The Atlanta rap god Future, like other gods before him, is known by many names. He was born Nayvadius Wilburn into a family of street hustlers going back at least two generations. As a kid he picked up the moniker Meathead, both for his oversize dome and, later, his general gangster toughness. When he began rapping in his teens at his cousin Rico Wade's Dungeon studio -- where OutKast was busy reinventing hip-hop -- he was given the name Future (as in "the future of music," which is kind of mind-blowing, coming from a place making tunes like "So Fresh, So Clean"). And to his friends he's mostly known as Pluto, which is all at once the title of his 2012 major-label debut, a metaphor for getting supremely high and a symbol of the scale of his ambitions. "I'm the astronaut kid," he says, impassive behind a pair of ever-present sunglasses. "At the end of the day, I'm out of here -- above anything."
But on this late-February afternoon, as he kicks back by a Miami pool with the sky turning pink and a balmy breeze rustling the palms, another nickname is foremost on the 33-year-old MC's mind. Pulling from a tightly rolled blunt, he waxes philosophical about his latest, greatest success: two new LPs, Future and HNDRXX, whose titles together make up what might be his favorite way of referring to himself. As he sees it, calling himself Future Hendrix connects him to Jimi's cosmic style, creativity and breakthrough success as a black artist in the primarily white world of rock'n'roll. "The music I make, I'm different," he says, rocking a Balmain denim jacket with enough silver spangling woven through it to make Axl Rose jealous. "The melodies I come up with, they're not normal. Every black person wasn't playing the guitar -- Hendrix did something special."
The previous week, Future had surprised fans with the self-titled album (his sixth, not counting the hit packed mixtapes he has released through his own Freebandz label), which landed at No. 1, becoming his fourth consecutive album to do so. Then, in a move unprecedented in chart history, HNDRXX arrived just seven days later and replaced Future in the top spot. (Epic Records says the two albums will also be combined into a physical release later this year.) Future's clearly pleased with the success but insists that he values authenticity more than numbers. "If I'm the biggest artist in the world, cool, but I want to just be me," he says. "I want my money to be different. I'm not trying to have rapper money. My goal is to be able to get everything from the world that I can get."
There aren't a lot of modern artists with a track record like Future's. In addition to his chart dominance, his 2016 co-headlining arena tour with Drake earned more than $80 million, according to Billboard Boxscore, making it one of the highest-grossing hip-hop tours of all time. Future's influence is omnipresent: His earworm-y Auto-Tune hooks, paired with verses dense with references to models and luxury brands and pharmaceuticals, are the prevailing sound of contemporary hip-hop radio. (Just try to imagine Fetty Wap in a world without Future.) He's tall and leading-man handsome, with chiseled cheekbones, golden-blond dreadlocks and a million-dollar smile that occasionally lights up his face. Or as Future puts it: "You don't question magic."
But despite all that -- and the hits he has made with everyone from The Weeknd to Miley Cyrus -- he remains a strangely underground phenomenon: massive with rap fans, relatively unknown by everyone else. In just one indication of mainstream indifference, Future has never been nominated for a Grammy. (Desiigner, the Brooklyn MC whose "Panda" is so Future-indebted that the Atlanta rapper's own friends thought it was him on first listen, has been.) To rap fans and creators, that lack of recognition is inexplicable, leading Kanye West -- who would ultimately join Drake, Frank Ocean and Justin Bieber in skipping this year's ceremony -- to tweet: "Has anyone at the Grammys ever heard [Future's song] March Madness??? Yes I have a problem with the Grammys."
Future says he tries not to get sidetracked by anything he has no control over. "The Grammys, they get what they get -- the shit that they don't, it's the shit that they maybe don't want to understand," he says. "They're not going to keep me from doing what I'm supposed to do as an artist."
To L.A. Reid, Future's unique underground/overground status is a product of the rapper's own design. "He has chosen to put out music that really fed his core [audience]," says the Epic chairman/CEO. "He has had radio hits, but they weren't mainstream, top 40 hits. But he didn't want that. And my take is that it elongates his career."
For the next wave of Atlanta MCs, it's especially hard to overstate Future's importance. Quavo, of Migos -- who will be opening for Future on tour later this year -- first heard the rapper as a young hustler on Atlanta's North Side. "I'd never heard nobody go so hard on Auto-Tune. And on rapping, I never heard anybody really snap like that," he says. "That was a big moment for Atlanta. It touched the young n - as who was out grinding like us, and made us want to grind harder."
