Fitted shirt-sleeves rolled-up, curled into a half-crouch, Jay Z looks somewhere off-camera and offers this prophecy: “I promise they ain’t gon’ like this!” He’s right, but not in the way he thinks. After showing up on Fat Joe and Remy Ma’s “All The Way Up” remix and Pusha T’s “Drug Dealers Anonymous,” “I Got The Keys” is supposed to be the next step in Jay’s reengagement with rap music. But it doesn’t work. He’s still talking about the time he spent selling drugs, more than two decades ago, but his bars are rushed and cluttered, his almighty god-flow gone from his body. The synth-whistling, subdued trap beat doesn’t work for him. The triumphal DJ Khaled braying doesn’t work for him. The crisp black-and-white cinematography, the jailhouse imagery, the many rap B-lister cameos: It all feels miscalculated, a doomed attempt to recapture Jay’s regal, arrogant cool without compromising his present-day mogul standing. You have to go to Tidal or Apple Music to watch the turgid, uninspired video. It’s a mess.
If Jay was trying to tap back into the energy of right-now rap music, he whiffed spectacularly, and it’s not entirely his fault. He picked the wrong guy to help him out. After a blinding, historic year-and-a-half run, Future is finished. He’s tapped out. He has nothing left to offer. Less than a year after he capped off a great mixtape run with the empire-solidifying DS2, Future has gone through the full down-slope of a career arc. That moment was absolutely thrilling. Future was already an influencer, but he still seemed to be discovering his voice during the great Monster/Beast Mode/56 Nights run. He found strange new melodic possibilities in his beaten-down codeine flow, more ways to express coldness. All of a sudden, he sounded like a generational icon, a man with a serious sense of purpose even when he was simply rapping about making himself so numb that he could barely walk. For that run, Future stared into the depths of despair and made that shit sound cool. On “I Got The Keys,” he sounds like he wants to finish repeating his two phrases over and over so that he can go back to sleep. He sounds like he’s just there. He’s never really sounded like that before.
I worried about this earlier this year, when Future followed the pretty-good Purple Reign with the relatively flat EVOL. But Project E.T., Future’s new tape with DJ Esco, makes it all too obvious to ignore. Purple Reign and EVOL at least had one undeniable hit apiece. (That would be “Wicked” and “Low Life,” respectively.) Project E.T. has nothing. Future’s problem right now isn’t the absolute glut of music he’s released over the past few years. It’s not the fatigue that comes with the horde of Future soundalikes who have bubbled up in the past two years, or the numbing dominance of the Atlanta trap sound. Those things are problems, but they’re not the problem. The problem is Future. He just doesn’t care anymore. Case in point: The tape ends with an absolutely endless skit, with two people imitating Italian accents and pretending to be Full Force in House Party, talking about all the ways they’re going to kick somebody’s fuckin’ ass. It’s almost unlistenable, but at least there’s some life to it. I honestly hope the two people in the skit are Future and Esco, since that at least means that Future is capable of having some fun in the studio.
Throughout Project E.T., Future absolutely flatlines. Juicy J, who has been on autopilot for about five years straight, just mops the floor with Future on “My Blower.” On the would-be hit “100it Racks,” 2 Chainz dunks Future in a vat of toxic waste and then smashes him with a car like he was that one bad guy in Robocop. The tape is officially credited to Esco, even though Future is on almost every song, and the only moments it really comes alive are the ones where Future is nowhere in sight. (The Nef The Pharaoh/Casey Veggies collab “Stupidly Crazy”? Pretty good!) Future stays in full-on muttery-monotone mode throughout, generally giving off the impression that he’s stuck at an office job, at 3PM on a Tuesday, and the breakroom has run out of Keurig cartridges. “Ratchet-ass bitch, I’m tryna fuck you right now,” he offers on “Right Now,” and he delivers it like a long sigh. And even when he’s rhyming “Donnie Brasco” with “fuck your baby mama in her asshole,” he sounds like he’s barely paying attention, like rapping is just how he’s killing time while he’s doing data entry. I don’t know what’s going on with him.
Maybe something will happen and he’ll get excited about making music again. Maybe he’ll be re-energized. That does happen. But right now, it’s clearly pure drudgery for him. And judging by his new Rolling Stone cover-story profile, he’s worried about even the idea of switching up what he’s doing. (And honestly the mere fact that Future is on the cover of Rolling Stone is further reason to be worried.) After all, when he tried to cross over on Honest, it didn’t work, and he had to remake himself as a mixtape monster. So now that he has his lane, he’s afraid to leave it, even amid diminishing returns. At one point in the profile, Future is talking about the possibility of settling down, but he might as well be talking about his music: “Why fix something if it’s not broke? If I break it, and I try to fix it again, it might not be the same.” But if he keeps doing it like this, it definitely won’t be the same.
So where does Future’s sudden and abrupt decline leave us? He was rap’s greatest force for all of 2015, and now he’s just one vast void. Who replaces him? Drake, Future’s buddy, is unquestionably the most popular rapper in the world right now — Views has been #1 in America for like two straight months now — but he’s sounding as unmotivated and bored as Future these days. (Just listen to “100it Racks.” Or don’t.) Kanye West can still make great music, but his popular-dominance era is over, and he cares more about tabloid domination than rapping anyway. Chance The Rapper is incredible, but I don’t think he’s a street-level cult hero in the same way that Future was last year. Young Thug isn’t changing the sound of the music. Kendrick Lamar has gone back into his cave. So who’s next? Who replaces Future? Is it J. Cole? Oh god, it’s J. Cole, isn’t it? Fuck.
1. Trim – “Before I Lied”
There is absolutely nothing good about Brexit, but I can’t lie: I’m looking forward to whatever depressed, subdued, anxious grime we might be hearing in the months ahead. I imagine a lot of it might sound like this.
2. Plug – “Body Bounce”
So often, rappers sampling festival-rock seems like a brazen attempt to get posted on websites. But anytime Chicago drill rappers want to sample recent-vintage Tame Impala, I’m OK with it. That can be a wave. It works shockingly well, it turns out.
3. Ras Beats – “Wit No Pressure” (Feat. Roc Marciano)
I love that a Norwegian producer is making New York boom-bap this desiccated and burnt-out. Also, Rock Marci: “My whole flow be like Aleister Crowley.”
4. Boosie Badazz – “Sell My Name” (Feat. Webbie & Bun B)
Mid-’00s country-rap will never die.
5. Trae Tha Truth – “Long Time Ago” (Feat. T.I.)
Imagine showing the same casual mastery at anything in your life that these two aging Southern rappers show on this song.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
RTJ3 will be a pretty even combination of pure dick punching ignorance and soul searing, tearfully poignant dick punching.
— el-p (@therealelp) June 24, 2016