In the back of a cab driving from Clash’s slightly prolonged cover shoot, Atlanta rapper Future is struggling to hear while he catches up with us over the phone in the rush to his next appointment: “I can hear you now because the car is at a red light. What you say?”
Born Nayvadius Wilburn – later legally changed to Nayvadius Cash – Future is the latest in a lineage of eccentric Southern artists dating back to the legendary Dungeon Family. The past few years have seen him rise to fame with tracks that blur the lines between melodic rap and gargling, Auto-Tuned song. He initially appeared on the radar in 2011 with his teeth-gritted dedication to Scarface’s anti-hero ‘Tony Montana’, and YC’s club anthem ‘Racks’, which he scribed and featured on.
2013 saw Future balancing duets with R. Kelly and Miley Cyrus with show-stealing performances on club bangers like Ace Hood’s ‘Bugatti’ and Rocko’s somewhat controversial ‘U.O.E.N.O.’, a song that saw Rick Ross losing an endorsement with Reebok due to some questionable lyrical content. The expanding diversity of his music allows him to continually appeal to new audiences as he moves through his career.
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‘I Won’ feat. Kanye West, from ‘Honest’
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Mainstream rap, particularly the Southern-fried variety, is often criticised for being perceived as dumb. However, this isn’t necessarily because the artists themselves are unintelligent, but rather that it’s what the fans want to hear. Some listeners engage as a form of escapism, whereas others hear their reality verbalised. To both of these variations the infectious music can provide a motivational and aspirational mantra.
Future openly admits to the dumbing down of his music in order to make it more digestible. “You have to just get the people, and you have to have substance at the same time,” he explains. “So these [songs] that I’m putting on [new album] ‘Honest’ (review), they’re catchy, but they have substance.”
While many of his repetitive chants and melodic hooks may seem simplistic, substance can be found below the surface, in the emotional and situational aspects of his reality. “Everything that I do is intentional,” he tells us. “It’s been the driving force of my whole career. I’m making those records that catch people off guard.”
Music comes easily to Future – in fact, he’s somewhat of a workaholic. But the key to success lies in timing. With such a vast output of material – mixtapes, guest features, street singles, radio singles – Future’s workload seems impossible to manage.
“One year I dropped, like, 12 mixtapes and had over 20 songs on the radio,” he says. “Everything just paid off. From the beginning, until now. I just continued to work and people got used to it when I was on mixtapes. Now I have to save things for the album and I have to roll it out and wait for it. But I continue to work for those days when you might have to leak a song just to feed the fans, feed your core audience.”
His reactive strategy is certainly effective: who else can balance promo around a hard-edged street record about drug dealing, a love ballad with a controversial pop icon and a duet with his R&B singer fiancé, all within a three-month period?
In the run up to Christmas 2013, blogs were buzzing about remixes of his relentless trap anthem ‘Sh!t’, which originally surfaced back in June. Cited by many as one of the hardest tracks of the year, ‘Sh!t’ boasts personal success backed up by put-downs to others chanted almost inaudibly over an instrumental courtesy of Atlanta’s current go-to producer, Mike Will Made It: “Talkin’ bout you poppin’ tags, n*gga you ain’t bought shit / Talkin’ ’bout a hunned bottles, n*gga you ain’t popped shit.” The aggression and disregard for clarity give the track a punk-rock attitude, and provides the perfect sound-bed for relentless bragging.
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Everything just paid off. From the beginning, until now...
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Countless rappers tested their worth over the ‘Sh!t’ instrumental, but the first official remix surfaced on DJ Esco’s Future-hosted mixtape ‘No Sleep’, featuring Drake and Juicy J. Two days later, fans were treated to an ATL remix, which saw Future joined by Atlanta veterans T.I., Young Jeezy and Pastor Troy, and this was followed the day after by the third official remix, this time assisted by Diddy and ScHoolboy Q. By December 23rd, an 11-minute had appeared on Mike Will’s ‘#MikeWillBeenTrill’ mixtape (also hosted by Future) combining the verses from all of the official remixes into one of the most epic trap songs of all time. The result brought a summer release right back to relevance in December, and ‘Sh!t’ was easily one of the most discussed tracks over the festive period.
