Remember that scowl Michael Phelps made at the Rio Olympics? It came from listening to the Atlanta rapper Future. In fact, some percentage of the scowls happening at any given time on Earth in the past few years likely have been thanks to Future, contemporary hip-hop’s most reliable resource for mood alteration.
The 33-year-old Future is now gunning for a Billboard milestone: being the first artist to have two separate albums chart at No. 1 in back to back weeks. Which would seem like an odd distinction—who releases two albums a week apart?—were it not for Future’s legendary profligacy (he released eight albums and mixtapes in 2015 and 2016 alone). The key to his popularity is less in his volume than in his sound, though. Thank him partly for how slithery manipulated vocals, emotionally haunted bragging, and sputtering rhythms that evoke an interstellar machine shop have become to today’s music what gated reverb was to the ’80s. But also credit him for maintaining a recognizable style and outlook even as he has continued to shift shapes since his 2012 debut album.
After a year of relative quiet, Future is back with a surprise duo of releases, one self-titled and one called Hndrxx, a reference to a Jimi Hendrix-inspired alter-ego the rapper created for himself. The first was announced without mention of a follow-up, and when it arrived two weeks ago it sounded like a radical re-purification: no guest stars, no stylistic diversions, just Future in pure beast mode, cruel and confident over driving, jagged beats. It premiered as the No. 1 album in the country. Days later came the news of Hndrxx, which turns out to be an aesthetic inverse: musically adventurous, introspective, too smooth and downbeat to help anyone set a 200m butterfly record.
The density of Future overwhelms at first, with his producers layering metallic clangs and hisses, wobbly synth motifs that read as aquatic or electrical, and—for refreshing bits of color—flutes. Future’s voice, as always, is doctored not to sound more polished but more human: He wavers between notes, saying one thing but communicating another, snapping from cloudy-headed one moment to clear the next, and repeatedly sneaking in little innovations. Listen to how he seems to be playing near the melody of “The Streets of Cairo” in “Super Trapper.” Check out how the deceptively simple “I’m So Groovy” continually returns to a quick, hooky “mhmmm” that seems to unmoor itself from the verse and become part of the beat.
He’s an artist of sound more than language, though he does have a fun taste in vocabulary—“My guillotine: drank promethazine”—and there’s an impressionistic logic to the way his scattershot thoughts order themselves in any given verse. Subject-matter-wise, Future is a showcase of callousness about women, wealth, and codeine. Opener “Rent Money” sets the petty tone with boasts like “ya baby mama fuck me better when the rent’s due,” and as the album progresses, abrasive skits mock younger rivals and women thirsty for attention on Instagram. Listening to Future means accepting, even embracing, his amorality and contempt on the way to a satisfying scowl. But it also means expecting some regret and pain, elements rare on Future save the ruminative final two tracks.
There’s a little more humility and a lot more breathing room on Hndrxx, the hazier, poppier, sadder complement to Future. Its production tends towards slow, rumbling low ends and high, washed-out melodic textures for a selectively saturated sound on trend with Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo and Drake’s Views. Both of those rappers also serve as points of comparison for this album’s outlook on romance, with hectoring and heartbreak sitting side by side: “Even if I hit you once, you part of my collection,” Future says, troublingly, on the downbeat opener.
If you pay attention to the gossip media, you can work out who is in said collection. Most notable of them is the R&B singer Ciara, with whom Future went through an ugly divorce. That situation looms over Hndrxx’s tales of new hookups, as Future raps about the headrush of conspiratorial love with trepidation and an ache for trust. “With this dope in my system, I know you gon’ turn on me,” he repeats in the hook for the paranoid mood piece “Turn On Me.” Elsewhere, as on “Neva Missa Loss,” he pair tenderness with cold carnality: “Your pretty body soft as bird feathers,” followed by, “If you bring a friend, I’ma switch hit her.”
A number of the songs on the silken Hndrxx have the potential to become crossover hits: the passive-aggressive hooks of “Comin’ On Strong” featuring The Weeknd, the pathos of the Rihanna collaboration “Selfish,” the ’80s-inflected bounce of “Incredible.” But Future contains multitudes. Anyone looking to mainline adrenaline before attempting a gold medal has a new album for that, too.