Future is a rock star. Not “the closest thing we have to a rock star.” Not “a modern-day rock star.” He’s a rock star full stop, and in every sense of the word. The kind of rock star where you’re inducted into a stratum of celebrity that invites a whirlwind romance with Scottie Pippen’s wife. The kind where if the mother of your kids marries someone else, your name is the first off Twitter’s collective tongue. It often comes paired with the kind of arrogance that leads artists down wild trajectories, equally responsible for classic albums and acrimonious band breakups. And it’s the same impulse that led Future to put out, on February 17, an hour-long album without a single feature.
Largely backed by the hazy, aggressive maximalism pioneered by legendary Atlanta production collective 808 Mafia, FUTURE sees the artist’s patented sorrow age into something more potent: rage. In between the requisite episodes of hedonism that we see on several tracks, the album is all antipathy, with even the sincere braggadocio of “High Demand” tempered with a cutting dark humor: “I left that bitch ’cause she was sleazy/You can’t be saditty and greedy.” And while standout track “Might as Well” is primo Future in its despondency (“They got our streets, tried to tell you/It’s already been done”), FUTURE‘s strongest cut, “Massage in My Room,” is anything but typical, its final epicurean paean uttered just after the Southside-produced beat cuts off, echoing as if into an empty room.
A series of skits pepper the album to parody the current state of the rap industry and the ancillary fame industry that appears to be swallowing it whole. In one, “Zoom,” a pair of young rappers celebrates signing with a dubious label by mimicking automatic gunshots and spouting off unintelligible catchphrases: a clear shot at artists on the come-up thinking of aping Future’s style.
FUTURE embodies an antagonism common to hip-hop, but even though he’s turned the dial up a few notches, the broad scope of Future’s rage is probably why the work seems to sag a bit in the middle, as the fatigue of carrying a major release solo — nearly unheard of in hip-hop — sets in. It’s also why the release of HNDRXX a week later was both a surprising and welcome development; it seemed like the rapper had expended everything already, and yet there turned out to be more.
Yes, there’s a bit of a Sweat/Suit thing going on here, but Future fans will be happy to hear that the presentation of FUTURE/HNDRXX as two sides of the same coin never strays into gimmick. Whereas FUTURE directs its vitriol at parvenus and groupiehood at large, HNDRXX, a pop-driven album that features animated swings from pleading to lashing out, contains a laser-focused animus concerned with the personal, and provides context for a trajectory of soul-bearing that began with 2012’s breakout Pluto. Here, Future performs a precarious high-wire act between anger and penitence at a time when the artist fends off lane-swerves by upstart hooksmiths like Fetty Wap, in addition to battling legal drama stemming from financial disagreements with label boss Rocko, and the constant personal scrutiny that comes with newfound fame.
Though the album is filled to the brim with potential radio hits, it’s clear which songs on HNDRXX will effervesce — unlike FUTURE, it touts a pair of high-profile features, one with Rihanna and the other with the Weeknd. The latter, “Comin Out Strong,” with bars layered over a spacey, distinctly north-of-the-border production by Fool’s Gold signee and Quebec underground stalwart High Klassified, is indicative of the album’s ethos: commercial home runs crafted atop a subtext of victimhood — “Last night, I gave my heart to a fake one/I done end up on the blogs with the wrong one/It’s hard to tell the real stories from the fake ones/Cause if nowadays, they don’t got it, they’ll make one.”
And while many characters on Twitter have been dedicated to the widespread rumors concerning the album’s opener, “My Collection,” and its supposed references to Future’s ex-fiancée, Ciara, never has the rapper been more hostile than in “Turn on Me,” which finds him speaking with such specificity as to make Remy Ma blush. Future abandons his signature oblique sniping to emote in a way rarely heard within his oeuvre, and almost unheard of in trap. It’s a regret we hear on “Turn on Me,” one regret that Future attempts to conceal throughout HNDRXX within the tropes of rap materialism, but one that rears its ugly head all the same: “I’m the one took all the blame for it/I had to look at this lame happy/Try to figure out then why I ain’t happy.”
Whether FUTURE or HNDRXX is better isn’t the point; they’re meant to represent Future’s career in microcosm, two sides of an artist who has managed to balance authenticity and appeal confoundingly well. And it’s no coincidence that the man behind it is so tortured. He tries to replace pain with anger, and then rationalize that, make it tangible. We see the underlying tension in the final moments of HNDRXX, as Metro Boomin’s production fades into funhouse caricature and Future’s words swish around in the slog: “Ain’t really trying to hurt you/Ain’t really mean to hurt you/Ain’t really trying…” It’s the artist fighting against the notion that some of it, any of it, might be his fault.