Two years after his sepulchral watermark DS2, the dual sides of Future's artistic persona appear to be set in stone. There is the pill-popping trap king whose hypnotic and watery tones seem to reflect a darkness of the soul. Then there is the jumpy, ecstatic Atlanta kid who just wants to fuck up some commas, whether he's stunting on the sidelines of an Atlanta Falcons playoff rout, or dabbing alongside frequent collaborators DJ Esco and Metro Boomin on BET Jams.
Unfortunately, it's the former guise that Future has clung to the hardest. And who can blame him? Much of Southern rap seems transfixed by the DS2 sound, whether it's the bleak talk-raps of 21 Savage, the pop-leavened strip-club ditties of Rae Sremmurd, or the hazy lyrical jabberwocky of Migos. However, recent Future projects like 2016's Purple Reign and Evol sagged from a surfeit of horror-movie synth washes and paranoid, Xanax-coated murmurings. There was too little of the joy that he freely exhibited on cameos and one-off singles like "Used to This," his infectiously goofy hit single from last fall.
Future's first album of 2017 doesn't mark a shift from his recent, downcast offerings. (However, the just-announced Hndrxx, which drops a mere week after Future on February 24th, is rumored to be more radio-friendly.) But give him credit: Future improves upon his 2016 output. Although the 17-track, hour-long affair lasts way too long, Future sounds fully engaged. He pronounces "Good Dope" with gruff, uncharacteristic working-class humility, speaking the chorus as if shrugging, "I do good, though." He licks off bird chirps on "Zoom," chants "Scr-scr-scrape" in a lilt on "Scrape," then harmonizes "Draco season with the bookbag/Rat-tat got a little kick back" on "Draco" as if he were floating down Miami Beach's Ocean Avenue in a drop-top. When Future's on, he can conjure the most oddly entrancing vocal melodies this side of Young Thug.
Lyrically, Future vacillates between thug ruthlessness, where he compares himself to Nicky Barnes, Big Meech and other American gangsters ("I need a power of attorney/I'm about to fuck up some M's") and a stream-of-trap-consciousness that makes his brief moments of vulnerability stand out ("Gotta be in a rush I can't be running out of time/What you mean what's on my mind?") On "Might as Well," he recounts his past and present hard times as he raps, "I got real niggas still Crippin'/Child support gettin' heavy/It's hard not to get offended." Meanwhile, there are some fantastic beats, like Southside, Fuse and Illmind's woozy bounce rhythm on "Zoom," Metro Boomin's screwed-and-dusted sample loops on "Masks Off," and Southside and Jake One's twanging vibrato effects on "Outta Time."
However, Future stumbles with a few unnecessary skits – not to mention that moment when he channels President Trump's sexual assault braggadocio by rapping, "Grabbing that pussy like Donald" on "High Demand." Or when he says, "Fuck your squad, they some queers" over the digital bleats of "I'm So Groovy." Or when uses "Rent Money" to slut-shame various R&B and rap "bitches." For this ATL trendsetter, occasionally sounding like a macho jerk is part of a life spent swimming with the sharks.