“People have their own definition of what toxic is,” Future told veteran journalist Elliott Wilson in a widely circulated GQ cover story that boldly proclaimed the 38-year-old Atlanta artist as “The Best Rapper Alive.” “[These women] all were toxic to me. They just don’t want to admit it.” That latter quote – a response to controversy over his troubling behavior towards his ex-lovers – enthralled the Future Hive, which gleefully anticipated the cascade of “toxic masculinity” that his new album, I Never Liked You, would bring. The campaign looked like a self-own for a rap industry resistant to promoting anyone other than hetero men, whether it’s the homophobic backlash against gay performers like Lil Nas X, the clownish undermining of talented women like Megan Thee Stallion, or even the frequent absence of female vocalists on highly anticipated rap albums and industry-generated “GOAT” lists. To his credit, Future foregrounds a sample of Nigerian singer Tems’ “Higher” on a key collaboration with Drake, “Wait for U.”
Future has proven himself capable of evolution. Only old heads that doggedly call him a “mumble rapper” can’t see that. But his changes tend to be subtle and made on his terms. On I Never Liked You, he unashamedly indulges in his characteristic blend of misogynist impulses, reducing women to chattel to be consumed and dispensed with. Yet he also reveals how his relationships with the opposite sex affect him personally. He’s capable of drawing on deep wells of emotion, reasserting his primacy as a key (if not the key) figure in post-Weezy/T-Pain/Kid Cudi melodic rap. I Never Liked You is no DS2, but it has a compositional sweep often absent from his work. Most importantly, it’s an album with layers that’s more engaging than recent fare such as 2019’s appealing yet boilerplate Future Hndrxx Presents: The Wizrd and Save Me EP; and 2020’s one-two punch of desultory hive-bait, High Off Life and Pluto x Baby Pluto, the latter with Lil Uzi Vert.
The opening track on I Never Liked You, “712PM,” brings his contradictions to bear. He snaps hard with verve, offering deft lines that convey his world of Benzes, Cartier watches and threesomes amidst nods to his criminal past. “Stepped out the mud, this bitch can’t wait to tie my shoelace/Also like girls, bet this money make the bitch so gay,” he raps, illustrating a portrait of comely “try-sexual” women. The insouciant behavior continues with “I’m Dat N*gg*,” where he brags, “I’m just a ‘Ghetto Boy’ like Peezy.” “Keep It Burnin” features Kanye West, who claims with typical pomp that he’s “Comin’ from the ‘Raq/The home of the drillers.” Then there’s the self-explanatory and lyrically profane “For a Nut” with Gunna and Young Thug. (One Thugger line involves butts and diamonds.) A plethora of producers – “712PM” has five listed beatmakers alone – render a pleasingly anonymous symphony of rolling trap percussion and moody keyboard tones.
Eventually, Future’s hard man pose softens. On “Wait for U,” he tackles FZ and ATL Jacob’s guitar-flecked beat with charismatic passion. “You pray for my demons, girl, I got you/Every time I sip on codeine, I get vulnerable,” he admits. In an evocative moment, he notes that when he and his woman talk over the phone, he can hear her tears. It’s a gigolo’s lament, but it’s moving – and fresh evidence of Drake and Future’s ability to generate creative sparks together. “Love You Better” is a breakup anthem with shades of sad Future gems like “Solo.” “Hope you can find someone to love you better than I did,” he sings. Even when the pace picks up for the digital trap of “Massaging Me,” he seems to remain in a more equitable space than before: “Bitch inspire me to get more money and I go out and get it.”
Cloaked in digital tones, I Never Liked You is filled with turn-up boasts and emotional pleas, a familiar blend that has defined Future’s catalogue since his memorable mid-2010s run of mixtapes like Monster and Beast Mode. The years when he shifted dramatically from the android autotune of 2012’s Pluto to the maximalist arena rap of 2014’s criminally underrated Honest are long past. Instead, he plumbs deeper into his established archetype as a platinum-encrusted antihero. He offers plenty of quality cuts, including the mock-operatic “Holy Ghost,” the grizzled “Chickens” with EST Gee, and “I’m on One” with Drake. The final track, “Back to the Basics,” offers a stunning line: “After I fuck you, let me cry on your shoulder.” Try as one might, it’s hard to quit Future.