by Chad Jewett
There are certain artists whose output mutes cynicism. Sure, we’re about to get a sequel to a superhero franchise that lay fallow for only three years before being rebooted, but you can still probably go to just about any megaplex right now and catch Wes Anderson’s ultra-pointillist, pastel ode to pre-WWII Europe aristocracy. The Grammy’s might have rewarded Mumford & Sons for their easy banality with the 2012 award for Album of the Year, but in 2013 we got to see two nattily dressed robots accept the award in helmets that looked like they might have been just off screen in The Empire Strikes Back; even more importantly, the monumental, utterly breathtaking good kid, M.A.A.D. city, from Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar was likely an ancient Grammy voter or two away from winning. If you’re of the same mind as me, it’s easy to see the travesty in a once-in-a-decade artistic statement like good kid being passed over for the self-serving celebration of a record that could have been titled An Ode To The Years When The Record Industry Was Still Relevant (even if it was made by French cyborgs, indie darlings, and disco royalty). Or you can take some heart in realizing that everyone whose opinion mattered recognized (and recognizes) that Lamar’s album is a masterpiece whose status could not be expanded or contracted by Grammy coronation. The point of all this is that the music industry’s implosion, the plurality of Internet-sourced entertainment, the diversity of sounds made possible by affordable equipment, have slowly angled the spotlight onto artists who deal in specificity, idiosyncrasy, singularity. The point is that an artist as expansive, creative, and original as Future can make a record like Honest, and it can be huge.
There’s an already etched-in-stone narrative to Future: an Atlanta rap lifer whose ethos is rooted in an almost manic drive towards creation and artistic growth (his features are everywhere, and they’re all good-to-great), whose aesthetic is defined by an uncanny auto-tuned sing-song, lending an otherworldly pathos to his markedly sincere verses. The obvious extension of those notions is the further idea that, as noted above, Future can make avant-garde music that is also gleefully infectious. All of this is true, all of this makes Future inherently easy to like, fun to root for. But lets simplify these ideas to what I’m sure Future cares about most: Honest is an excellent album. In some ways, Future’s sophomore release (not counting his very good mixtapes) recalls (at least conceptually) the great Motown singles of the late 60s – songs that were just as catchy and compelling as “Baby Love” or “The Way You Do The Things You Do,” but with added atmosphere, increasingly “left-field” arrangement choices, weightier subject matter, ever-greater experiments of studio-as-instrument modernism. Those were records that made experimentation gloriously engaging, and best of all, fun. Honest does the same.
The album begins with “Look Ahead,” a tense, Type A opener built out of tautly coiled guitars, deep-bass stomps, and a striking sample of singer/songwriter Santigold whose alto glimmers in flashes throughout the track, sparking along its surface, turning her “The way we go” into an arena manifesto. Spend enough time with “Look Ahead” and you’ll begin to sense the ways in which it stands, monument-like, as a crystallization of everything Future’s music does so well. Produced by Miami duo The Runners (the album is executive-produced with ultramodern flare by Mike WILL Made It, a genius with a taste for experimentation and interesting palettes well-suited to Future’s own adventurousness), the song takes the martial thrust of say Kanye West’s “Power” and begins to add and subtract till the track becomes a piece of abstract impressionism: drums drop out from beneath spans of Future’s verses, hi-hats trickle in dot-matrix hisses with almost random rhythm, electric pianos stab away then recede, sharp dots of the Santigold sample come and go like exclamation points. Future’s verses play with the open-spaces provided by the diced-up rhythm, finding syncopated timing for lines like “Was it cold nights that made me cold? / Do the stress increase my hunger?,” so that the rapper can dose the lines with both poignancy and power. His way with rhythm and delivery demands your attention, especially in sonic spaces that give Future free reign to color outside the lines. So far Future has excelled at taking a certain kind of extroverted, monumental rap and turning it into a full-volume amplification of his own tastes and ideas. “Look Ahead” is simply his newest, best example of this, a driving, angular opening burst.
