Outside, it's rush hour, a still-sunny spring evening in Atlanta, but in here, you'd never know it. This room is windowless and dark, illuminated only by a projector shooting shimmering green stars onto the ceiling, a computer monitor displaying Pro Tools, and the glowing rack of gear beneath it. The air seems composed mostly of high-grade kush smoke, accompanied by just enough oxygen to sustain life. On a shelf in the corner are liter bottles of sugary sodas – Sprite, Pineapple Sunkist, Strawberry Fanta – mixers for a bottle of codeine cough syrup adorned with a picture of Homer Simpson.
This control room and its adjoining vocal booth, in a gated studio complex on an industrial road a couple of miles from downtown, is the workplace of choice for Atlanta's reigning hip-hop king, Future. Six feet three with long, blond-tipped dreads, top-notch cheekbones and the sleepy swagger of the high school athlete he once was, he looks less like an actual rapper than a movie star cast as one. Even leaked mug shots from his pre-fame hustling days look like outtakes from magazine shoots. He has a big, bright leading-man smile that he holds in reserve, unleashing it most consistently in the presence of attractive women.
He's puffing on a blunt, taking a sip or two from a Styrofoam cup of the narcotic beverage mostly known to hip-hop fans as "lean" or "drank" or "sizzurp" before he helped rebrand it as "dirty Sprite." With his lyrical salutes to Xanax, codeine, Adderall and Oxycontin, he's one of the first rappers who could conceivably sign a sponsorship deal with Big Pharma: "I just took a piss and I seen codeine coming out," he rapped not long ago. He considers himself a rock star, and he's dressed like one: pale jeans, strategically shredded, with a plaid shirt tied at his waist and a crisp white tee. (The following day, he wears a $435 T-shirt by the high-end brand Enfants Riches Déprimés, emblazoned with the words "high risk/children without a conscience.")
Watch five things you didn't know about Future.
Tonight, Future will write and record four songs from start to finish. ("Ain't gonna never be sober," he raps in one of them. "You can't lose your composure/'Cause once you lose it, it's over.") "Future was always the person to knock out multiple bangers in one night," says producer Mike Will Made It. That ability helps explain Future's astounding output since October 2014, a creative run pretty much unmatched in quantity and quality by any contemporary in any genre: five mixtapes, two full-fledged solo albums, plus What a Time to Be Alive, his smash collaborative album with Drake.
The influence of Future's ever-evolving sound – centered on his melodic gifts, spontaneous, mesmerizing flow and a digitally augmented baritone growl that sounds like he's gargling ones and zeros when the Auto-Tune is cranked up – is everywhere: Fetty Wap seems to have gotten his entire style from Future's 2012 hit "Turn on the Lights," while Brooklyn rapper Desiigner has been dominating radio with "Panda," a song so derivative in its lyrics, flow and production that Mike Will, for one, thought it was a Future track on first listen. (Future is reluctant to address this subject: "I never worried about anyone else ... I don't even want his name in the article," he says of Desiigner.) The actual Future pops up on standout tracks on both Drake's and Chance the Rapper's new albums (at one point, a Drake-free version of the Views track "Grammys" plays in the studio), and Future and Drake are touring arenas together this summer.
It's been an insane streak, all in the wake of a life-shaking mid-2014 split from his former fiancee, R&B star Ciara, the mother of the youngest of his four children. He's determined to keep it going. "I want to keep doing what I'm doing and see how far I can go," he says. "See when it stops. See what the end is like. I want to make this moment last as long as I can make it. If I miss a day, I'm afraid I'll miss out on a smash record."
Even up close, his songwriting method is hard to comprehend. Seth Firkins, his longtime engineer, a friendly stoner with a John Belushi vibe, compares Future to a "medicine man." Firkins, who is parked semi-permanently in front of that Pro Tools monitor, plays a looped beat from one of Future's preferred producers – today there are tracks by Mike Will and Metro Boomin – while Future hangs out in the control room, maybe mumbling to himself, maybe smoking his blunt, maybe just pacing. Until he gets on the mic, he can be silent for 45 minutes at a time. Eventually, without a word, Future disappears into the vocal booth, in front of a portrait of Jay Z, and begins rapping. After years of collaboration, he and Firkins have an uncanny bond: Without any instruction, the engineer always knows when to cue up the verse again, always understands which part to loop as the chorus.
