There was a time — not so long ago, though it feels ancient in terms of internet hype cycles — when Future seemed destined to become a pop star. That time was early 2014, during the lead-up to his sophomore album, Honest. After ascending through Atlanta’s mixtape circuit with street hits like “Tony Montana,” “Magic,” and “Same Damn Time,” the rapper born Nayvadius Wilburn had carved out an even more lucrative lane on his 2012 debut album, Pluto. Singles like “Turn On The Lights” and “Neva End” channeled his gravelly mumble into alien AutoTuned melodies that blew open new frontiers at the intersection of rap and R&B. The album’s innovations also translated to guest spots on hits by the likes of Rihanna and Lil Wayne plus a co-write on “Body Party” by Ciara, to whom he became engaged after a whirlwind courtship. He even logged multiple duets with Miley Cyrus at her Bangerz-era pop-star peak thanks to their mutual association with Mike Will Made-It.
So when I sat down with Future for a Stereogum cover story as 2013 ticked over into 2014, the central motif was this self-proclaimed astronaut’s journey to the center of the musical universe. He seemed all set to follow his frequent collaborator Drake into pop superstardom — never mind that Future himself told me his upcoming album would be “more aggressive” than Pluto. That should have been my first clue that Honest would be a jumbled mess: the least cohesive album of his career, one of those cautionary tales about major-label rap albums that lose their identity in pursuit of broad appeal. For what it’s worth, Honest had some of my favorite Future songs ever — the trunk-melting posse cut “Move That Dope,” the exhilarating Andre 3000 tag team “Benz Friends,” the syrupy sweet title track, plus the demented “Karate Chop” remix (an early Metro Boomin masterpiece) as a bonus track — but it stalled out commercially and left Future without creative momentum in any particular direction.
What transpired next almost instantaneously became a legend, one we revisit every time Future releases a new full-length — which means we revisit it often. Shortly after Honest and the birth of Future and Ciara’s son, their engagement fell apart amidst allegations that he cheated on her. He responded by going full villain, embracing his dark side on a rapid-fire series of three mixtapes in under six months. That run of Monster, Beast Mode, and 56 Nights rebooted and reignited his career, catalyzing a voracious enthusiasm among the so-called #FutureHive and paving the way for summer 2015 masterstroke DS2 to become his first #1 album. The full-length Drake collaboration What A Time To Be Alive followed two months later, also topping the albums chart and generating some of the year’s biggest hits along the way. By more or less forgoing the pop audience, Future had instead fortified his position at the peak of rap.
The prolific onslaught continued in early 2016 with the Purple Reign mixtape and another #1 album, EVOL, dropping before Valentine’s Day. But with each successive release, the appeal of all this bleary-eyed sonic nihilism was starting to wear off; there is a thin line between a groove and a rut. Almost a whole year passed before his next full-length, an eternity by Future’s standards, which allowed his audience to regain their appetite for his rap supervillain shtick. Still, even if last month’s self-titled effort had some jams, it suggested Future was not interested in further developing his sound, instead content to remain in his comfort zone kicking out emotionally numb drugs-sex-violence chronicles over the most ominous beats his trusty stable of producers fed him. If he needed an outlet for his considerable pop pedigree, he could always hop on tracks by Ariana Grande and Maroon 5. He had his own shtick figured out.
Then HNDRXX happened: a second new album one week later, this one brimming with melody and commercial ambition. Honest was originally supposed to be titled Future Hendrix, and in a statement announcing HNDRXX’s release, Future said this new one was “the album he always wanted to make.” While it doesn’t exactly render Future as Atlanta’s answer to Justin Bieber (or even Atlanta’s answer to Justin Bieber), it’s the first time in three years he’s seemed interested in appealing to anyone outside his core fan base. This music aligns his pop instincts with his street-rap foundation in a manner he hasn’t managed since Pluto.
Actually, HNDRXX makes that trap/pop convergence even more seamless than Pluto did. There is no extremely aggressive outlier á la (the amazing) “Same Damn Time” here; everything is of a piece. Thus the Rihanna duet “Selfish,” a spacious sing-along piano ballad, neatly coexists with “My Collection,” the album’s first and most problematic track (“Even if I hit you once, you part of my collection”). Both songs boom with the kind of cavernous bass essential to Future’s aesthetic, yet the gray smoky haze of his recent input is replaced with a faint neon pink glow. It even extends to the Weeknd collab “Comin’ Out Strong,” a brighter and smoother sequel to last year’s ominous bad-guy exaltation “Low Life.”
