Rap is a game of streaks, and few in history compare to what Future did in 2015. After years as a somewhat slept-on, eccentric talent from Atlanta, he released what was supposed to be his breakout album, 2014’s Honest. It was a big, guest-filled coming-out party—look, it’s Drake! it’s Andre 3000!—that was met with a polite but unenthusiastic critical and commercial reception. Compounding that, shortly afterward he split up with his fiancée, the R&B singer Ciara, reportedly because he cheated on her while she was pregnant with his son, and then he spent a hellish 56-night stretch stuck in Dubai while his longtime DJ Esco was held up in jail. In the process, they lost Esco’s laptop, containing years of their creative work together.
And so, starting at the end of 2014 and continuing through 2015, from the midst of this string of failure and loss, Future went on a legendary run of blackout emceeing over pitch-black, nihilistic music. A trio of EPs (“Beast Mode,” “Monster,” and “56 Nights”) detailed a Caligulan orgy of hedonistic pleasure, capturing that swirling moment when a lingering, spiritually abrasive comedown unexpectedly crashes into another night up, again and again, for weeks on end. One high always seems to be fading as another takes its place on these albums, and in the middle sits Future, utterly alone, out of his mind, and trying to fuck his way out with as many combinations of women as he can. He capped the year off with Dirty Sprite 2—which, if anything, details his own descent with an even more unsparing eye—which he followed with the smash hit collaborative album with Drake, What A Time To Be Alive. Since that stretch, Future has released lots of albums and mixtapes, including two full albums this month. Many of these releases operate in a similar mold as his legendary 2015 stretch, but none have done so with quite the same level of incandescent, depraved inspiration.
At least, that’s the way the story goes. Talk to Future fans, and you’ll find a lot more variety in opinion. Plenty of people still swear by 2014’s cleaned-up and in love Honest, and others hold up the spacey pop of Pluto. For my part, I totally reject the notion that his 2016 albums EVOL and Purple Reign or this year’s Future and HENDRXX represent some sort of holding pattern or step back; it’s some of his best, weirdest, and most exploratory work. The tawdry details of his personal life pop up again and again in the music itself, but it’s also easy to read too much into it. The music is unconscionably rich even without that soap opera. The flood of 2015 is interesting more as a turning point than some sort of apex.
Anyway, paring all of those hours of music down to a single 60-minute primer is an exercise in futility. Future has at least four distinct eras—early mixtapes, major label success, the explosion of 2015, and then post-2015—and Future himself claims to have three different musical personas (Super Future, Future Hendrix, and Fire Marshall Future, none of which really matter for our purposes). Rather than attempt to present a comprehensive narrative, which would underserve all of them, I opted to put together an hour of tracks that I really like, and which I think show some of the most interesting through-lines of his career thus far. A different line could easily be cut through his several dozen hours of work, perhaps highlighting his hook-making ability, or curating a punishing gauntlet of window-rattling bangers, or tracing his soap opera heartbreak in greater detail. I went instead for mood. It’s dark. Welcome to hell.
Let’s start right in the shit: a mid-album cut off 2016’s overlooked EVOL. This is the ambient temperature of Future: slithering hi-hats, a minor-key synthesizer line, and Future slowly riding the beat into weird little detours. It’s venomous, seething stuff. The hook (”Yeah I’m on savage time”) feels connected almost corporeally to the verses—any emcee could’ve done something with a beat like this, but Future seems to meld with it on a spiritual level, pulling something out of it that it didn’t even know it had. This sense of tastefulness is his singular talent, and even deep on a so-called “lesser” album, it’s on full display.
