Future’s second album in two weeks, HNDRXX would be easy to overlook if it didn’t show the Atlanta superstar at his strongest since 2012’s Pluto. Claire Lobenfeld looks at what’s changed for Future Hendrix, and where he can go from here.
In the summer of 2015, Future seemed primed to compete with Drake as the current generation’s popstar king of rap. In New York, in Chicago, and elsewhere across the country, you couldn’t walk down a street without hearing ‘March Madness’, ‘Thought it Was a Drought’ or ‘Fuck Up Some Commas’ blaring from a car stereo.
The triumph of the era-defining 56 Nights mixtape was matched by that summer’s “proper album” DS2, but there was something missing. DS2 featured the grimacing, petty, drug-addled, emotional Future that endeared his early fans in the first place, but it didn’t entirely fill the Pluto follow-up void left in the wake of his lukewarm second studio release Honest. What was promised to be the rawest version of Future to-date sounded more like Future playing dress-up as himself. Its love letters, like ‘I Won’, weren’t as potent as the longing in songs like ‘Turn on the Lights’ or Rihanna’s ‘Loveeeeeee Song’; the album’s boastfulness felt forced, when Future’s flex is usually so natural.
Listening to Future’s latest, HNDRXX, you can hear solutions to some of Honest’s original problems. It is what an emotionally forthcoming, pop-primed Future sounds like at his best. Was Honest just not that, forgive me, honest? It seems so. To promote DS2, Future put out a series of mini-docs leading up to the album release. In the first installment, in conversation with veteran rap journalist Elliott Wilson, Future relayed some of his anxieties about what getting married to Ciara could have been like: “[I said to her] ‘I want to marry you but can’t have no big wedding on E! News. I can’t have these big ass media outlets cover my wedding and I’m not comfortable’,” he said. “I’m not comfortable where I’m at in my career. I’m not comfortable about compromising… I feel like my better judgment is to go back to record and make better music.”
And what followed was, indeed, better music. Following his 2014 output, Future is unafraid to open his heart to his listeners, even if it’s a little sore. He rapped, “Tryna make a pop star, but they made a monster,” on DS2’s ‘I Serve the Base’ and it rang like a mission statement for what was to come: ruthless and forthcoming atop something grimy produced by Metro Boomin. It was the alley-oop pass that would have kept Future in the Best Doing It Right Now conversation.
Future is, in fact, the perfect foil for Drake. They are similarly feelings-oriented with somewhat odious inklings about women. They are both rappers who dabble in singing and whose lyrics make their listeners think about their own murky interior just as much as they aspire to the lavish exteriors about which Future and Drake boast. While the “who does feelings better” conversation is subjective, Future has solidified himself as the better singer, so to speak, with his latest release.
Future has always been conscientious with melody and there are moments on HNDRXX show his progression from the crescendoing bars on 2013’s ‘Chosen One’ and the balladeering of ‘March Madness’. You hear it on tracks like the Rihanna collaboration ‘Selfish’ and solo cut ‘Use Me’, which employs the influence of Justin Vernon’s For Emma, Forever Ago far better than Kanye West has ever done. He is tender on ‘Turn On Me’ and ‘I Thank U’ and lays himself bare on the 7-minute outro ‘Sorry’, which digs especially deep.
On the plucky ‘Incredible’, he raps about doing yoga and genuinely being over his unnamed ex. The song is breezy and the production more like a Drive soundtrack relic than anything Future has released before – it sounds as if he’s purged. If Future has been exorcising demons with grief, anger or taking acid until now, then HNDRXX is his time to heal – not just his pride, but his career, too.
2016 was easily Future’s year to do something profound with his pop pedigree. While it was one of his most successful commercially – his collaboration with The Weeknd, ‘Low Life’ reached no. 18 on the Billboard 200 – his critical accolades disappeared after lackluster releases like Purple Reign and EVOL. As ever, Future knows how to create hits out of nothing, so tracks like ‘Perky’s Calling’ and the aforementioned ‘Low Life’ standout, but despite ‘Draco’ and ‘Mask Off’, Future and, perhaps, Future could have been easy for people outside of his core to cast off. HNDRXX is a glue. It is an album made by someone who has focused his energy on honing his craft, picking the parts of himself where he excels beyond his peers and advancing that creativity even further. It plays like what fans were told they were getting with Honest, only rooted in far more confidence.
It would be easy to see Future and HNDRXX as following a similar structure to Frank Ocean’s tandem release of Endless and Blonde, but the cue Future should be taking from Frank is restraint. Future gives his fans so much in his lyrics, but as an artist, he could do to give the world a lot less, musically. He hasn’t lost his ear for rich textures and if he keeps the tracks that are missing that specific Future oomph, whether it’s petty or impassioned, he could bump up one more rung.
Claire Lobenfeld is on Twitter.