“Use Me” — the one where he intones, “I feel like Pink Floyd with the lean out” — would have been a death march on most Future albums, but here it gets warm keyboard swells, a downright zesty organ outro, and a chorus in which lead-singer Future passionately howls atop a multi-tracked choir of backup-singer Futures. That one leads right into “Incredible,” a no-holds-barred love song built from synths and finger snaps that played just fine on Ellen and absolutely lives up to its name. The crooning continues on the cascading “Testify,” the joyous “Fresh Air,” the luxuriant “Hallucinating,” the crystalline “New Illuminati.” Even when HNDRXX takes a turn toward the somber on “Sorry,” the seven-minute apology to Ciara that closes out the album, the effect is more sentimental than hopelessly bleak (though you may be inclined to roll your eyes when the guy who released “How It Feel” just months ago proclaims, “I ain’t ever mean to hurt you”).
HNDRXX has already been a coup for Future; it entered the Billboard 200 albums chart at #1 the week after FUTURE did the same, making him the first artist to log #1 debuts in consecutive weeks. But that probably would have happened even if HNDRXX stuck to the pattern we’ve come to expect from Future albums. He didn’t need to mix things up creatively to triumph commercially. He’s funneled inspiration and hustle into one of the most loyal fan bases in the world. He has the executive leeway to do whatever he wants. Like the old bluesmen his wizened croak evokes, he could have kept on making the same kind of records indefinitely — his own answer to the deathless 12-bar blues formula — and aged into a sort of elder statesman of bad-guy trap music.
So no one was breathing down his neck to make a pop album. He made a pop album because he wanted to, and it shows. Future hasn’t sounded this inspired since DS2, this adventurous since Pluto, or this confident ever. HNDRXX arrives at a time when his associates like Migos and Rae Sremmurd are scoring #1 singles and crossing over to a pop audience with actual rap songs, so it’s not impossible to imagine R&B-leaning, melody-rich tracks like “Selfish” or “Incredible” catching fire with pop listeners and multiplying Future’s already extensive streaming figures. Actually, nothing seems out of the question for Future right now. Whether or not it lands Future a top-10 hit or makes him the undisputed king of hip-hop radio, HNDRXX is our first indication in a while that his potential is as limitless as outer space.
As you already read, this week Future becomes the first artist to debut #1 albums in consecutive weeks thanks to 121,000 units for HNDRXX. (That splits up into 48,000 in album sales, 63,000 in streaming equivalent units, and 11,000 in track equivalent units.) It’s also his fifth straight #1 debut on the Billboard 200. Although Future is the first with chart-topping debuts in back-to-back weeks, he’s not the first artist to replace himself at #1. Per Billboard, it happened five times between 1963 and 1968 courtesy of Simon & Garfunkel, the Monkees, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, the Beatles, and Peter, Paul & Mary. With FUTURE charting at #2 on the strength of 64,000 units, he also becomes one of only 10 artists to ever occupy the chart’s top two spots. His reign won’t last long, though, because Ed Sheeran is a-knockin’ next week.
After Bruno Mars’ ever-resilient 24K Magic at #3 comes Little Big Town’s The Breaker, notching 51,000 units/44,000 sales for a #4 debut. The Trolls soundtrack is back up to #5, probably thanks to Justin Timberlake opening the Oscars with “Can’t Stop The Feeling.” At 6-7-8-9 are Migos’ Culture, the Weeknd’s Starboy, the Moana soundtrack, and Big Sean’s I Decided. Rounding out the top 10 is country veteran Aaron Watson’s Vaquero, debuting at #10 with 39,000 units/37,000 sales. It’s his first top-10 album, 10 years after his first chart appearance.
Future’s not the only one making chart history this week. Although Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” leads the Hot 100 for a sixth nonconsecutive week, the real stars of the singles chart are the Chainsmokers, who join the Beatles and the Bee Gees as the only groups to log three simultaneous top-10 tracks. Their Coldplay collaboration “Something More Like This” rockets from #56 to #5, joining #7 “Paris” and #10 “Closer” (featuring Halsey) in the top 10. Per Billboard, they’re the 14th act overall to achieve such a feat; Justin Bieber most recently pulled it off with “Love Yourself,” “Sorry,” and “What Do You Mean?” in early 2016.
