Future: How Hip-Hop's Paranoid Android Became a Robocroon Superstar

He's sung hooks for everyone from Miley Cyrus to Rick Ross. Now he's blasting off on his own. Inside the reclusive studio hustle of rap's most wanted voice

future
Dustin Cohen
Future
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"Man, this shit's too pretty, I can't record in here. I like my shit to be gritty," says Future, catching a whiff of sugary-sweet coconut candles as he walks into Larrabee Studios in North Hollywood. The Atlanta singer-rapper is hiding behind sunglasses, dressed in black from his hoodie to his shoes, save some gold padlocks on his Buscemi sneakers. Blasting tracks off his long-delayed, highly anticipated, second album Honest, he begins puffing on a blunt full of what he calls "the forefather of the father in herb world" and elaborates. "There's so many of these candles, man. You can't even smell the weed... I need to smell weed when I smoke weed."

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If you're a Future fan, it's a little rare to hear his everyday speaking voice. He's become famous for his Auto-Tuned man-machine croon, a weird, emotive, gargle-groan that has become one of the most ubiquitous sounds in pop. That voice has powered songs for everyone from Miley Cyrus to Rihanna to Justin Bieber to his fiancée Ciara, and it's the not-so-secret weapon behind recent hip-hop smashes like Lil Wayne's "Love Me" and Ace Hood's "Bugatti." Combining his throat's organic gurgle with a light dusting of Auto-Tune, he connected the hard-edged underground raps of Gucci Mane's Atlanta with the melodic weirdness of OutKast's Atlanta – all filtered through the modern version of Zapp's talkbox or Stevie Wonder's vocoder. Following Future's example, hip-hop radio has turned into a cyborg parade – you can hear his influence on young MCs like Rich Homie Quan, Ty Dolla $ign, Kid Ink, and Young Thug.

"He found his own lane," says rapper/producer Big K.R.I.T., who collaborated with Future on "Just Last Week." "The way he flows on records, the way he writes his hooks. People wanna duplicate it – people wanna create that kind of sound."

But the album blasting at Larabee is something else from that signature sound. Whereas Future's 2012 debut, Pluto, was full of spacey love songs, Honest (original title: Future Hendrix) bristles with confessional lyrics, and a raw, hard-edged, unpolished energy that recalls a mixtape hustler, not an android crooner. In between appearances by Kanye West, Drake, and Andre 3000, it explodes with voice cracks, peak-outs, shouts, one-take wonders, and not nearly as much AutoTune. In other words: Honest.

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"That's art," Future says, talking about the moment when his voice cracks in ferocious punk-hop rant called "Sh!t." "There's no way I could make my voice crack the same exact way... It's about that moment, you know what I'm saying? So every time I go in the studio, I'm trying to get that moment… When I'm in the studio, I stay in the studio, like, sometimes 20 hours out the day."

Future walks past the rock ponds and bamboo shoots and pictures of Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon to another one of Larrabee's rooms, where two other engineers are waiting. If it feels like he lives at the studio, it's because he practically does. In 2013 alone he released two mixtapes and nearly four dozen guest spots. He says he has "thousands" of songs that haven't seen the light of day, including unreleased mixtapes with names like Super Future and Fire Marshall Future. Tonight, after working on the clean version of his single "Move That Dope," he'll hop to an entirely different studio and work until 2 or 3 a.m.

"The most calmest place I can be is the studio. And like, I stay in there 'cause I know when I come out it's back to reality. Man, if you're angry all day, man, stay in the studio."

He doesn't get into specifics, but the old axiom "mo money, mo problems" still carries weight in the Fame Monster era. He tells a story about narrowly missing a 5 o'clock flight at JFK Airport because someone wanted to snap a photo: "Man, I wanna be there for everybody," he says. "I wanna make everybody happy and I can't… That's why I stay in the studio. If I go outside and I'm hanging with my homeboys and if there's a hundred of them, and something happens, out of a hundred people, shit, nigga, I'm automatically responsible for anything that go on. You can do that 'cause I got a name."

Before he had a name, Future, age 30, had a life full of trouble. Born Nayvadius Wilburn, he grew in the Kirkwood neighborhood of Atlanta, one of the cities hardest hit by the crack epidemic of the Eighties; its murder rate practically doubling by the time he was seven. Around this age, he says, he started visiting his uncle twice a month in prison. However, getting Future to remember details of his past can be difficult: "When I was in the streets, I ain't never think about that, man, fuck tomorrow, nigga, let's do this shit today," he says. "I'm a fucking rock star, dogg. I'm enjoying this shit, I ain't trying to remember yesterday."

Future's dad left when he was 10, and his mom, who worked as a 911 operator, would often leave him at his great-aunt's – which happened to be a dope house. I had multiple aunties, I had multiple uncles, that was on drugs," he says. "When you grow up in something, you don't even know if it's bad or good. You just know that's how it is."