Future loves the feeling he gets from his house in Miami, a gleaming, ultramodern party pad with an almost surreally blue infinity pool that appears to flow into the ocean. "I love waking up to the beach, the yachts, the fast cars and the foreign cars," he says. "There's a wide range of inspiration here." Today's ride is both fast and foreign: a $200,000 bespoke Range Rover SVR, with 500 horsepower and motorized tray tables in the back seats. As a general principle, Future would rather ride than drive -- his uncle is his longtime chauffeur -- which is why his favorite cars in his fleet are the Bentley Bentayga SUV and the Maybach. "Six years I been having a driver," he says. "That's how I play the game."
Future also has homes in a tony Atlanta suburb and is planning on getting a new place Los Angeles, where he moved when he was with the singer Ciara (with whom he has a son). His five kids, who have four different moms, range in age from 2 to 15. Becoming the successful patriarch of this sprawling clan, even if he's not exactly a conventional dad, is clearly one of the things he's most proud of. "I'm the motherf - ing provider," he says. "That's what God put me here for. Everybody ride what they want to ride, dress how they want to dress, live how they want to live."
In Future's late teens, around the time his first son was born, he began lobbying family members to put in a good word with his cousin Wade, whose Organized Noize crew crafted hits like "Waterfalls" for TLC and was the house production team for the Dungeon Family, a collective of experimentally minded Atlanta acts including OutKast and Goodie Mob. Finally, after connecting at a family funeral, Wade agreed to bring the teenage Meathead over to his house. Wade was wary: The young Future was living on the streets, moving drugs out of his grandmother's house and had recently been shot in the hand. He was part of what Wade calls "the street side of the family -- they all hustled." (Although not Future's mother, who worked as a 911 operator. He moved out of her house after he quit school to sell drugs. The two are now close.) But Future quickly proved himself. "When I got him around the music he sounded good," says Wade. "But I really wanted to know if I could trust him. The reason he has excelled in the music game is because he has a moral compass -- he doesn't take advantage of people, and he can tell who's really down for him and who's not."
Future moved in with Wade and dove into the studio. He wrote the hook for Ludacris' "Blueberry Yum Yum," cut his own tracks and recorded an album as part of a group called Da Connect. (Wade notes that the name change was all but inevitable: "Dude was just too fly to be Meathead.") Looking back on that time -- Future has the words "dungeon" and "family" tattooed in large gothic script on his forearms -- the MC says that the musical ethos he picked up is how he still operates: "Use everything around you to create: good, bad, negative, whatever it is. Never be afraid to be exactly who you are."
Go Behind the Seams with Future and his stylist, as they talk about the importance of Miami Vice and eyewear to the Atlanta rapper's look.
Future eventually hooked up with a tight, young crew of producers -- Metro Boomin, Mike Will Made It, Zaytoven, DJ Spinz, 808 Mafia -- that he still mostly works with today, and together they began to reshape Atlanta's sound. "They're making records like [Migos'] 'Bad and Boujee' and [Rae Sremmurd's] 'Black Beatles' and these Future records that are taking over the country," says Reid. "But they're staying true to their core. I've never seen it done so well, not since the early days of hip-hop."
Last summer, when Future began recording the tracks for the new albums, all he knew was that he wanted to put out two. The idea of staggering the release by a week came later -- mostly, he says, to give fans a chance to digest Future before diving into HNDRXX, which is the disc that's closer to his heart. He sees Future as a look back at where he's from and the music he has made. It's 100 percent him -- no features -- and thick with street-oriented jams. The single "Draco" (the title refers to a very portable AK-47 pistol) pairs a sugar-rush melody with a gleefully nihilistic hook: "Draco season with the book bag/Rat-tat, got a little kickback ... You ain't never ever get your bitch back." It's a good example of Future's weird alchemy: "Draco and the book bag, that's from real life," he says. "But being able to take that and make it where it's not so violent? It can connect to more people. You don't own a Draco, and you like it, right?" (For the record: both true.)