“T-Shirt” begins with Future’s voice isolated in echo-chamber a cappella, creating a sing-song chant out of lines like “You woke up feelin’ way better, way better /Than the day you did before.” There are momentary glimpses of bass, shimmers of keyboard, but the song’s first twenty seconds are simply Future and his auto-tuned croak, a spotlight for his ability to craft a hook out of nothing but canny word-choice (there is a similar moment at the beginning of “Blood, Sweat, Tears”). In essence, the intro is an exhibition of the different rhythms out of which a phrase can be shaped into an earworm, and an object lesson in Future’s talent for just that. The song itself eventually kicks into an operatic wide-screen of glimmering keys and reverbing strings, a cinematic landscape for Future’s stiff-upper-lip melodicism, carving catch phrases out of straight-forward missives like “Got my t-shirt game crazy, I’m goin’ money crazy.” The song’s narrative opulence – concerned with hard earned comforts and their accompanying concerns (the proletarian message Lorde missed about this kind of narrative) – is matched by its similarly rich sonics, and is well served by more of Future’s defamiliarizing approach.
Indeed, this operatic mix of state-of-the-art production and vague disquiet is largely the template for the album, a more pensive follow-up to 2012’s breakthrough, Pluto. The songs are a bit slower, a bit more introverted and concerned with the mixed-feelings of hard-won success. Yet this largely means that Future is simply moving in to new rap conventions – belying some of the more broad moments here (“Special” is especially thin compared to the heights of the album’s best spans) — and reworking them the way he did the love songs and bangers of Pluto. On “T-Shirt” this can be seen in moments where the Atlanta rapper stretches certain lines like taffy, expanding and contracting the supposed rigidness of 4/4 programming like matter traveling near light-speed, bending and warping recognizable trappings into his own unique mélange. Future does similar work on the second verse of “My Momma,” delivering lines with an oblique angularity that makes his flow utterly compelling as you wait to see how each phrase will resolve, pushing and pulling with the thud of bass and snare. Elsewhere, the gauzy indie-pop spaciousness of “I Be U” gives Future even more room for his half-spoken croon (the mix of spare sonics and expansive verses resemble, oddly enough, fellow Mike WiLL acolyte Miley Cyrus on the similarly wide-open “Adore You”, where Cyrus was given comparable free-reign to emote and entrance), answering anyone who was wondering what the rapper would sound like doing his thing over a CHVRCHES track.
That mix of adventurousness and pop economy define “Honest,” an almost minimalist ballad built out of different versions of Future’s electronically elastic voice. Showcasing the rapper’s talent for turning simple phrases into undeniable hooks (“I’m just being honest…” / the astoundingly catchy “That’s what I doooooo”) along with his similar knack for double- and triple-tracking different versions of himself, then allowing those versions to intersect, “Honest” is a beautiful three minutes of futurism (no pun intended). At different points in the song Future begins a line in soaring auto-tune falsetto, only to finish the rhyme in his standard, reedy tenor, lending the whole thing a quality of audio collage, different sounds and timbres interfolding amongst sparkling astro-noise (a star map of chattering keyboard sounds glint in the song’s margins) and an especially gritty bass drum. Watching Future work in this mode, where-in the entirety of the studio and his own ideas about phrasing and poetic directness are fair game for his radio-conquering machine is thrilling, and constitutes, in various iterations, most of the record.
The album reaches its FM-avant-garde peak with “Move That Dope,” a Mike WiLL Made It-produced marvel that bonds a whispered interpolation of “Push It” to a strobe of keyboard bass that sounds like some lost sound effect from Blade Runner. The song constitutes a new advance for Mike WiLL who continues to expand on the artistic success found in the spare soundscapes crafted for Bangerz and Kanye’s “Mercy.” Indeed, there is some of the eerie atmospherics of the latter on “Move That Dope,” a track capacious enough to stretch like elastic around Future’s rusted-up, lightly-auto-tuned hook, which characteristically turns the song’s title into a top-flight slogan. Future’s achievement here lies in the way he shapes his flow to the stuttering beat, moving from quick staccato to strategic pauses to odd-timed syncopation to playful sing-song like a modernist painter finally finding a perfectly-grained canvas. Pusha T’s guest verse is equally spry and athletic, a forceful twenty-four bars reminiscent of his flow on “King Push” from last year’s excellent My Name Is My Name. The pairing is a revelation, emphasizing just how lucky hip-hop fans are in 2014 that one of rap’s best singles this year is also one of its most maniacally experimental, featuring two MC’s who are amongst the genre’s most singular creators. The same could be said of Honest as a whole, a record of boundless innovation that is never anything less than exhilarating.