Other hot singles action: Migos and Lil Uzi Vert’s “Bad And Boujee,” Zayn and Taylor Swift’s “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker),” and Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like” hold steady at 2-3-4. Rihanna’s “Love On The Brain” hits a new #6 peak. Big Sean’s “Bounce Back” stays at #9. And Kodak Black scores his first top-10 hit with “Tunnel Vision” rising from #27 to #8.
Iggy Azalea – “Can’t Lose” (Feat. Lil Uzi Vert)
Iggy Azalea was never the most interesting part of her own tracks (even when the other artist on her track was Rita Ora!), and that continues here. “Can’t Lose” sounds a lot more like a Lil Uzi Vert song than an Iggy Azalea song, and Uzi sounds a lot more at home amidst all those digital smoke clouds. Credit Iggy, though, for waltzing onto this beat like she owns it.
Elle King – “Wild Love”
One of the most interesting things about Elle King was the way she brought rock ’n’ roll swagger back into a pop context. So even though “Wild Love” is a decent synth-driven pop song with a compelling vocal take, it’s kind of disappointing to see King giving up what made her stand out.
Lea Michele – “Love Is Alive”
Imagine how differently you’d feel about this inspirational piano ballad if it was billed to Lana Del Rey instead of former Glee star Lea Michele. I’m willing to bet you’d feel significantly different about it. FWIW, I’m into it.
Cash Cash & Rozes – “Matches”
Rozes is the voice behind “Roses,” still the best Chainsmokers song by a wide margin. I haven’t been super impressed by her solo material, but she’s team up with producer collective Cash Cash for another exciting single. Maybe that’s just her winning formula?
gnash – “Something”
If you thought sad gnash was obnoxious, wait ’til you meet happy gnash!
NEWS IN BRIEF
Chris Brown is reportedly in the midst of a drug-fueled downward spiral. [Billboard] Halsey’s new album is titled hopeless fountain kingdom (all lowercase, she specifies). It’s out in June. [Twitter] Here’s a preview of Lady Gaga on RuPaul’s Drag Race. [Twitter] Katy Perry teased a new song that might be called “Goddess.” [Twitter] The Chainsmokers and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis will play the 2017 NCAA March Madness Music Festival in Phoenix. [People] Hailee Steinfeld and Lion Babe’s Jillian Hervey are two of the new faces of Michael Kors. [LA Times] Demi Lovato will be honored at The Jane And Terry Semel Institute’s Open Minds Gala, which recognizes those who advocate for mental health awareness. [THR] Trey Songz declined a plea deal in the case over his alleged punching of a Detroit police sergeant. [Freep] Kesha shared a PSA for National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. [Facebook] Louis Tomlinson was arrested in LA after a fight with a paparazzo. [TMZ] Lorde’s Melodrama won’t have any features. [Twitter] DJ Khaled has booked Future, Lil Wayne, Migos, and A$AP Rocky for his Summerfest cruise. [Summerfest Cruise] Ariana Grande has apparently been working for months with Pharrell Williams on her next album. [Twitter] Meanwhile, some dude just wandered onstage during Grande’s Philadelphia show. [YouTube] Clean Bandit’s new track with Zara Larsson is out next week. [Twitter] Rihanna’s latest Fenty X Puma collection, dubbed Fenty University, was unveiled at Paris Fashion Week. [USA Today] Ciara talked about her next album in Harper’s Bazaar. [Harper’s Bazaar] In a new interview Ed Sheeran imagines one day doing a stadium tour where he and Taylor Swift trade songs for an evening, like the one Jay Z and Justin Timberlake did years ago. He’s also annoyed at the recent backlash against his BFF: “She’s omnipresent because she’s the most famous woman in the world, so she can’t make the decision to not be in the press.” [Rolling Stone] In the meantime, Sheeran announced a North American summer tour of his own. [Ed Sheeran] Coldplay’s Chris Martin had a lavish Charlie & The Chocolate Factory-themed 40th birthday party. [Us Weekly]