There is a rotating crew of visitors on hand, in addition to two ever-present helpers – Shootrr, who shoots Future's Instagram pictures, and Nyce, his videographer. (Future's personal assistant, an efficient woman named Ebonie, is elsewhere in the studio complex.) A rapper named Mexico Mark hangs around for a while. Another guy introduces himself as a childhood friend of Future's, before imbibing enough dirty Sprite to lapse into near-catatonia on the couch. It's a Tuesday night, so it's relatively quiet – late on a weekend, it can be hard to find a place to stand.
The vocal booth is even more dimly lit than the control room, almost pitch-black. Once Future is in there, swaying at the mic to the beat of the moment, a song almost always manifests itself. That includes the choruses: Future usually writes and sings his own hooks. Singing rappers are nothing new in the post-Drake era, but Future's actual melodic inspiration came from closer to home: His cousin Rico Wade is the leader of the groundbreaking Atlanta production crew Organized Noize, and Future hung out in Wade's fabled studio, the Dungeon, for months at a time, learning from the likes of Outkast and Cee-Lo. Even as he helped shape a new Atlanta sound, Future served as a bridge between the soulful, progressive Organized Noize approach and the trap anthems of Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane.
When he sings, Future has a tendency toward melancholy, and the strongest of tonight's hooks combines triumphant lyrics with a hint of actual blues: "I got it way gone, gone, gone," he sings over a martial Metro Boomin beat, with a soulful half-tone bend on the last "gone." "We gon' get whatever we want." In the verse, he raps, "Feel like I ain't done enough/Make you feel my pain/I ain't done yet."
He later learns that the hard drive holding all four tracks, the whole night's work, was somehow corrupted, and the songs may be lost forever. He shrugs it off: There's more where those came from, and he has more pressing things to worry about.
Future met Ciara right outside these studio doors, where she was also recording one day (veteran pop and R&B producer Tricky Stewart owns the studio). They took pictures together, and the glamorous singer immediately called him by his real name, Nayvadius – and, as one of Future's friends recalls, began giving him suggestions on how to pose for the shots. They hit it off, and were soon dating seriously. Future moved to Los Angeles to live with Ciara, putting aside his deep ties to Atlanta and his perch at the top of the city's music scene. He recorded a single with Miley Cyrus, dressing up as an astronaut in the video, and released Honest, an album that was perceived as a pop-crossover bid, despite tracks as grimy as the trap banger "Move That Dope." He dyed his dreads blond and started walking red carpets, hitting fashion shows, smiling more in pictures. "He was with an R&B chick, you know what I'm saying?" says Mike Will. "Ciara, she didn't even really like when people cursed." She became unpopular among some of Future's friends. "She was bougie as hell," one says. The couple got engaged in October 2013; soon afterward, Ciara announced she was pregnant.
By the middle of the next year, the relationship imploded amid widespread rumors that Future had cheated. ("I [don't] respond to rumors I respond to money," he wrote on Instagram.) It was just three months after the birth of their son, Future Zahir Wilburn, and public backlash hit Future hard. That, combined with a lukewarm response to Honest, left the rapper adrift. "I was scared as shit," he says. "I was one step away from being married, and I feel like I failed publicly in relationships. Then you want to go back to doing music, to what you know. And if the people didn't accept you again, the one thing you feel like you can fall back on, it walked away from you. You feel like it's over."
One of Future's closest collaborators, DJ Esco – who helped break Future's earliest music via his Monday-night gig at the Atlanta strip club Magic City, perhaps the most important tastemaking spot in all of hip-hop – encouraged him to get back to his roots. Future had broken through with a relentless series of street-focused mixtapes (his first solo hit was the sublimely unhinged "Tony Montana," where he raps in a half-assed Scarface imitation and, in between more conventional boasts, claims to have "crab cakes everywhere"). "I told him, 'We didn't get here doing this kind of music,'" Esco recalls. "'Let me remind you what kind of music we used to do.'" He also encouraged Future to focus on his verses as much as his choruses, to let loose his lyrical skills.
