Future Raps and Sings of Your Dreams So That You Too May Live Them
Can a hardcore rapper be completely complex and transparent in the face of what fans want? I want to know where Future thinks even his fans might have him mixed up. Dang, he says, and pauses—the only time he doesn’t have an immediate answer to one of my questions. But he will answer. He wants to see where telling the truth might lead.
These and other questions get asked and answered in the next few paragraphs, but I should first be honest about who’s doing the asking. I’m an American, so I spent a good deal of my childhood dreaming that I’d one day be rich. Like so many of us are trained to think, I thought of wealth as something anyone could work hard to gain.
Of course, I also thought I’d be married and have a couple kids. I wasn’t thinking about writing, and I didn’t know what a poem was. These dreams didn’t come from any heartfelt desire. I had them because they were the dreams I was told to have. Still, it is true that money—whether you’re born with it or not, whether you make lots of it or never see much of it at all—represents freedom in a country where absolutely nothing is free.
It’s hard not to think about one’s own childhood and how dreams shift to fit reality when listening to the music of Future, the Atlanta-born rapper whose very name projects ambition and hope. But the introspective longings associated with childhood were more like emergency sirens going off in the mind of young Nayvadius DeMun Wilburn. Born into a family steeped in two or three generations of criminal activity, Future has described his grandmother’s house where he lived as “the drug house.” Though he seemed a burgeoning basketball star, he would eventually drop out of high school to hustle drugs on the streets and out of the homes of family members.
When I first met him in a green room in August, just before a show in West Palm Beach, Florida, he described his childhood with the kind of inspirational response for which he has become known in both interviews and private conversations: “Certain words might be negative to someone else but I make them a positive to me. You are what you think. I see the great from it, from being from the hood. I get all the great shit from it. I build from it. And it makes me a greater person.”
After getting arrested a few times and getting shot in the hand, Future was—through the event of a funeral—introduced to his cousin Rico Wade, one of three members of the hip-hop production team known as Organized Noize. Wade had worked with hip-hop and R&B stars, including Outkast, Goodie Mob, TLC, En Vogue, and Ludacris. Wade hadn’t met his biological father until the age of 12. He was surprised to encounter someone so eager and passionate from what he’s referred to as “the street side of the family,” adding, “they all hustled.”
Eventually, Future would live with Wade and become something of a studio rat. He learned how to make hit records and how to “go hard” with his own gravelly but melodic voice. He honed a style that moves seamlessly between rapping and singing and all sorts of odd manipulations of his voice pushing heavy on the high end of his range. No matter what, Future is almost always belting in that purposefully unpolished way, reminiscent of early gospel greats like Sam Cooke when he first sang lead with the Soul Stirrers.
I ask him when he came to know his voice as particularly identifiable. I ask while leaning on a rack of his clothing I almost fall into because I don’t know the rack has wheels. Future holds back the urge to laugh at me, saying, “I didn’t understand it until I started making my own music—understanding the tone control of it. As my voice developed, I just learned the tone of it and how to control it. Now I got to rest my voice because I have a raspy voice already.”
It’s now that I realize, in all the knowledge I have as a fan, I’ve never read or heard very much about Future rapping or singing before he met Rico Wade. In the past, he has mentioned always admiring the effect R&B artists like The Isley Brothers and Frankie Beverly have on what he calls “the community.”
It seems to me, though, that when someone decides to finally make a living legally, they put in at the local Home Depot or the post office. Turning again toward a tone of homily, he responds, “I just always felt as a kid that I was built for greatness. Not for greatness but for something special. Something that was unique. Ever since I was a kid, I always moved in a unique way. Even if I did something bad that was out of the way, I felt like it wasn’t who I was at the time. It was just something I had to go through, something I had to experience.”
Then he seems to focus toward me as if what was personal musing is now confidential advice, “Experiences make you who you are. You can’t be this person right here if you didn’t go through certain things. If I had a silver spoon, or if I was just protected from a lot of things and didn’t go through them myself, I wouldn’t know how to prepare myself for moments like today. God prepares you for certain things for a reason.”
