclasts, Kanye’s legacy looms large over Future. 808s And Heartbreak cleared the way for entertainers who blur the line between rap and R&B and pioneered the use of Auto-Tune as an instrument for existential despair. Drake, another entertainer who defies categorization, picked up the baton in the wake of 808s, leveraging his soap-opera charisma and pop instincts to reshape rap in his image. As Spin’s Jordan Sargent noted, that makeover included a redefinition of realness: “For [Drake], at least, the concept of realness didn’t refer to childhood realities or street bona fides (though he still sometimes panders to both), but to total emotional openness.” Those guys cleared the way for a figure like Future, one who so effortlessly blends such wildly disparate personas, who manages to be more believably terrifying than Yeezy or Drake yet also more preternaturally odd and more cuddly. Without those forebears, it’s hard to imagine an environment where Future could frame working with Miley Cyrus an exercise in trillness.

“I was open to the idea,” Future says of the partnership with Cyrus. “I felt like I had something to say creatively. I knew I had something to give. And I was going to do my best, so I was going to go ahead and create a hit. We was going to make some great music together because that’s what I do. I know what I’m born to do right now. It’s my destiny, you know?” Forged by their mutual collaborator Mike WiLL Made It, the Future/Miley connection proved fruitful, yielding “Real And True” plus several songs for Cyrus’ Bangerz. The best of them is the awkwardly alluring, genre-flouting duet “My Darlin,” which matches Mike WiLL’s signature shimmering bass caverns and skittering hi-hats with chintzy guitar strums, Southern gospel organ swells, and twangy lead vocals. Future splits the difference between Akon and Bill Withers; Miley fluctuates freely between rapping and Celine Dion glory notes. WiLL, who Future cites as an important force in his artistic development, has stated his own desire to blur musical boundary lines, and both Future and Cyrus are his willing conspirators. He’s executive producing both of their albums, and considering how wacky Bangerz turned out, the possibilities for Honest are endless.

That’s how Future wants it. He wants it all, and for the moment, he has it. The lyrics of “Honest” frankly depict his rock-star lifestyle, jet-setting around the globe to rock shows and party hard. But even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Future wants to be a family man too, though his definition of that role also spurns conventional wisdom, for better or worse. Last December, just after a DNA test confirmed that he fathered a child in 2001, a second child was born by a different woman. Around that same time, he entered the studio with Ciara to work on her self-titled album at the urging of Epic CEO L.A. Reid. Creatively and romantically, the sparks flew, though anyone who heard Ciara’s steamy comeback single “Body Party,” a Future co-write, already knows that. As Future tells it, “She came by the studio, and we just hit it off from the beginning. We couldn’t meet nowhere else but the studio. I believe, man, me and her, we love the studio. We so passionate about music. Like, for me and her, she’s a Scorpio, I’m a Scorpio. I’m just very competitive, you know what I mean? Very ambitious. So it’s like you’re dealing with the same person. She know I love music, and I know she love music, so it’s no better place for us to meet than in the studio. We had to meet in the studio doing what we love to do.”

Now they’re engaged and regularly working together in the studio, though Future won’t say if she’s on Honest. He wants it to be surprising when it arrives — and, possibly, to arrive by surprise. Less than 24 hours before our interview, Beyoncé’s secret video album BEYONCÉ dropped, and it’s been at the forefront of musical discourse all day. When I ask Future if he’s got a similar stealth release strategy in mind, he freezes up, cracks a huge smile, and stares at the floor. He pauses for a beat or two, then politely requests to end the interview and get on with his recording session. “You were trying to get it out of me,” he says, wagging his finger in disapproval. I rise to exit, but I can’t get the sliding door to work. There’s an array of buttons on the panel that wouldn’t be out of place on the set of an old sci-fi show. That’s fitting. In a sense, this bus is Future’s very own spaceship — his vessel for exploring unknown realms, his shelter from the frigid unknown, the place where he brings otherworldly sounds to life. Future acknowledges that parallel as I step through the sliding door. “It’s Jetsons,” he notes with barely contained delight.

Astronaut status: achieved.

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