"I remember Esco going, 'You need to spend time in the studio and get back to creating,'" Future says. "'Block all that shit out. You going through a lot right now. Turn that shit into music, or it's gonna get the best of you.' Because everything's popping up in the media. Every day, it's something. It was getting bigger than my music." Future was worried about being seen "like a fucking joke."
The first of the ensuing flood of releases was the instant-classic mixtape Monster, where Future deliberately played into the backlash. "I embraced what I thought they was gonna hate about me," he says. "I was gonna turn the hate into love." In the title track, he was a "monster on these ho's," guzzling codeine and having copious casual sex. He coined the phrase "fuck up some commas" to denote spending large sums, and got unnervingly confessional about Ciara on the track "Throw Away," which is half 808s & Heartbreak, half Elvis Costello's "I Want You": "Got my dick sucked and I was thinking about you ... When you're fucking another nigga, hope you're thinking about me."
Future quickly regained his street cred, garnering buzz worthy of a brand-new artist. He was soon back in Atlanta and began crossing over to wider fame simply by refusing to do anything to cross over. "Tryna make me a pop star and they made a monster," he raps on "I Serve the Base," a mission-statement track on last July's uncompromising DS2, a woozy, psychedelic triumph that stands as his bestselling solo album.
But he and Ciara were about to go to war. Future publicly objected to a picture of Ciara's new boyfriend, star NFL quarterback Russell Wilson, pushing Future Jr. in a stroller. (Wilson and Ciara are now engaged.) And in January, he tweeted of Ciara, "This bitch got control problems" and "I gotta go through lawyers to see babyfuture . . . the fuckery for 15k a month." She promptly sued him for libel, and the case is ongoing – though a judge did recently rule against a separate attempt by Ciara to gain sole custody of Future Jr.
The battle looms large in Future's mind. As he steers his black Ferrari along a freeway one afternoon, a blunt in his left hand, he lets out a weird, extended half-groan, half-laugh – it lasts maybe 15 seconds – when I remind him we're doing his first interview since Ciara's suit. "I can't deal with it," he says, eyes hidden by reflector shades. "I can't even think about it. I never imagined my life would be like that: 'I'm going to sue you and take away from you.'" The studio, then, becomes a place to hide, too: "I don't know how to deal with something like that," he says. "All I know is record, record, record, record."
A source close to Ciara accused Future of wishing failure upon her, but he denies that. "I would never wish that," he says. "Her being successful, her being happy, helps me." He starts addressing her directly. "I'm attached to you. If you're happy, I'm happy. You're connected for life. I don't want you to go through this shit and for it to come back on my son, my kid. I want you to be in the best situation."
He tries to explain, elliptically, why it upset him to see Wilson with his son, and why it's a topic he wants to avoid going forward. "It's something that'll take more time for me. It ain't even about [him] playing daddy. I don't even want to think about it. That's my son forever. My son is going to be able to read this. He's going to be able to look at those pictures. He's going to be able to have a judgment for himself, and have a conversation with me man-to-man. That's my blood. He is me. I am him. We is one."
Future lives in a $2 million mansion that still smells of fresh paint, tucked away in a gated community that is itself ensconced in an upscale Atlanta suburb. The ceilings are high enough that there's a regulation-height basketball hoop on a great-room wall. It's immaculately clean, but for all the pictures of his kids on the walls, the house seems underdecorated, slightly impersonal, like he barely spends time there. We head to the house one night after another long day in the studio, which had been interrupted only by a trip to a Zegna store in an upscale mall to pick out his outfit for the Met Gala in May. As usual, his videographer and photographer follow him home, where they'll hang out until he goes to sleep.
