Sunday, January 20, 2019

album review: 'future hndrxx presents: the WIZRD' by future

So I skipped reviewing Future's twin album release in 2017. 

In fact, I've skipped covering a lot of Future's albums and mixtapes since I reviewed Dirty Sprite 2 in 2015 - three albums and five mixtapes, as a matter of fact - mostly because I know that a significant chunk of them will wind up on Billboard BREAKDOWN, but the principle remains. Think about that for a second: Future has put out eight projects that have had charting presence on the Hot 100 in three years - even by Drake standards, that's the sort of flood of content that runs the very real risk of flooding the market, especially if they don't have moments that really stand out or feel distinctive, and how often has that really happened?

And I'm deadly serious about this, because you can burn out an audience by giving them too much material too quickly - flooding the market only can work if you can wring out enough hits or distinctive moments to stand out. And more than ever I'm getting the impression that Future is hitting diminishing returns with every project he's pushed out - you can only take so much empty flexing, dead-eyed nihilism, and swamped out trap beats with Future's half-formed croon-rapping before you ask for something more, especially when they don't play to the pitch-black darkness and rage that gave Future his strongest cuts.

So why cover this now? Well, from the extensive round of interviews Future has put out, it seems like not only is he the most clear-headed he's been in a long time, he's also showing a surprising amount of introspection. He's seen the depressant-soaked landscape of modern trap and was afraid to admit he quit lean a while ago in fears of losing an audience who is accustomed to it, and while I can't speak to how well the possible album bomb will hit, underwhelming lead-off singles from a quick rollout for another long album give me the impression even Future's diehard fans are starting to move on - bad news for a rapper who has coasted on a limited skillset and dimensionality. So might as well get ground-level seats for what Future manages to extract from this, whether we get a late-game shot of quality and maturity or whether disaster is eminent, so what did we get from The WIZRD?

Well, it's a Future album - and really, while some of you might say "what did you even expect", I can't help but feel a little short-changed by this, if not outright ripped off. Maybe it's my own naivete to assume that when an artist does a media tour professing sobriety and introspection at least some of it might show up in his music, but that comes from the belief that if you don't follow up on what you deliver, your fanbase might not care but everyone else will crucify you - and I've never been much of a fan. 

In fact, we should start with the content - and before the Future hive rushes in to say that good lyricism has never been the point of Future's music, I'd remind you of the projects where he actually did tap into a murky, nihilistic darkness that had some distinctive character within its self-loathing, like between Monster and Dirty Sprite 2, or even just had lines that were innately quotable they were so ridiculous! With this... I'll be very honest, I would actively struggle to tell most of these songs apart, and in the majority of cases you could swap out half the lines of one song for another and I'd put money on even fans not knowing the difference! And sure, he might not be referencing lean quite as much, but it's still there amidst all the flexing and brand name porn and gunplay and taking your girl, rattled off with flows that do connect but completely run together - but what's more disappointing is that there is no introspection on sobriety or Future's greater impact, because that might involve taking responsibility and giving Future a real reason to be miserable! That's the biggest reason that nihilistic subtext was so damn important, because otherwise we're stuck with so many bars focused on opulence but no signs that Future is having any fun because the autotune neuters his emotion... so why should I care? 

And beyond being interchangeable song to song, it's boring! We'll get to my issues with the production in a second and I will give Future a bit of credit for trying to modulate his tone to keep things somewhat distinct, but he's always been a mediocre crooner at best and if there is an album screaming for more guest appearances to split things up, it's this one. Yeah, Young Thug and Gunna show up on 'Unicorn Purp' mostly just to prove how redundant Gunna is in every way, and then Travis Scott puts in time on 'First Off' basically to show how Travis has eclipsed so much of Future's lane with more interesting, smoky production and ever slightly more diverse subject matter, but beyond that it's all Future for over an hour - if there's an album that needs a Drake feature, it's this one! And what's frustrating is that if you put even the slightest bit of thought into anything Future is saying - and I know much of his fanbase doesn't care but they sure as hell would if he was saying something relevant or insightful - this album starts to fall apart at the seams. Why on 'Temptation' is he trying to talk about resisting the titular subject when all of Future's appeal has come in succumbing to temptation? Future might reference his influence on songs like 'Krazy But True', but when you bring along none of the accountability that comes with that influence, it sounds cheap and astonishingly thin in self-awareness! If you know you influenced kids to try lean, maybe it's a terrible idea to title a song 'Overdose' and spend use drug iconography to highlight your flexing! Then there's 'Call The Coroner', which not only goes back to the drug abuse but also seems to indicate that Future doesn't know what Oreos look like - you need two black girls and one white girl if you're using the pronoun 'they' - but also that he doesn't know what volleyball is! And you know, I don't mind that Future actually referenced Ciara on the closing track 'Tricks On Me', one of the few songs that tries to get a bit more melancholic, but there's still no real introspection, as he spends most of the hook comparing himself to Jimi Hendrix and saying he'll feel weak if he tells her he's sorry! The entire album is a testament to immaturity, and I know that's part of the baseline appeal, but it's the same thing I say about nihilistic art in how without more details or insight or intensity it gets really boring really fast, and when you get rid of even that subtext, that's even more true. 

But again, this is me talking about content, which I already know is the last thing that matters for most Future fans, so let's go to the production... and honestly, I'm not impressed. Going back to 'Mask Off', one of the reasons why that song worked both in and out of the context of the album was the sample and a distinctive melody separate from Future's vocal line - it was a point where things changed up within the album, and was all the better for it even if the content felt thin. The problem here is that since Future is so obviously stream trolling - you don't make a twenty song album with songs this abortive if you're not - the songs are all modulated to never quite shift up that much, to better fit on a playlist, and that means finding moments that are actually distinct gets really difficult! And let's be clear, the only reason there are any songs I like on this album comes from production: the minimalist creeping trap knock of 'Talk Shit Like A Preacher', and the spiky futuristic synths behind 'Goin Dummi' both really clicked for me; even though the latter song is dumb as sand and Future's rhymes are pretty weak there is a distinctive melodic cadence there that stuck for me. But the larger problem is that many of the actual melodic phrases are so restrained and buried that there's no sense of any greater atmosphere, or when you do get good ideas like the sharper keys on 'Servin Killa Kam' you have Future's voice sounding shredded, or take 'Baptiize' that tries to execute a beat switch and it's just underwhelming. Again, I'm still not really a fan of 'Tricks On Me', but at least the fluttery sample and scratchy pop of the beat stood out!

And thus as a whole... look, I could say, 'well, it's a Future album, you know what you're getting', and to his credit he doesn't have many of the outright disastrous moments he had on albums like Honest five years ago, but I would struggle to say with certainty this'll do well or is guaranteed an album bomb of the size of his peers, if only because I don't hear the distinctive melodic hooks that really jump off the album or anything memetic. And I could be very wrong, but if I'm not, I'm not going to be surprised, because there has been so little artistic advancement in content or sound that I can see Future being left behind, and with Travis Scott on the same label I don't see Future getting the same priority treatment - I'd put money on Future changing labels sooner rather than later, but off this album, I don't see it helping his negotiations. In short, I've never been a Future fan, but even in comparison with his best this is middle-of-the-road at best and pretty disposable at worst - I'm thinking a solid 4/10, no recommendation, and I don't see good things going forward. And I'll admit I'm disappointed with this, because with projects like this, Future shows exactly how he'll get left in the past.