Future says he wouldn't mind if people thought of HNDRXX as being by a totally separate artist. It reflects the preoccupations, mostly romantic, of a superstar now years away from the streets. It has two guest spots, from The Weeknd and Rihanna, and the vibe, both emotionally and musically, tends toward the minor key. "I'm opening you up to where I'm at," says Future. "It's about being vulnerable and not so cautious about what you say as far as your love life -- if you was hurt or happy or in love."
It's impossible not to hear HNDRXX in the context of his tumultuous relationship with the singer Ciara, which ended in late 2014 with a broken engagement and a flurry of lawsuits, including a custody battle over their son, Future Zahir Wilburn, now 2. (The pair finally settled in January, forging a joint custody agreement, although Future Jr. will primarily live with his mother given Future's tour schedule. Ciara and her new husband, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, are also expecting a child of their own.) On the album's opening track, "My Collection," he moan-sings the words "If we never speak again I'm just glad I got to tell you the truth" before laying into a former lover: "She told me she was an angel/She f - ed two rappers and three singers." But by the end of the album, on the heartstring-tugging "Sorry," he has become much more conciliatory, singing: "Ain't really mean to hurt you/Sorry it has to be this way/Ain't mean to desert you/Sorry that it looks that way."
Future insists he's in a good place. "I feel like everything happened for a reason," he says. "I'm happy with life now. I'm happy with life, period, even with the end of a relationship being..." He trails off, and when he starts up again the tone is more defiant. "I'm just not going to settle for anything, you know? Even in my life now, I know I can be a better person. I ain't giving up on myself, so if you give up on me, I ain't got nothing else to say for you. Because if you give up on something that's real, it wasn't real to you."
That said, he doesn't seem to have the fondest memories of the attempts he made to adapt himself to the relationship with Ciara, including cutting back on weed and codeine and the rest of his lengthy pharmacopoeia. "They had me going the cornball route!" he says with a bitter little laugh. And anyway, Future notes that not even the women he's writing about -- clearly not all Ciara -- will know who the tracks are really about. "What the people don't understand is, I been kicking it with superstars when it comes to females for a minute -- on the low-low with nobody don't know-know." At which point Future cracks a big grin and laughs.
In interviews, Future tends toward motivational speeches, surreal boasts and, sometimes, a seriously considered answer. But in private he's different. As Ebonie Ward -- Freebandz brand manager and Future's highly efficient gatekeeper -- puts it, "Seriously, he is the funniest person ever." That side is on display earlier in the day, when Future begins cracking on a member of his team for reserving a room at a Trump hotel. "Why the f - you staying at the Trump hotel?" he asks, incredulous. "This n - a staying at the Trump hotel!" he yells gleefully. "You retarded?"
What he finds most hilarious about the situation is the way the guy mentioned the hotel so casually, as if he wasn't aware of the baggage surrounding Trump properties in 2017. But when the moment comes up later, he flatly declines to engage with it: "I ain't even rocking with that shit, you dig what I'm saying? I don't even want that name in my interview."
Because? "I'm just on some other shit." He nods toward his hands to indicate what he's talking about. "Diamond rings, Cartier bracelets." He pulls out his chains, which include a custom Chanel rosary that looks like it was made for a Medici pope. If you're wondering how much, say, his gold Patek Philippe watch costs? You'll have to find out for yourself. "Just write that it's expensive," says Future. "I wouldn't want anybody reading this interview to feel like it's unachievable. If they want to know what 'expensive' is, they can Google it. When you start throwing numbers at n - as, they start getting afraid, they might give up" - he starts cackling - "or commit suicide."
A few days later, Future touches down in New York, following a whirlwind trip from Miami to Los Angeles to London, where he played a gig for Reebok Classics, with whom he has an endorsement deal. In New York, he's scheduled to host a party for the brand at a pop-up store downtown. The event starts at 7 p.m. Future doesn't show up until nearly three hours later, by which time more than half the crowd has given up and left. But when he glides through the door, something genuinely impressive happens: A room full of jaded media people and sneaker-industry VIPs goes nuts. The crowd surges toward him, camera-phones up, as he ducks into a seating area behind a velvet rope and drinks some champagne from a bottle. They chase him through the store as he weaves his way to the DJ booth to give a quick speech. And then -- before even his entourage knows what's happening -- he's out the door, into the back of an SUV and headed, presumably, back to outer space.
This article originally appeared in the April 1 issue of Billboard.