Wednesday, July 22, 2015

album review: 'dirty sprite 2 (DS2)' by future

I haven't been looking forward to this.

See, most people who follow me know my opinion on Future, a below-average rapper with a bad taste for autotune, a complete lack of interesting content, and an unfortunate knack for picking generic forgettable nonsense for his beats - or at least that was the case for Honest, his 2014 album that I reviewed and panned pretty harshly. And when I did that review, I wondered if I'd ever manage to get Future's appeal, because as an ignorant MC slamming out party bangers, his material has either underwhelmed or annoyed the hell out of me.

But even though Future has been bigger and more influential than ever as an MC, his past year hasn't exactly been good. After R&B singer Ciara called off their engagement and dumped him for cheating on her, Future has been cutting a furious swath of curdled anger across his mixtapes, none of which has made him look good as he embraces his drug-addled hedonism... which could have been interesting or presented a compelling moral if Future's bars and messages weren't so shallow and betrayed an ugly pettiness and that he was still stinging hard from the breakup. None of it had the class and grace of songs like Ciara's excellent 'I Bet', instead preferring to wallow in his own debauchery.

But to his credit, Future was slowly becoming a better rapper, at least in terms of his flow and structuring his bars, and I had heard his newest album, dropped with little-to-no promotion, was planned as a sequel to his breakout mixtape with some of the best beats of his career... well, I'll be honest, I didn't expect it to be good. But hey, I'm not against hedonism if he can at least make it fun, so does Dirty Sprite 2 defy the odds?

Well... yeah, it does. Here's the insane thing about Dirty Sprite 2 - the more I listened through it, the more I understood some of its twisted appeal, and in the hands of a rapper who had a little more talent or doesn't need to rely on autotune or who had a little more subtext, this could have been something really potent, a slice of intoxicating debauchery that revels in bad taste and tries to cut into the psyche of why Future finds some solace in this. That doesn't quite happen here, but it is an improvement nonetheless almost across the board, from the instrumentation to Future's technical abilities to even some of the content. Yeah, I'm as shocked as anyone.

And the first thing that helps is that this is primarily Future's affair, with the only guest star being Drake on 'Where Ya At' tossing off a decent enough verse. And sure, if you find Future's autotuned, half-incomprehensible warble exasperating, you're not going to like this - hell, the lack of charisma or sense of humour from Future is one of the biggest reasons why this album isn't nearly as enticing as it wants to be. Where he has improved is his flow: he still flubs more rhymes than should ever be excused, but in terms of structured cadences that connect, he's improved a lot. And considering the overall feel of this record shuns mainstream hip-hop, Future's allowed to push his hoarse rasp a little harder and again, he has improved here.

Granted, the larger factor is that the production has improved considerably. Recruiting his mixtape producers Southside and Zaytoven for a fair few tracks was definitely the right step in delivering nastier, rougher beats that emphasize decent melody while maintaining a rough-edged trap feel with the clattering, noisy hi-hats. And while there are moments that have fragments of elegance, this album isn't obliged to bring a more pop-friendly sound and the production feels significantly more cohesive with the subject matter as a result. The buzzing hiss with the warped voices and hollow organ on 'I Serve The Base', the creeping keyboards and hints of screaming on the metallic 'Lil One', the palpable menace of the piano and guitar interplay on 'Stick Talk', the noisy percussion against the hazy groove of 'Freak Hoe', and especially the creepy fluttering pianos and pan flutes on 'Colossal' and 'Blood On The Money'.  And while there are definitely production choices that annoy me - on the more luxury-rap inspired tracks the rougher trap feel still feels awkward, and that squealing siren that comes in 'Stick Talk' and 'Rich $ex' does nothing for the vibe - for the most part the eerie, hollow, washed out chill of this record works, forsaking the attempts at glamour of A$AP Rocky for something more 'real'.

This is where the content comes into play, and arguably where there's the biggest improvement. On previous records, Future attempted to find flash or bring a pop sensibility to his lifestyle, but on Dirty Sprite 2, he makes the heel turn into bitter nihilism, debauchery as an escape that often picks up texture in the details that significantly undercuts the illusion of having it all together. The opening musical motif on 'Thought It Was A Drought', the ugly creaks and slurps of lean in styrofoam, combined with lyrics about beating, choking, and screwing the listener's girl while pissing lean - in Gucci flip-flops, no less - does plenty to establish Future as a nasty piece of work, giving up his conscience as he threatens to turn the hood into Iraq and weaponize the 'lil ones'. And yet for as many girls as he plows his way through - from groupies to wealthy girls he puts in his 'rotation' to the listener's girls - he gets little to no satisfaction, preferring the oblivion he finds in drugs that he even professes to marry on 'Blood On The Money', one of the fair few tracks that doesn't present any of the drug-making-and-consuming as remotely glamourous. Buying sprite at the gas station, washing blood off his money at the laundromat, throwing away cash to blunt his pain, acutely aware of his own corruption, there's an ugliness to this record that not only makes Future marginally more sympathetic, but also makes the album feel more realistic.

But this is also where I feel the album starts to break apart a bit. As it is, the execution of Dirty Sprite 2 might be one of the most strident anti-drug pieces of art I've experienced since Requiem For A Dream, a harrowing and pretty damn great movie I absolutely never want to see again... but I don't think that was Future's intent. It's tricky to gauge, as the anti-social hostility on most of this album doesn't really reveal any populism or deeper message, but I can see the appeal in the sort of art that channels the worst of human impulses and nihilism for their own sake - hell, as much as many people watched Jersey Shore to laugh at the assholes, there were some who wanted to emulate it. But there's two problems with this, both points Jersey Shore reached in its run: where the foulness becomes impossible to tolerate; and eventually starting to feel monochromatic and boring. The former case comes on 'Thought It Was A Drought' and 'Lil One' and 'Groupies', but most on 'Slave Master', which is already questionable for its central motif but then features an outro chanting 'Long live A$AP Yams' - who died from a lean overdose. I get why it was said thematically, but I reckon A$AP Mob isn't going to take a line like that well as it can come across as in extremely bad taste at best. But the larger problem is that with more and more listens, the bars and instrumentation began running together and feeling tedious, lacking the self-aware insight to deconstruct why Future was chasing oblivion. And as I've said in the past: most nihilistic art for its own sake tends to bore me, and it's worst when it's aimless.

So in the end, yes, this is a better album than Honest and there are different parts of me that can appreciate both the based hedonism on the rougher beats and the barely conscious ugliness on display. But Dirty Sprite 2 lacks the deeper insight to go deeper or darker, and Future's tone as a rapper just doesn't grip me, even though I will acknowledge his flows have improved. Coupled with a complete lack of humour and a surprising dearth of solid lines, I'm thinking a light 5/10 and only a recommendation as a curiosity. It is an interesting listen both the more and the less you think about it, but as a whole, Future's still got a ways to go.

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