Original drafts of this playlist featured a half dozen or more Dirty Sprite 2 tracks; it’s an almost upsettingly rich record, still revealing new fascinating pockets a couple years after its release. I’ve always loved the low-key hook here—“I just tried acid for the first time / I feel good”—and the phased Dungeon Family brass, which is more intentional than it may seem. He grew up hanging around the Organized Noize studio, where all of the great OutKast and Goodie Mob records were made, and his name itself came from that crew: He was intended to be “the future” of their scene. When they fell from prominence in the late-’00s, he forged his own path, working the mixtape circuit alongside fellow Atlanta upstarts like Gucci Mane and Young Thug. But Future’s origins as an ATlien are always audible in his production choices, ambition, and deep sensitivity.
“Beast Mode” was one of the three explosive EPs from early 2015, this one produced entirely with Atlanta trap mainstay Zaytoven. It’s the type of beat you could imagine, say, OJ Da Juiceman turning into a moody little thing, but Future’s long-playing “layup” metaphor transforms it into something else entirely, an almost menacing display of easy opulence.
It’s easy to think of hyper-prolific emcees as just jotting off track after track in the studio, but I always remember an anecdote from an Honest-era Future profile in Rolling Stone in which he details spending 20 hours or so a day in the studio, largely because he hates being outside. One portion describes Future working on a single track:
He pops in and out of the studio, passing the blunt to Esco, building the song, line by line, without having written anything down. Bars start out as strings of improvised gibberish in his unmistakable melody—think Paul McCartney yielding “Yesterday” from “scrambled eggs.” Future sings to the track until they emerge as words. “I told ’em I ain’t the average rapper / They don’t understand.” The anguish in his voice is palpable. His line, “You can’t imagine what I’ve been through, I’m just living my life” is too many syllables. He changes it to “I’m sharing my life.” Words that had peppered our conversation—“finessing,” “O.G.”—start to appear. “I do nothing but let the track talk,” he explains later. “I let it talk to me.” It’s easy to see how this can go for 20 hours.
This is what I was talking about up on “Photo Copied,” the way he seems to coerce a song from the beat in a manner entirely unprecedented in rap. “2pac” is a another great example of that. Future’s delivery wavers between a croon, a warble, and hard, on-the-beat traditional rapping. Someone like Drake bifurcates his thin singing voice with his raps, doing some singing on the hook but rapping on the verses, but Future collapses such delineations entirely, the tracks rising and falling with the intensity of a method actor.
The jury’s still out on Future’s recent duo of albums—for what it’s worth, I am extremely fond of them—but they seem most noteworthy to me at this point for the way they move out of the electronic death spiral of his 2015 work and into something brighter and poppier. “Draco” features one of his most intoxicating little earworms in years, showing how the strange symbiosis he creates with the beat can be used toward more radio-friendly ends.
This is one of the tracks easiest to equate with Dirty Sprite 2, coming at the end of the album and seemingly confirming the critical narrative of what inspired his artistic explosion at the end of 2014. It’s got some absolutely bone-chilling lines (“Best thing I ever did was fall out of love,” “When they took that man in custody, they took my life away”) that cast the bleakness and depravity of the preceding album and EPs in an almost documentarian light.
Hey, let’s get out of the abyss for a minute here and go back to his major-label debut, Pluto, a loopy, intensely joyous hook-filled affair from 2012. “Same Damn Time” shows a bit of the indulgence that would define his later work, but it’s also just some earth-shattering, drink-spilling shit. “No fugazi!” is a great thing to yell at anyone at any time. Also pay a little attention to his delivery, not masked behind a robotic veil of auto-tune but a little more clear, more honest.
Speaking of Honest, “I Be U” captures the romantic subtleties he was exploring in that period well. If you’re interested in more of this mode, check out the Kanye-assisted single “I Won,” which is much goofier. This one’s sweeter and more poetic, riding an easy beat and containing off-the-cuff lines like, “Your spirit, my spirit illuminates through our bodies / I feel we whole.” So, yeah, he was on some different shit back then.