Before becoming “this person right here,” though, Future would write the hook for Ludacris’ “Blueberry Yum Yum” and carefully observe as Organized Noize produced records for the likes of T.I. and Snoop Dogg. He also became a musician, an artist. Or as he himself said in a 2014 NPR interview, “I know melody. I know rhythm. I know bass guitar; I know the piano. I know everything about music that helps build the music that go along with creating the whole art form.”
Learning the tradition of music allowed him to create a new form of it that fit his talent and his voice. To this day, Future is an emcee at his core, recording his lyrics to beats without writing anything down, following his own spur of the moment linguistic instincts down avenues that often lead to vulnerability and confessional poetry.
A poet myself, I am most fascinated by how Future’s best-known records see him taking on the tools of disjointed lyric poetry rather than narrative poetry. Most of rap’s biggest hits have a very direct story to tell centering on a single theme: see the narratives in Outkast’s “Sorry Miss Jackson” or Lauryn Hill’s “Lost Ones” or Kanye West’s “Gold Digger.” Future, on the other hand, sends out lyric signals and images, phrases that give listeners a sense of a fraught personality rather than an anecdote from that personality’s life. Check out these pastiche-like lines from 2015’s “March Madness”:
Dirty soda in a styrofoam
Spend a day to get my mind blown
Dress it up and go to NASA
200 Miles on the dash
Gotta roll a pound up and gas it
Switching lanes in a Grand Rapid
We the ones that kept it cool
With all these niggas ‘til these niggas start acting
Shoot a nigga like a film in a movie
Nigga, gone let ‘em have it
We ballin’ like the March Madness
All these cops shooting niggas, tragic
I’m the one that’s living lavish
Like I’m playing for the Mavericks
I didn’t wanna fuck the bitch
The molly made me fuck her, even though she average
These seemingly disparate lines come together as a portrait of Future’s own complex psyche. And pretty early on in his apprenticeship, complexity became the aim of all his lyrics: how to collage the dope dealer with the millionaire with the sensitive artist with the whoremonger with the broken-hearted with the homie. Which of these isn’t Future, and why would he leave any one of them out of a single song? My own work has shown me that every poet must have at his access all of his experiences, no matter how contradictory these experiences appear.
Future’s tutelage with Wade wasn’t all about writing, rapping, learning the control panel, and digging through crates of old records for sounds to sample. These are also the years that he first experienced wealth. Following Wade around meant riding in lavish cars, eating at expensive restaurants, and sleeping in beds (or at least couches) instead of on floors.
According to Future, he began to see himself and the world differently. There was possibility outside the literal physical location of the trap if he could first escape the traps set by his own mind. Directly mentioning “the law of attraction,” he credits his change in mentality with the slow but sure success that has followed him since he first recorded in the basement of Rico Wade’s mother’s house, the studio Atlanta artists of the time knew as “The Dungeon.”
Today, Future has five chart-topping albums and hit records that you can’t help but hear at any nightclub where the DJ means for people to dance. His influence keeps him sought after—by artists as various as Justin Bieber, Ciara, Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, Maroon 5, Lil Wayne, The Weeknd, and Usher—to write or produce or include a verse of him rapping. He founded the record label Freebandz and has his own shoe line through Reebok. His most recent achievement: the first artist with two number one charting albums in successive weeks. His self-titled album debuted at number one in mid-February. Its follow-up, the sentimental and long-awaited HNDRXX, took the number one position a week later, knocking Future to number two.
Of course, we associate these kinds of accomplishments with artists thought of as mainstream (a word in our euphemistic present moment that seems to have replaced Motown’s favorite word: “crossover”). But crossing over is exactly what Future has not done in order to gain mainstream success. The artist himself has long stuck to doing it his way. The way he goes about making music, the tours he launches, the method by which he handles financial business—all seem like expansions of the methods he might have used when performing in a small club in Atlanta on an off-Tuesday night back in 2006. The songs themselves are no less relentless in their imagery, no less black in their tradition.
In all, Future’s music makes palpable a facet of black life that R&B has yet to capture. (And isn’t that what all of hip-hop should achieve?) Often, his are the songs of poor people who survive in spite of living in a nation that drives them to what seems to be risky behavior. But when I ask him about the use of imagery associated with protest and police brutality in the video for the hit record “March Madness,” Future is careful that I’m not misled about his identity: “I just like sometimes to shed matters on certain things that are going on. I feel like my music can reach my people, and it can give them a new thought about what’s going on, a better outlook, a better understanding. Activists live their lives as activists. You have to study that to do that. Being in music, it’s a passion. That’s what I’ve studied. But any time you have a voice, it’s a good thing to use it.”
