Each day this week, Noisey is announcing and discussing one of the five artists we believe defined 2015. The first Artist of the Year is Future. Follow along here all week and in the weeks ahead for more end-of-year discussion.
Monday nights in Atlanta at Magic City, the lights bathe everything in a muted neon glow. Strippers' bodies twist in cinematic slow motion, gangsters' diamond-encrusted rings throw off confident glints, the money floats in the air, never landing. The walls melt, slowly and almost imperceptibly, the room shakes with the bassline and seems on the verge of disintegrating, and, so, too, does reality itself, the edges of which grow more frayed with every sip of liquor, every splash of codeine cough syrup. In the dark corners of the room, one might fade out entirely. But in these moments, too, something happens, where the scene snaps suddenly into sharp focus, and the answers to so many stubbornly circling mental questions feel for a second illuminated before just as quickly floating away again. This is the world of 2015's most captivating, dark, and beautiful music.
This is the world of Future, the definitive artist of 2015.
By now you're probably familiar with it in some way: Perhaps you've seen him describing it in GQ's Magic City documentary or posing in saturated color in the pages of Mass Appeal and XXL for recent cover stories. Maybe you've seen Lebron James singing along to “March Madness” or heard Vic Mensa covering “Codeine Crazy”. At the very least you've heard of the guy who so thoroughly snatched the summer away from rap's A-list—in a spring that saw releases from J. Cole, Drake, Kendrick, Big Sean, A$AP Rocky, Young Thug, and Meek Mill—that Drake decided he had to make an album with him. Over the course of the year, Future's sound has become inescapable. It's also achieved a new level of transcendence: Future has synthesized the individual qualities that have long made him so compelling into a single, unified product. He's pulled together, in the space of single songs, his ability to make club bangers, his trap persona honed on songs with Gucci Mane and Rocko, his rap songcraft developed during his years as part of the Dungeon Family, his ear for hooks and melody that briefly made him a pop staple, his talent for manipulating his Auto-Tuned voice like some new robotic instrument, and his tone of naked, therapeutic emotional confession. This was the year in which his music became simultaneously more beautiful, more heartfelt, and more turnt, in which the story shifted from Scarface to Hamlet.
Nonetheless, it's also been a year in which Future's music has continued to be misunderstood. He has remained an underdog of sorts, battling perceptions that his music is somehow shallow or just good for turning up. In hip-hop's never-ending push-and-pull debate between meaningless party music and music of substance, he's been cast, even by people who enjoy his music, as the latest alternative to ostensibly more thoughtful artists like J. Cole, Lupe Fiasco, and Kendrick Lamar. But the reason why this is Future's year is that his music has fully escaped that pigeonholing and hit a point where it consistently functions on multiple levels at once. One of the standout lines in the hook of “March Madness,” presumably the type of party song people think of when they reference Future that way, directly addresses one of the year's most discussed social and political issues: “all these cops shooting niggas tragic.” Yes, Future is getting people in the club to sing along to a line about police violence in 2015—not so unlke his supposed opposite Kendrick Lamar. And what is more honest than balancing politics and partying in the span of a few thoughts? We don't go through life choosing one or the other.
Future's music increasingly has come to hit these multiple registers in the same song, which means that even if it's not always as openly political as some of his peers', it has a deep impact. And there are obvious social critiques baked into it. On one very direct level, much of Future's music discusses self-medicating to handle emotional pain and, especially, the psychological toll of poverty, an issue that doesn't get much play in other forms of media. There's a reason Future sounds so jarring next to Drake, a guy who also makes emotionally open club hits: It speaks to a certain experience and perspective to rap “When I was sleeping on the floor you should have seen how they treat me / I pour the Actavis and pop pills so I can fight the demons.” That, too, is not so different from Kendrick Lamar, and, like Kendrick, who should be seen as a peer rather than an adversary, Future has demonstrated an ability to make those feelings resonate on a more universal level. Who hasn't felt lonely or overcome with grief or faced with emotions so daunting they've chosen to run away from them?
Part of the reason this material resonates is that we got to see it materialize in such rapid real time, to essentially live through Future's emotional collapse with him. He began 2014 on the verge of being anointed rap's next superstar, coming off a year that included collaborations with everyone from Rihanna to Lil Wayne to Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus. He was in a relationship with Ciara that put him among the charmed elite of music's tabloid romance success stories. But Honest, his intended breakthrough album, failed to connect as expected, its high-energy moments falling short of previous material and its gushy love songs alienating his core fanbase (things weren't quite as dire as some fans will make them out to be, though; “Honest” and “Move That Dope” remain two of Future's highest-charting singles ever). Atlanta's new talents Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan stole the year with a string of hits, particularly “Lifestyle,” and Future's relationship with Ciara imploded, casting him as the villain. The messy lead release and title track of his fall mixtape Monster suggested a Future and a future in disarray. And it was. Gloriously so.
There was a dimension to Monster that had been hinted at in Future's most anguished moments (say, Pluto's “Permanent Scar”) but that could only fully be unlocked when his relationship with Ciara collapsed. Two and a half minutes into Monster's “Throw Away,” the beat evaporates into something new, and the upbeat sound of Future putting the best, toughest face on things—singing about throwaway sex—disintegrates into the sound of Future wallowing in tormented rebound sex, wondering if it really felt better when he left, howling in anguish at the image of another dude with his ex, collapsing, utterly. And then, later, there's “Codeine Crazy,” the companion piece, the Rosetta Stone of 2015 Future, the moment where Future both unconvincingly celebrates “like the championship” and quite convincingly announces “I'm an addict and I can't even hide it.” Here, dripping in a purple haze of drug-addled anguish, was the new Future, a guy who was no longer rapping about drugs because they were fun but rather because he was locked in a cosmic duel with his personal demons and compelled and/or enabled by his career to be a guy living on the edge of what the human body could absorb. Or at least, that was the image he projected, and it worked. Never had Future, a guy who a year prior had been riding off a hit literally called “Honest,” come across as so honest and vulnerable. When the video dropped in February, with its images of Future collapsed, passed out in a field, suddenly we saw an artist at the absolute brink, making transcendently beautiful art.
