Three weeks ago, in this space, I wrote that Future was the best rapper working right now. I meant it. The run Future is on right now — seven full-lengths in 18 months, all tonally consistent, all throbbingly menacing, all insanely popular — reminds me of nothing so much as the space Lil Wayne was in between the second and third Carter albums. For the moment, Future is cranking out new music at an absurd rate. He’s plumbing the depths of his scraped-out soul. He’s making music about dead-eyed VIP-room hedonism that will inevitably soundtrack many nights of dead-eyed VIP-room hedonism. His music has a peculiar gravity to it; it works as its own environment. Everyone else in rap seems to be trying to play catchup to Future right now, and nobody’s succeeding. But with all that said, why can’t I get excited about EVOL?
EVOL is Future’s new album, released onto Apple Music last Friday with very little advance warning. It’s his second full-length in the first two months of 2016, and it’s very much of a piece with everything Future has released since the late-2014 mixtape Monster. He’s still working with his preferred core of producers — Metro Boomin, Southside, DJ Spinz — and he’s still generally making sure his is the only voice you hear on his records. (This time, the one guest is the Weeknd, on the oddly sublime “Low Life.”) But something is different.
When Future made Monster, the mixtape that kicked off his recent renaissance, his breakup with Ciara, the R&B star who’s the mother of his son, was still fresh, and Future was only just getting used to wearing his wounds in public. That breakup reportedly came from Future cheating on Ciara, so public sympathy went to the mom, as it should. Monster was the sound of Future learning how to play the heel, to luxuriate in his own newly villainous persona. Over his next few mixtapes, he got more and more used to the idea, more and more comfortable in his new guise. He rapped more loosely and more freely about drugs — lean, Percocet, Xanax, weed — and about numbed, zombified, random sex. He reminded me of the rock stars of the late ’60s, the ones who looked around and saw utopian ideals crashing down all around them. Future’s whole story of rebirth was sad and poignant and compelling, and he played it perfectly.
He’s essentially been making the same music since then, but for whatever reason, EVOL is the moment where he’s starting to lose me. He’s still in mechanical-hedonism mode, but it’s starting to sound less like coping with awful life circumstances and more like shtick. It makes sense; Future has become a bigger star than ever by embracing this side of himself, and he’s just doing what works. So we get something like “Xanny Family,” a song about getting high with girls who don’t speak the same language as you. Or we get a line like this: “I’m tryna fuck the D.A. lady in her mouth, though.” But there’s no emotion buried in there, no vulnerability. Future sounds like he’s clocking in. And when the Weeknd shows up on “Low Life,” his voice is weirdly electric. After all, he and Future are essentially playing the same character, and they have been for some time. But Abel Tesfaye still has some innocence left in his voice. For Future, that’s all gone. Everything is gone.
Of course, it still sounds amazing. Future understands his own sound perfectly, and he’s fully comfortable living within the album’s sonar-pings and nervous bass fog. There’s nobody in rap right now with a better ear for beats. “Xanny Family” has a decaying, dissolving minor-key synth-loop that sounds positively sinister. “Fly Shit Only,” with its gleaming, Radiohead-esque guitars, is maybe the most psychedelic lurch we’ve ever heard Future use. There’s a mournfulness in the bass tones on “Low Life” that almost makes up for Future’s flatness.
And yet, I don’t get the idea that this album needs to exist, especially this soon after the last Future mixtape. At this point, I worry that Future is working so quickly that he’s not really thinking about what he wants to do with his sound. He’s just continuing to crank out music, since he’s convinced himself that cranking out music is what he does. He can still do that longer than anyone else, but he’s not going to keep it up forever. And at this point, I’m starting to get the same sense from him that I got from Lil Wayne around the time he dropped Dedication 3. Every historic run has to come to an end sometime.
Future isn’t the only major rap figure to release two full-lengths thus far this year. Boosie Badazz, the veteran Baton Rouge cult hero, has done it, too. But Boosie’s story is immeasurably different. Boosie isn’t riding the wave of some newfound cultural dominance. He doesn’t have an Apple deal. He’s releasing music on his own now, which makes me think his major-label deal is probably over. The first album Boosie released this year was In My Feelings (Goin’ Thru It), which came out on New Years Day, and it was Boosie’s real-time attempt to reckon with the fact that he’d almost just lost his life to cancer. It was rough and emotional and immediate. And then, last week, there was Out My Feelings (In My Past), an expert, straightforward gangsta-rap album, something that Boosie may have just put out to prove that he is still harder than anyone else. Some of the stuff he says is absolutely risible; he thinks, for instance, that there are too many gay people on TV. But he means everything he has to say, and when he gets to talking about, say, Sandra Bland, there is real rhetorical weight to what he says. On both albums, Boosie had things that he needed to say. I hope Future finds something like that soon.
1. Boosie Badazz – “A Problem”
Out My Feelings (In My Past), Boosie’s new album, is crisp and mean and efficient. He’s been through things, and he’s rapping as hard as ever. And one of his great gifts is his ability to sound absolutely disgusted with you and everything you stand for. Nobody does that like Boosie.
2. E-40 – “Slappin'” (Feat. Nef The Pharaoh & D.R.A.M.)
The two principal figures on this song — E-40 and producer Rick Rock — are ’90s veterans who are old as fuck. They have no business making music this energetic, this fun, or this inventive. And yet here they are making a crisp burst of absurd exuberance that could, and should, shame people half their age.
3. Denzel Curry – “ULT”
This kid can flat-out rap, and, maybe more important than that, he can create a mystique around himself. That’s a potent combination, and this might be the best example I’ve yet seen of that at work.
4. Freddie Gibbs – “Money, Cash, Hoes”
Gibbs has been spoiling us for years with this sort of pure-rapping workout. This one doesn’t have too much in common with the 1998 Jay-Z/DMX banger of the same name, but it does have a DMX yelp buried in the beat. I’m always happy to hear a DMX yelp. And considering what’s been happening with the man lately, I’m especially happy to hear it.
5. The Outfit, TX – “Already Knowing”
There will always be room on this list for an ominous strip-club jam.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
the roc is still alive every time i cry pic.twitter.com/hiH87dS65h
— L.A.S (@SartoriallyInc) February 1, 2016