When I ask him how he feels about the kind of admiration that’s led to monikers like “King of Trap,” “King of Atlanta,” and “King of the South,” he shakes his head feverishly. “It makes me feel like I have more work to do because I’m limitless,” he says. “Whatever you thought I was, I want to reach further than that. I don’t want words to limit me or how far I can go or what I can achieve for myself. My energy is to be able to have anyone from the South be the biggest on the planet.” While he acknowledges that people mean such titles as compliments and that Atlanta is the root of most of his work, his goal is remaining King of the South inasmuch as something of the South can be found in every corner of the world.
In a Billboard Magazine article from earlier this year, Quavo of Migos says of Future’s music: “That was a big moment for Atlanta. It touched the young niggas who was out grinding like us, and made us want to grind harder.” If Future has mass appeal, it’s because the masses have something in common with his base. His base is the real hip-hop heads of the trap that DJ Esco—Future’s hype man and a talented artist in his own right—calls “Day One Fans” during the show I saw in West Palm Beach. In the current tour, Future occasionally joins his background dancers with popular contemporary hip-hop moves.
The choreography is not about the precision we associate with pop stars like Janet Jackson or Beyonce. Instead, we get the feeling of a krump-like, sped up harlem shuffle or bus stop style of line-dance—a chance for each individual to shine while moving with the group. And like so many rappers before him, Future’s stage presence is one-third his relationship to Esco, whom he refers to throughout the show in staged conversation about how that night’s city is the most excited they’ve ever seen. As Hot 97 DJ Funkmaster Flex said to Future in a 2015 interview just before a similarly lit concert in New Jersey: “You ignite the hood.” To which Future responded, “I want to see the hood. The dudes who make the hood the hood, the dudes who make the streets the streets—that’s who I want to see in the building. This is a celebration for us.”
He wants the work to reach far and last long and tells me that’s exactly what touring allows: “You ain’t trying to chase the high all the time when it’s right there for you. Rockstars, they’re older, they’re 60-something years old, but they’re still on tour. It ain’t like they’re putting new music out. They just know how to gravitate towards their fans. It’s a strategic way you have to do it: to be able to create that longevity, that fan base over a period of time, that following. When you have that cult following, man, you can just coast.”
But anyone who knows anything about Future knows he has more love for the studio than for the road. Does he think of touring as a necessary evil? Does he now, since he’s on tour, suddenly prefer the stage to the studio? Without any pause whatsoever and smiling wider than I’ve ever seen a person manage, he says, “With my kids. I want to be with my kids. But I have to take care of them, so it’s a balance.” Future’s love for his children is yet another part of his life that complicates the persona listeners garner from much of his music. He holds allegiance to no one but his collaborators and his fans, and as he’s said in the past, “Sometimes the fans want me to be ratchet.”
And here we are again. I wonder if any hip-hop artist can ever be completely complex and transparent in the face of what fans want. Do we allow them to be the drug dealers they may have been while also understanding them as fathers who love their children? I want to know where Future thinks fans and anyone else may have him mistaken. He says, “Dang” and pauses, the first and only time he doesn’t have an immediate answer to one of my questions.
He doesn’t want to answer, but we both know he will because the artist in him is addicted to seeing where telling an uncomfortable truth might lead. What are the misconceptions that come with being Future? He offers this, looking straight at me: “That I’m just some kind of dude that, if I’m in a relationship, that I’m a cheater, that I just dog women out. It comes from just the image. Certain things I don’t speak on, but it’s not true. That’s the part of me that has to suffer sometimes. But I feel like in due time people will understand I’m the most caring, loving person they’ll probably ever meet.”
Future capitalizes on what makes him unique, and he knows hardcore rappers such as himself aren’t known for their propensity to be tender. He also knows that expressing that tenderness is a particular conundrum for his life. It’s hard enough for celebrities to trust to the point of falling in love and doubly hard for their lovers to trust them when they’re idolized for lyrics like, “I’m fucking two bad bitches at the same damn time” or “I’m so groovy/I got power/That’s your bitch?/I just bought her.” I imagine things get all the more difficult for a man with five children (one of whom is adopted) conceived with four different women.