The new Future, the Future who would emerge in the months to come on Beast Mode and 56 Nights was raw, wounded, and flailing. Here he was on Beast Mode's “Just Like Bruddas” downing five Xanax praying to “wake up and forget.” Here he was on 56 Nights tapping into the kind of steely self-assurance that helps to push through such things, that he knew well already, the kind in which you “told yourself a million times you don't give a fuck.” This version of Future was one who spoke to anyone who had ever felt like controlling their own emotions or worst impulses was out of their grasp. This was a newly human Future, as well as a superhuman one.
Nor did it hurt that Future, after years of relentless output, was now a more polished and accomplished rapper than ever before, sliding through verses with an ease that put him in a class entirely of his own, as dexterous as anyone, and with twice the melodic chops. Other than perhaps Kendrick Lamar and Young Thug, there is no one as technically proficient at rapping in 2015 as Future. Consider the way “Codeine Crazy” piles lines on top of lines or “Fuck Up Some Commas” disappears into and reemerges from a series of staccato bursts or “March Madness” smoothly and acrobatically switches flows four times in just this short sequence:
Fuck around teach you that recipe
Fuck around you gone be out of here
Make her say ha like a nigga was Juve
Soon as that work hit the city, we move it
Post up in Onyx and shoot us a movie
Post up in Onyx and shoot us a movie
Take the tool inside the club, just in case a nigga ever gotta use it
His sound was more massive, too: “Fuck Up Some Commas,” the slow-brewing single from Monster, was the hit that Honest had lacked. 56 Nights had the flailing, anguished autobiography of its title track and lines like “none of this money that matter, all of my niggas they matter,” but it also had a series of beats by Southside and Tarentino so apocalyptic that they tore the rap-space-time continuum apart. It was honed for maximum velocity excitement, a fleet of spaceships clusterbombing Bankhead. “Trap Niggas” pulsed with ominous energy. “Purple Coming In” proffered its amaranthine paradise. “March Madness” handled like the turbo-charged Bugatti Nayvadius had once woken up in.
From there, momentum just kept growing more colossal. A rabid digital militia, the #FutureHive, materialized more or less overnight with armfuls of memes. When Future announced an official album, DS2, and released it barely a week later, it immediately sold better than either of his long-hyped previous releases, debuting at number one with 126,000 copies sold in its first week (double Honest's total). And the resultant product was a fitting victory lap, collapsing all the lessons of soul-searching and hit-making gleaned from the preceding run into one concise document. It's one of the most focused, consistent, uncompromising, and satisfying major label rap releases in recent memory.
It was almost immediately followed by the blockbuster Drake collaboration What a Time to Be Alive, the victory lap to the victory lap that instantly became Future's new best-selling project and shot him past Pluto into the solar system of an entirely new audience. It scored its own set of hits—songs like “Jumpman,” “Scholarships,” and “Diamonds Dancing,” which brought that mythical version of Magic City to life. And it demonstrated the focus and singularity of Future's vision, pitting him against Drake, the most effective hitmaker rap has ever seen, and showcasing his ability to build a world of his own in which he seemed more in control, the more talented rapper with a more substantive piece to say. Side by side with a pop superstar, Future's role as the voice the embattled, tortured inner self became clearer. He was the guy wailing “I'ma get my bitch back” at the end of the album's most high-energy song, the guy whose fans were making memes about understanding his pain rather than his corny dance moves.
And he deserves that reception. For longtime Future fans, this year felt like the realization of a prophecy long overdue. Future's talent is self-evident. In an era of rap dominated by the hit single, Future has made five cohesive bodies of work that are perhaps best enjoyed as full-length projects. If anything, he is consistent to a fault: With almost every song good enough to stand up as a single and near-weekly video releases that treat them as such, he hasn't really had one breakout song for fans to put all their weight behind (“Where Ya At” and “Fuck Up Some Commas” are maybe the biggest successes). While a lesser artist might have milked a single one of his singles to greater fame all year, he's been happy to pile up a dozen or more hits with millions of YouTube views each, which runs the risk of making him impenetrable or disorienting to those approaching him for the first time.
Yet if that consistency prevents Future from scoring the kind of crossover smash that puts you on a Drake-type level, it's also the type of resume that builds lasting impact, influence, and profound fan love in the vein of Lil Wayne or Gucci Mane's prodigious late-00s runs. Drake may have had 2015's biggest hits, best sales, and greatest impact as a meme; Kendrick may have made the year's most ambitious and complex album; Fetty Wap may have been the breakout star. But Future is the artist whose music had the biggest impact on 2015. He was the artist other artists wanted to be. And his sound is likely what we'll remember in five years or ten. His music is what all great art aspires to be: aesthetically pleasing, profoundly open, and boldly perspective-altering. This year, Future proved he deserves a spot in the pantheon of rap greats as an artist capable of powerful and universal self-expression and dazzling technical innovation. And if we don't let him in, he'll probably find a way to make it himself. After all, as they say, you do what you want when you're poppin'.
Kyle Kramer knew there'd come a time when we'd all be here. Follow him on Twitter.