An uncle had exposed Future to hip-hop, but it didn't click until he heard a classmate rap Too $hort's gleefully explicit "Freaky Tales" around third grade. He gravitated to melodies that were simple, yet deep and affecting. His grandmother sang "Amazing Grace" around the house, and he loved Club Nouveau's 1987 cover of "Lean on Me"; even the "tomahawk chop" song beloved by Atlanta Braves fans intrigued him. "I know the essence of this shit, I studied melody… Songs like 'Amazing Grace' and just the pain of it," he says before humming the chorus. "It just feel like pain. It feel like struggle. I recognize pain through melody and it just naturally come out me at times."

PHOTO: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Future started rapping as a teenager, using his childhood nickname, Meathead, and soon found himself lucky enough to be near one of the most creative hip-hop teams of its era. His cousin, Rico Wade, was part of the Organized Noize production crew, which made spacey, Southern-fried beats for Outkast, Goodie Mob, and other Atlanta MCs. Future ended up as one-sixth of the short-lived, Outkast-affiliated supergroup, Da Connect – Dungeon Family 2nd Generation. But around 2004, opportunities started drying up. "I ain't have no goddamn outlet," says Future, who has DUNGEON FAMILY tattooed in gothic script across his forearms. "And then uh, shit, that basically was it. Outkast, they just wasn't rappin'. And I'm just not the type of person to just ask somebody to do something for me. I had to get my money up and just put [music] out how I can get it, man " This meant hitting the streets of Kirkwood, eventually resulting in arrests for drug possession, receiving stolen property and failure to appear in court.

His relationship with his mother fell apart – "I felt like at that time, she turned her back on me. But she was just showing me tough love." He changed his name from the distinctive Nayvadius Wilburn to Nayvadius Cash, "So when I do something… They gonna tell the people the wrong name. My daddy didn't even sign my birth certificate. So I ain't never had his last name." For a long while, he was going nowhere.

After a 50-minute conversation about his younger days, Future sits motionless in the studio, leaning back, hoodie over his head, blunt in hand, soaking in a beat as if to absorb it through osmosis. He seems totally at peace as the bass rattles the light fixtures. A freelance engineer plays an instrumental – a Super Nintendo in the trap banger, producer unknown – over and over. Future's longtime DJ, Esco, and fellow Atlantan upstart Young Thug vibe along as the track plays and plays and plays.

Suddenly, Future bursts to life, racing over to dim the lights. He disappears into the recording booth: "I was just going back in time. We're doing that interview with Rolling Stone, you feel me?" His voice is a flickering line on a screen, going through what the engineer wagers is the Auto-Tune setting from his last session. Future starts singing a sticky melody culled from something he said just moments ago: "rock-star mentality." To quote one of his hit singles: "Voila, magic."

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.

Future says the reclusive, studio-bound, workaholic ethic that drove him off the streets and into stardom began, in earnest, in 2010. "One year I was like, man whatever I did last year, I ain't gonna do this year… It's 2011, I went to the studio every day. I was like, no matter what I'm gonna do, if I go all the way broke, I'm still gonna go to the studio. Every day. I ain't touching nothing, I ain't doing nothing, nigga aint finna do nothing," he says.

"One day I just woke up and I ain't want the same thing. Like I don't know what snaps in your mind, because, shit I wasn't the same person. It was a fucking miracle!" Mixtapes began to pour out. When Future co-wrote and performed "Racks" on the debut tape of Georgia rapper YC, it built into a gold-certified smash. Future became one of rap's most recognizable voices.

The day after his studio-hopping, Future is being chauffeured down Melrose Ave. in a black Cadillac Escalade ESV that smells like weed, not candles. In the approximately ten steps he takes between the car and the front door of high-end, cool-hunting clothing store Union, you could hear a kid say, shocked, "That's Future!" He's running late to lunch at Phillipe Chow and starts to backseat drive. "We done went in traffic," he grouses. We found traffic. 'There go some traffic, let's turn in there.'" Visibly annoyed, Future is a completely different person from the mellow, heavy-lidded crooner chilling at Larrabee for hours. "I told you, I don't like coming out of the studio," Future says. On a stop at Neiman Marcus, he doesn't even get out of the car.

It's a lucky break, then, that our final stop is a recording studio, specifically Glenwood Studios in Burbank. "All I'm thinking about is music right now," says Future, who got engaged to Ciara in October of last year and has a baby on the way, in addition to his three children from previous relationships. "I miss my kids every day, and I'm trying to think about making that sacrifice for them." With Honest mostly finished, it's hard to know where the music Future is recording today will end up. The engineer begins playing something he was working on last night: "I had my mind made up/I gave the crime game up/I wish all this shit was made up."

Future says he can rap more openly about the pain of street life these days because he's farther away from it. "Y'all know they gonna give me a Oscar when all this shit over with, watch," he says. "They gonna be like, 'Now how did a rapper get the Oscar and wasn't in the movies?'" He explains, with a matter-of-fact chuckle, "'Cause his life was actually a movie."