“Certain records that come out, [and] it’s a vibe,” he describes of the timing. “You don’t want the vibe to go away because of the timing, and people don’t understand what you’re talking about was supposed to come out a year ago. Sometimes songs are meant to come out as soon as they’re recorded. ‘Sh!t’ was a record that we couldn’t hold. That had to be delivered super fast, and it did a great job.”
Successfully managing the strategy behind handling Future’s superhuman work ethic and multi-layered target audience is challenging, and he attributes the success to his team. “At the end of the day you have to have a team around you, and we go back and forth and we just brainstorm together, and put our heads together to figure out the best way to put it out.”
In between ‘Sh!t’’s initial issuing and its subsequent remixes came a completely contrasting release: a minimal pop ballad with Miley Cyrus featuring Mr. Hudson titled ‘Real And True’ – its name a reference to the Southern slang word ‘trill’ which comes from ‘true’ and ‘real’ – that sounds like the end of an intergalactic wedding reception. While Future has reached pop listeners’ speakers previously, with his input on album tracks with Rihanna (‘Loveeeeeee Song’) and Miley (‘My Darlin’’), ‘Real And True’ feels like his first attempt to become a pop artist in his own right.
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‘Real And True’ feat Miley Cyrus and Mr. Hudson, from ‘Honest’
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But despite being his second most popular video on YouTube, with over 22 million views (2012’s ‘Turn On The Lights’ has racked up over 41 million), ‘Real And True’ only reached number 32 on the US Billboard chart, suggesting that the pop audience still wasn’t ready to accept his unorthodox sound. “The song with Miley, I thought that was for ‘Future Hendrix’, which goes to show that it was ahead of its time,” he reflects.
It was reported that ‘Future Hendrix’ – the rapper’s publicly circulated title for album two – had simply been renamed ‘Honest’, but the artist himself tells us differently.
“‘Future Hendrix’ was ahead of its time,” he says, with said record currently on hold. “I wanted to wait, because [alongside] the records that I was doing, I felt like the people wouldn’t get it as much. So I had to take it back a step so everyone can catch up to what was about to happen. Make the album to come. We had to come with some music that has a unique sound but that will still play in the clubs.” ‘Future Hendrix’ will emerge eventually, but judging by its maker’s work rate the result will likely be entirely different to its original incarnation.
On January 14th 2014, Future and his fiancé, R&B singer and fellow ATLien, Ciara, made public that they are expecting a child. Their first child as a couple, but Future’s fourth, the announcement has opened the pair up to being even more vulnerable on record. The end of that month saw Future release his take on Beyoncé’s ‘Drunk In Love’, followed two days later by Ciara’s new single, ‘Anytime’, which he duets on. When the pair initially collaborated for ‘Body Party’, the lead single from 2013’s ‘Ciara’ LP, they were only just dating. This is reflected by the level of commitment that comes across in ‘Anytime’, which makes the brilliant ‘Body Party’ sound like mere flirtation.
It’s also clear that Future – who executive produced ‘Ciara’ – has had an influence on maturing the sound of the formerly-titled princess of Crunk ‘n’ B, a title she has since revealed she hated.
“That’s going to happen, naturally,” says Future of their mutual influence. “That’s the natural reaction to making music and having a woman to make music with you. We make music together. Sometimes she’ll be in the studio and she’ll give me some backing vocals on my songs. Sometimes I help her with lines, she helps me with lines, and it’s good.”
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It’s important to me to stay true to the art and stay true to who I am...
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The pair is as committed to their art as they are each other, which is where the strength of their relationship lies. Having described themselves in multiple interviews as being best friends, it sounds as though the sentiments of Future’s 2012 hit ‘Neva End’ (Remix) with Kelly Rowland are coming true – he was just singing them with the wrong girl.
“We share the same love for music, so [our relationship] never gets in the way. When she does music she has to express herself, and I understand. When I’m in the studio, she understands that I’m making my album. She supports me 1000%.”
Dating Ciara has forced him out of the studio that he rarely left. This has had a positive influence on both his lifestyle and music. “I was locked in the studio so much that it was time for me to freshen up, and refresh the memory. [To] go and see things, and try new things, and give me something new to talk about.”
