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

April 15, 2014 10:20 AM ET
Dustin Cohen

"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."

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