Rollie Pemberton is rapper and producer Cadence Weapon. His albums Breaking Kayfabe and Hope in Dirt City were both shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize. He served as Poet Laureate of Edmonton from 2009 to 2011. Find him on Twitter here.
(photo credit: Coey Kerr)
Rappers are more self-aware than ever these days. For example, just look at the course correction made by Future between Honest and DS2. Imagine if MC Hammer had the infrastructure to release a few lighthearted, dance-oriented mixtapes between 1994’s unconvincingly gangsta The Funky Headhunter and 1995’s squeaky clean Inside Out to retain the fanbase he lost over that time. He might still be living in Hammerland today.
Future’s image recalibration is a result of the lukewarm response to last year’s sophomore album, Honest. It actually wasn’t even bad, just a little uneven. The Miley Cyrus collaboration “Real & True,” released as a single (and removed from the album before it came out), unfairly painted Honest as a pop diversion. Featuring eighteen different producers, it felt like Future wanted to show off his creative range, that he was more than just a trap star.
The whole thing was contradictory in a particularly human way. There was a song called “Never Satisfied” that ended prematurely. A romantic expression of the merging of two souls (“I Be U”) was placed a few songs before an anti-gold digger anthem (“Benz Friends (Whatchutola)”), and an earnest attempt to celebrate his significant other only served to objectify her (“I Won”).
The fan response to Honest’s lack of clarity led Future to double down on what got him here in the first place. He returned six months later with the mixtape Monster, an uncompromising slab of rumbling trap bangers that regained him some of the street credibility he’d lost earlier in the year. He followed those up with two EP-length mixtapes in 2015 that saw him working with one producer for the entire project: Zaytoven’s colourful Beast Mode and Southside and DJ Esco’s bruising 56 Nights.
All of which leads us to the culmination of Future’s image reclamation project: a sequel to Dirty Sprite (2011), the mixtape that put him on the map. DS2 doesn’t sonically share much with Dirty Sprite, other than the presence of producers DJ Spinz, Sonny Digital and Zaytoven. But on the earlier mixtape’s Mike Will Made It-produced title track, you can catch an early glimpse of the horror movie piano and paranoid, drug-induced psychosis that form the basis of DS2’s sound. On “Dirty Sprite,” Future had a more fraught relationship with lean. “My bitch remind me all the time, that drank’ll kill you.” But on the opening track of DS2, he’s switched gears: “Bitch, I’ma choose the dirty over you/you know I ain’t scared to lose you.” It’s the sound of being “baptized inside purple Actavis,” a journal of Future giving himself over fully to excess.
“Tried to make me a pop star and they made a monster,” he snarls on the nasty “I Serve the Base,” a drug-dealing metaphor about giving his true fiends (his day-one fans) what they need. There’s no question that Future is at the top of his game on DS2. His rubbery voice has never sounded sharper or more confident, finding him occasionally pausing for emphasis and wringing surprisingly addictive melodies out of simple, repetitious phrases. His flows are becoming more complex while simultaneously feeling more organic. Future’s turning out fresh variations on his signature “Karate Chop” flow the same way a rapidly mutating disease generates new drug-resistant strains.
There’s little room for subtlety in the production, an aggressive set of percussive, reverberating trap monstrosities provided mostly by Metro Boomin and Southside from 808 Mafia. Future has gone with the retro approach of having fewer producers supply the lion’s share of each of his last three releases, bringing a renewed focus to his career. On DS2, he sticks to producers who came up with him, those who have an intuitive knowledge of his style, rather than gunning for the mainstream.
Other than rapping about drinking so much purple stuff that he literally pisses codeine, his lyrical focus has unfortunately shifted to tearing a strip off of his ex-fiancée and mother of his child, beloved R&B artist Ciara. Ever heard the saying “Living well is the best revenge”? Neither has Future. He brags loudly about putting “that famous bitch in rotation,” playing up his own sexual conquests ad nauseam, particularly on the gross “Groupies.” This petty, juvenile behavior towards his ex makes his previous chivalry ring untrue and distracts from the strides he’s made musically on this album.
On DS2’s bonus track “Kno the Meaning,” Future raps, “Esco came to me, he said they think you washed up/You need to go back in, show these niggas who the one.” Despite the wild success that his about-face has garnered (it hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 200 chart and sold 126,000 copies in the first week, compared to Honest’s 53,000 first week sales), the focus on depravity is causing him to lose the tendency towards introspection that set him apart to begin with. The moments when he would casually drop a surprisingly candid admission into one of his songs (“Told my grandma I don’t need a bed/ I’m sleepin’ on the floor” from 2011’s “Itchin’”) were special. Those instances are few and far between on DS2.
Strangely relegated to end-of-the-album bonus track territory, “The Percocet & Stripper Joint” actually comes off like the prelude to the widescreen hi-hat assault and extreme debauchery that the rest of the record delivers. Future returns to the subtle conversational tone used on such earlier songs as “Long Time Coming” (2011) and “Permanent Scar” (2012), a voice that sounds accomplished and relaxed at the same damn time. It’s easily the best song on the album, a combination of sunny Organized Noize-esque production from Southside, tightly coiled slick talk (“I put charisma in my lingo and she fell for me”) and wistful narrative that brings Future back to his Dungeon Family roots. It adds much-needed gravitas to the drug-fueled morass of the rest of the album, a record that revels in the rush of excess but rarely explores the pain that causes one to self-medicate in the first place.