Despite my exhortation in the introduction that you not define Future by what he did around 2015, I keep circling back to his three EPs, released within only four months of each other. The final one was “56 Nights,” and for some reason it was “Diamonds From Africa” that really made me pay more attention to what Future was doing, perhaps because on it he absolutely obliterates a three-minute run of undead Japanese-role-playing-game-demon choirs. This is some Kubrickian blood-orgy shit; Esco keeps dropping the wonderful “THE COOLEST DJ IN THE WORLD” while Future sounds like the prince of fucking darkness. Rap and gothic “satanism” have always played well together, from Three 6 Mafia through the witch house subgenre up through Odd Future and XXXTentacion, but few have ever sounded as goofily evil and legitimately on fire as Future does here.
This is one of Future’s earliest major songs, and it’s interesting hearing how much closer he was to the other stuff coming out of Atlanta at the time while still being much, much better. The Scarface references are rote, and Future’s impression of the titular character is preposterous, but it’s still addictive as hell, and the verses have the heft of his then-frequent collaborator Gucci Mane. The beat is all slasher-flick menace, as it should be. For more like this, check out his great early tape Dirty Sprite.
For the sake of listenability, I haven’t included a ton of Future’s weirdest flows (Pluto’s “My” gives Danny Brown a run for his money as far as abrasive delivery), but he’s wonderfully willing to forsake density in favor of sheer oddball force. “Sh!t” shows how powerful he can be with a sledgehammer rhyme scheme, producing a burly stretch of fight music.
For my money, “March Madness” is Future’s masterpiece, a Michael Mann neo-noir of morally conflicted bad guys, dark nights of hard pleasures, and a never-ending run to the horizon. It’s beautiful stuff, reaching almost orchestral, cinematic climaxes as Future flits imperceptibly between threats, come-ons, and regrets: “I get high ’til I’m higher than Mercury / Fuck around, teach you that recipe / Fuck around, you gon’ be out of here.” It’s an interstitial moment, morality at the magic hour, with verses fading into hooks, singing fading into rapping, dawn fading into dusk—and right when it’s supposed to end, it all rushes back in, a rare indulgence from an emcee who generally can’t stop racing on to the next idea.
I love last year’s Purple Reign, which, like EVOL, is somehow considered a minor effort. “Perkys Calling” features a typically tight beat from right-hand collaborator Southside and lets Future drop into a lower gear, capturing the strange commixture of regret and desire he feels when his vices call.
If you ask anyone besides me what Future’s masterpiece is, they’ll probably tell you it’s “Codeine Crazy,” which, like “Kno The Meaning,” captures him in a late-album reflective mood. At six minutes, “Codeine Crazy” is an airy, autobiographical affair that nevertheless shows the exact sort of melancholic musicality and furious hot-shit emceeing that define not just Future’s canonical hot streak but also his entire career. When you listen to “Codeine Crazy,” you hear the blend of lyricism, song craft, and a sensitive, confessional soul that got the Dungeon Family thinking he was the “Future” in the first place.
“Hallucinating” isn’t the best track on HNDRXX, Future’s most recent album and the more R&B-inspired of the two, but I thought it was a fitting coda given the druggy way I’ve curated things. As on its self-titled counterpart, HNDRXX spotlights Future’s progressive beat selection as he ventures outside of his old collaborators Metro Boomin’ and Southside. On “Hallucinating,” he finds a sweet, ambient spot from which to talk about—would you look at that—a soft moment of light, drug-induced pleasure. Elsewhere HNDRXX details much more explicitly the blossoming of a new romance, and if you’re into the soap opera of his life, you should know that it’s Scottie Pippen’s ex-wife. But if you’re into the saga detailed in his music, it doesn’t matter who he’s rapping to on HNDRXX or why on “Hallucinating” he can describe drug use sans existential despair. It’s just nice to hear him sound happy, if only for a moment, before the next temptation takes over, and he’s off to someplace new.
Many of Future’s albums aren’t available on Spotify, but the playlist below captures about 45 minutes of the picks above. Then it keeps going for a couple of hours, because why show restraint when Future never does. You can stream many of his albums in their entirety on Soundcloud.