I press a little more here. I want him to say more about women and their image in hip-hop. Don’t they become objects like the expensive cars and jewelry that populate most of the genre? But he sees that my questions are more about me, why I keep listening to what I claim to critique. It’s almost as if he wants to comfort me about a game I’m not tall or fast enough to play: “It’s too much of everything in the world. That’s why you just gotta do for what it is. Change what you can change. If you can’t, just pray about it.”
Of course, I disagree. The answer abandons the subject in a way that too easily allows me to make excuses for the both of us. I now understand that words aren’t the only thing the rapper and I have in common. To some extent both of us, as poets, sell authenticity. But two albums in one week may leave little time for self-interrogation. There are six years between my two books. Where my work begs that I question my truth for readers that are yet born, his requires him to package his for fans who want it as it is, raw and right now.
Future’s focus on “feeding” his long-time fans—the people who cherish his mixtapes as much as they do his albums—is only matched by his strong belief that new fans will be attracted to his music because people think in metaphors. People don’t have to experience, “Real shooters, they’ll sit in jail for me/Kill the judge, nigga, before they tell on me” in order to find some meaning for the lyrics in their own lives. The very young audience at his concert is the most diverse I’ve ever seen as it relates to race and—yes, this is presumptuous—class.
His music creates an atmosphere in which the blonde, white, local college student in short shorts ends up next to the tatted, gold-toothed, do-rag-wearing man in a wife-beater. They know all the words and dance together in the audience, though they’ve never seen each other before and may never see each other again. People who love “Move that Dope” may be dope dealers, but according to the record’s sales, they are more likely people who apply the lyrics to whatever they do that feels as intricate as the process of preparing dope described in the song.
I find Future’s understanding of metaphor the most thrilling part of our conversation. And this has everything to do with the fact that I’m a black poet from the American South. He does what any poet tries to do: shape into musical language one’s own experiences, imaginations, and knowledge. And he does this knowing that when language is musical enough, listeners who do not have those experiences will hear themselves in the music anyway.
Ultimately, Future’s lyrics handle this overarching metaphor in three different areas of life:
- Lyrics that are inspirational, that call oneself invincible, that venerate the power of loyal friendships, that enjoy the spoils of wealth, sex, and drug us.
- Lyrics that brood over a life of and the dangers related to selling drugs
- Lyrics that run the gamut of all the troubles that come with true love, from betraying to feeling betrayed.
Of the two latest albums, Future is alive with up-tempo songs about the first two categories, and HNDRXX is much more somber with work covering categories two and three. It’s no wonder, then, that “Mask Off” has risen to be one of the biggest hits from the two albums. Its chorus, “Percocets, Molly, Percocets/Rep the set, gotta rep the set/Chase a check, never chase a bitch/Mask on, fuck it, mask off” condense into a few seconds all the concerns of Future’s oeuvre.
Of course, I have to ask about his music’s habit of flaunting just how much money he makes. Certainly, the checks I chase don’t have as many zeros as the ones he runs down. And what exactly is a Bugatti or a Ferrari a metaphor for in the life of someone who’ll never make enough money to get off MARTA? Future is stoic: “It’s dreams. It’s goals. It’s about listening to your goals every day. It might not be your life at the moment, but if you can be able to listen to your goals, you can take some good things about what you hear and apply it to yourself. That’s all it’s about, everyone getting better. Taking nothing and making something.”
I may be dissatisfied with the thought that an expensive car has anything to do with “getting better,” but I’m not foolish enough to pretend I don’t understand wanting my better feeling reflected in a more comfortable world around me. Of course, that’s the stuff of dreams, the kind we have when we’re kids. Some of us doubt the rags-to-riches myth of America. Others of us know better than to trust America, but we figure out that feeling free is the first step toward freedom.
Written by Jericho Brown
Photographed by ioulex at ACME Studio, Brooklyn
Styled by Rika Watanabe
Style Assoc: Bobby Wesley Williams
Groomer: Nicole Williams
Models: Tyrell King c/o Tribute Talent Inc. and Kyon Powell
Production Assistant: Katiria Powell