The mansion is a 50-minute drive from Kirkwood, on Atlanta's east side, where Future grew up. He was born Nayvadius Wilburn – the last name is his mother's; his dad was in and out of his life, and wasn't even on Future's birth certificate. His childhood nickname was Meathead, because "everybody was making fun of him as a kid, saying he had a big-ass head," says Rico Wade. (Nayvadius recorded as Meathead early in his career, but soon thought better of it. Wade thinks "Future" came from a song idea the producers had, while others suggest it came from Dungeon habitués continuously calling him "the future of rap.")
In the mansion, Future endlessly, compulsively scrolls through Instagram on one of his three phones – "one business, one personal," the other a mystery – while his hairstylist, a curvy former reality-show star named Shekinah Jo Anderson, begins the lengthy process of washing his dreads for an upcoming photo shoot. His assistants are watching The People v. O.J. Simpson in the corner; it's loud, but Future never glances at it.
Future's mom was a 911 operator, but almost everyone else around him was involved in crime and/or drugs. "Some people are from rich families," he says. "I was from a drug family." He experienced true poverty: In songs I watch him record, he recalls heating his house with a stove and eating uncooked Spaghettios straight from a can.
"The worst thing that happened," he says without emotion, "was, I was in my grandma's house, and some robbers came in and kicked in the door." He was six or seven years old. The assailants tied everyone up during the robbery. "At the time," Future says, "it wasn't even traumatic. I come from that kind of family. I had to get over it."
Nayvadius was a high school basketball player with real promise, but he couldn't focus on school. He was selling drugs, asking himself why he should listen to teachers he was already out-earning. "I was caught up in the streets," he says, with real regret. "I'm smarter today than I was then. If I was smart as I am now, I would have asked for more work. I would have been reading more books. Just as much as I work in the studio now, I would have been in school that much." Instead, he dropped out of high school during his senior year, "lost connection" with his mom and started sleeping on relatives' floors. Around that time, he was robbed at gunpoint. When he reached for his assailant's gun, he was shot in the hand. There's still a scar.
He was arrested more than once – "too many times." "I don't even talk about being locked up in any of my songs," he says. "I did whatever came with my environment. I played the hand that was dealt to me." He had his first child, a son, at age 18.
Nayvadius' life wasn't heading anywhere good, but he had a sense that there was another path waiting. He'd been rhyming since he was a kid, was pretty sure he could be a professional rapper. And he knew that he had a very successful second cousin whom he had never actually met: "I just didn't have an introduction."
For his part, Wade kept hearing from his family that he had a "cousin who raps." "In my mind," recalls Wade, "I was thinking, 'Is this really my cousin? Or is this somebody in the neighborhood that they think is talented?'" A mutual relative brought Meathead by Wade's studio, but the producer still didn't believe they were actually related – until a few months later, when they ran into each other again at a family funeral, where Wade learned that Meathead's grandfather was his uncle.
The two men struck up a friendship, and Wade started taking Meathead into the studio, and into his house. When Meathead saw Wade's mansion – and began crashing there for months at a time – his sense of life's possibilities changed. "You never think a person can live like this," he says. "And he got this from creating music. Man, I just dropped out of fucking high school! And it put tremendous pressure on you, 'cause you're living a normal life and then you see that, and this is what you have to work towards."
Meathead threw his lot in with the Dungeon Family – his first tattoo, on both his forearms, is of the crew's name. He saw quick success in the Dungeon, writing a hook for Ludacris' 2004 single "Blueberry Yum Yum." And Wade got him a small advance as part of a group called Da Connect. But progress was slow, and the streets were calling; he kept hustling even as he worked on his craft. Eventually, Wade ran into trouble with the IRS and lost his house; he and Future parted ways for a while. But Future always saw Wade as a father figure and an inspiration. "I haven't even reached my whole potential yet," Future says. "All the game I got from him, I haven't even used half of it."
Somewhere in there, Future discovered the substance that would be his greatest muse, the one that would lead him to call his breakthrough 2011 mixtape Dirty Sprite (and his 2015 comeback DS2, with the name shortened to avoid issues with the soft drink's corporate owners). "At first, it wasn't something that I loved," he says. "It wasn't till I discovered what I loved about it. Some people take drugs and they don't understand the high. They take it just to be high."