The singles from ‘Honest’ so far suggest Future is set to release his most eclectic project to date. Where versatility has long been his forte, the difference between his various outputs is becoming clearer. Compared to the ‘No Sleep’ mixtape – which has received great critical acclaim – the singles are a lot more polished and defined. They find their place in his catalogue; beside the rawness of the mixtape, particularly noted in its introduction, a stream of consciousness, melodic freestyle falling between the Auto-Tuned hits of T-Pain, and the mixtape freestyles of Lil Wayne.
Future half-raps, half-sings: “The day I stop using Auto-Tune, that’s when it’s gon’ die / Until then I create melodies that’s influenced by promethazine.” This playful experimentation is just as valid as album singles ‘Move That Dope’ (reviewed), ‘Honest’ and ‘Karate Chop’. It’s just targeted at a different segment of his vast fanbase.
“When I was recording the album I didn’t want it to sound like anything that was out at the time,” he explains of the record’s diversity. “I wanted to go for more of an adventurous and eclectic sound and that stands out. Overall the production is great, the quality of the hooks and the clarity, it’s strong and it’s confident.”
Although he can bang out mixtape tracks, features and hooks on a daily basis, a lot more time and planning goes into putting together his albums. And he prefers to listen to music in album form, despite his penchant for hit singles.
“[With my albums] I want to tell the complete story, the sound of the beats to the way that it moves, the sequencing of the album,” he says. “I select and listen to like 20 or 30 songs and then just pick out the best 12 to 14. The ones that best represent the time and describe the movement and overall the complete thought that I’m trying to get out.”
Having started out with music through his cousin Rico Wade, one-third of legendary Atlanta production trio Organized Noize, Future – then under the alias Meathead – was packaged into a five-man collective called Da Connect with fellow Dungeon Family affiliates. And while the group never took off, he became a permanent fixture at Wade’s studio the Dungeon, where he witnessed the recording of artists like OutKast, Goodie Mob and Bubba Sparxxx. It was Wade that dubbed him Future, due to his open-minded and experimental approach.
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‘Honest’, from… c’mon, really?
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Later, when he signed to Rocko’s A1 Recordings, Nayvadius dropped Meathead completely and became Future fulltime. Still working closely with Rico, his Dungeon Family roots remain an important influence on his music, and he has the crew’s name tattooed across his forearms. He is also working with perhaps the Dungeon Family’s most elusive and celebrated member.
“Me and André 3000, we’ve been working back and forwards on some records,” he confirms of working with the OutKast rapper. “We sit down in the studio just listening to each other, having conversations, going back and forth over different ideas and just coming up with it. And I’m just learning, soaking everything up like a sponge. I’m just willing to learn, and just talking to someone that inspires me. We’ve done a few records, so out of the those that we’ve done I’m trying to pick which one’s going to be on the album.”
On the surface, Future’s dumbed-down chants and André’s articulate poetry may not set the two up as the most obvious pairing. But they are mutual fans and both known for exploring melody in their flows, and for singing from time to time.
“It’s important to me to stay true to the art and stay true to who I am,” he states. Despite a versatility that sets him out as a misfit from most of his peers, Future’s own identity is integral to his success and his music draws influence from his life growing up in Atlanta. He uses his music to share his experiences and voice opinions.
“From the day-to-day struggle when I was in the streets, having kids early, what was going on in my life, to relationships, to the media, to being able to respond to things that’s not true. I’d just go into the studio and just work hard, and make sure I come up with something very inspiring. And touching hearts one-by-one with melodic music.”
While this is fairly typical inspirational fare for a rapper, Future’s musical influences aren’t so predictable. “I listen to Coldplay. I look at YouTube, I look at Rick James concerts, Michael Jackson concerts, James Brown concerts, Prince concerts. I look at a lot of concerts. From the stage presence to just having that overall superstar feel, you gotta study the best, and I study the best when it comes to making music.”
This mindset has clearly helped, as his impressive stage presence led to a slot on Drake’s Would You Like A Tour?, which saw him travelling across the US and Canada, extending the reach of his music to a wider audience.
“Everything makes up what I’m doing. You never know where you can get your inspiration. It’s weird sometimes. You might be walking down the street and see someone get lost, and you can tell because of where you were in certain situations. You can just feel the vibe, where everything’s going good in your life, and you would just get lost, be a fly on the wall and just observe.”
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This feature originally appeared in issue 94 of Clash magazine – full details and purchase links here.