“Love me none, love me none, numb, numb, numb, numb,” Frank Ocean sang on “Novacane” in 2011. To paraphrase Jay-Z: Frank made it a hot line, Future made it a hot career.
In the constellation of rap stars, Future's star burns brighter than most.
In just a few years, he's gone from being a rap has-been whose main claim to fame was being Ciara's ex to becoming a rap superstar who drops albums about as often and easily as most of us drop loose change in our couches. You can't turn on a rap radio station without hearing his distinctive voice moaning and slurring ominously over a throbbing beat. And while he's maintained his credibility as a hardcore rapper, he's also scored numerous pop collaborations with folks like Miley Cyrus, Drake, and The Weeknd.
But Future wasn't always Future.
Originally going by the alias of Meathead, the ambitious teen was re-christened as “the future of music” by The Dungeon Family. Not only does the name evoke his current dominance on the charts and pop landscape, it also hints at his spacey sensibilities as an artist. In a recent Billboard interview, Future described himself as “the astronaut kid. At the end of the day, I'm out of here – above anything.”
It's a sentiment that sums up his aesthetic nicely. Future's most distinctive quality as a rapper is his chilly, numb persona. Like most rappers, he raps about drugs, sex, money, and expressing his superiority as a rapper and human being over everyone else. The difference between Future and everyone else is that he doesn't sound like he enjoys any of it.
Frank O. can sing about feeling numb, but his voice is too emotive to sound like he's hobbled by painkillers. The Weeknd made wallowing in excess and vice his calling card for his early releases, but he's not like Future: he enjoys being fucked up way too much to sound above it. Future sounds positively joyless in comparison to any other rapper crowing about their Olympian sex lives and drug habits. His voice is the sound of a human being whose soul has been hollowed out and left to rot a long time ago.
He achieves this numb-numb-numb-numb quality through his use of Autotune. It smears his voice into an Impressionistic moan that coats itself over his tracks like sheets of ice.
Other rappers like T-Pain and Kanye West used Autotune for its emotive qualities. In a genre where expressing your vulnerability is often mistaken for emasculating yourself, channeling your voice through Autotune was a way for rappers to go emo without losing their credibility.
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Future flipped the script: his use of Autotune is a filter for his feelings, whittling his voice down to a cold, slippery croon.
What's even more impressive about Future's style is that it hasn't gotten old. Consider this fact: since 2015, Future has released nine records: four studio albums and five mixtapes. Aside from Young Thug, nobody drops albums as frequently as Future does. It also helps that he has a team of producers like Mike Will Made It and DJ Esco who give him beats that are as forward-thinking as his name. They often drop their best work on his mixtapes, making it hard to parse what separates a “proper” Future album from his mixtapes.
While the quality from release to release can vary, Future's Percocet-popping astronaut persona holds strong. For a man who seems incapable of catching feelings, he's created a body of work that continues to capture our feelings and imagination.
Future is performing with Migos on Wednesday, June 28, at Ak-Chin Pavilion in Phoenix.