As Future tells it, the codeine served a therapeutic purpose: "It started making me more relaxed. Sometimes you experience anxiety, and it did me some good for that. I don't feel like I ever abused it. I used it for what I felt was needed."
Future named his most recent album EVOL – love backward – and in the wake of his near-marriage, romance is a vexing topic. The idea of settling down again is "very scary," a potential threat to his creative streak. "I'm not broken," he says. "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. I'm creating my legacy right now." He's equally wary of the kind of musical evolution he attempted on Honest. "To stop in the middle of my run, and settle down and create a whole different kind of music? It's gonna be superhard to make that transition. People look at what I did as one of the greatest comebacks of all time. But to do it a third time?"
To be sure, there are women in his life. During his trip to the mall, he stops in a Chanel store and drops a couple of thousand for a purse, recipient unspecified. (When his credit card is declined, he takes out an Instagram-ready wad of cash.)
Future has made an almost taxonomic study of potential romantic partners. Chatting with Mike Will in the studio one day, Future explains the glories of Miami: "It's plentiful, man," he says. "It's everything you want. They breed wifeys down there! That's where everyone comes to – baseball players, football players. It's a bidding war down there. In Miami, they all 21, 22. By the time they get to 23, they gone." When Future gets enthusiastic in conversation, which isn't often, the music lurking in his drawl comes out. "They raising them. They young. Fresh. Partying till six in the morning. They're doing that shit every night."
California women, he says, are more chill. "You spend money just on weed. A chick can come to the house and smoke and be cool. They know how to kick it."
He has plans for a Jamaican sojourn around June. "I'm going there for two weeks at a big-ass house. That shit is stupid – studio on that motherfucker, pool. I plan this shit out with bitches. You fly some of them in on Sunday, and then another group come in – a rotation. We have to create our vibe and let other people deal with the real world, while we create our world. Get a girl to bring her friend, get another girl to bring her friend, and it's gonna be a movie. We're having naked parties, for real. Every moment, I'm making moments."
The next afternoon, fresh from a photo shoot, Future stops by a couple of strip clubs. He starts at the upscale spot the Cheetah, where dancers are more likely to undulate to mid-2000s indie rock than hip-hop. He claims to have chosen this spot on my behalf ("I thought you'd like it!"), but quickly starts chatting up a pale brunette dancer who sits at our table. He takes note of her accent: "You sound like you're black," Future says. Out comes the smile. Without apparent effort, he gets her number, and she shows up at the studio that night.
The next stop is Magic City, which is almost deserted at this early hour. It's a squat, unlovely concrete building, smaller inside than its reputation might suggest. The catwalks are lined by bluish-purple neon, with matching neon on the ceiling, and a big pink Magic City logo in cursive over the bar. The music switches to an all-Future soundtrack as he starts talking to dancers named Vivian and Aimee. The conversation gets deep, fast. "I'm from the suburbs," says Aimee, who's in a ruffly top, with a flower tucked in her hair. She's sitting on Vivian's lap. "I grew up around white people – I always wanted to be from the hood."
"You come to this world and you make two lives," Future tells her, raising his voice over his own music. "You got to make the most of your second life. I was born Nayvadius, but now I'm Future. Should I dwell on what Nayvadius was supposed to be? I get a chance to experience life as something else. I wasn't supposed to be like this."
"What do you look for in life," she asks, "since you have all this success?"
"I'm just looking for stability and longevity," Future tells her. "I'm really doing it for stability for my kids."
She asks what he prays for. "Don't ask for a million dollars," he says. "Ask for the stuff that'll get you a million dollars – your health, your brain, your sanity, wisdom. Prepare me for when I do get that million. Make sure I don't go crazy, make sure I help my family. You don't want to ask for a big-ass house and you burn the bitch down, and then you say, 'God, give it to me again.'"
He pauses, and for a moment allows himself to embody the voice of God. "'You begged for it,'" he says, "'and you don't know how to handle it.'" Lessons imparted, Future gets Aimee's and Vivian's numbers and heads out to his Ferrari. The studio awaits.