February 3, 2016

TEST SPIN: Future — Purple Reign

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The shtick that has turned Future into one of hip hop’s biggest superstars casts him as a drug-addled club rat, drinking lean to numb the pain; this was more or less the premise of his last album, DS2, which was a huge critical and commercial success. The updated hipster take on Future is that he’s a doomed, lovelorn soul who turns his druggy misery into art like a sizzurp-sipping Cobain. This kind of revisionism is necessary in order to listen to such mindless music without irony, because Future’s songs are unbelievably repetitive and dreary.

But in a recent interview with The Source, Future as much as admitted that his persona is a fabrication designed to sell records. “I’m not like super drugged out or [a] drug addict,” he said. “My music may portray a certain kind of image […] because I feel like that’s the number one thing everybody likes to talk about. It’s a catch.” His fans have responded to this, bizarrely, by trying to ignore it. If Future isn’t really a drug addict, the hipster take is wrong and he’s just a craven opportunist who parlays trapped-out nihilism into record sales. You have to engage the music on its own merits; it can’t be an authentically interesting portrait of drug abuse because Future himself admits that it’s not authentic.

So how you feel about Purple Reign, his new mixtape, will pretty much come down to whether or not the trap-god persona he’s created appeals to you, because one thing he doesn’t do is innovate. Lyrically, he sticks to pills, lean, guns, strippers and the mean streets of Atlanta — few rappers have less range. He expresses contempt for everyone he knows, everything he spends his time doing and, by proxy, himself, although his worst vitriol is aimed at women. Even his flow is maddeningly repetitive, because his raps have no bounce, no interplay with the beat. A typical Future verse reads like a series of flat statements, each ending on the same sound. Therefore, when pulled out of the song and onto the page, his lyrics are almost comically stupid: “I pull up wherever I want, I do whatever I want / You take her on dates and I won’t, you holding her hand and I won’t / You do whatever I won’t and I do whatever I want.”

The guy’s not trying to make Illmatic here, what he’s aiming for is bangers. And he’s written a few good ones, like “Jumpman” and “I Serve The Base,” which were two of 2015’s best. Nothing on Purple Reign is that good, but the highlights hit hard. “Inside The Mattress,” about Future’s favorite stash spot, has a nice premise, and on “All Right” his autotune is hooky and melodic. The best beats on the album are the ones that give Future’s voice a little space to work with. Metro Boomin’s minimalist beat on “All Right” showcases the verse well, and “Run Up,” produced by DJ Spinz, forces Future out of his comfort zone. But most of the beats are more or less an interchangeable stew of 808s, snare rolls and twinkly keyboards, so Future’s voice ends up fading into the mix. The songs have little replay value and “Drippin How U Love That,” which sounds like a bad Fetty Wap impression, is a particular lowlight. It’s not that I don’t like the trap sound in and of itself, but Future compares unfavorably to the baroque, experimental work of, say, Travi$ Scott. Trap can be — and has been — done better.

Sometimes the guy manages to work a shambling, garbled charisma. The best parts of DS2 allowed you to empathize with Future, but there’s really not much of that on this mixtape. The lone exception is the mournful title track, in which he personifies lean as his girlfriend. The rest of the tape is a fun-free slog through drugs and pussy. It’s not his subject matter I object to as much as his complete lack of wit in describing it.

I suspect that a Future fan would say that my criticisms of Purple Reign completely miss the point. This fan, I imagine, would argue that Future’s music isn’t designed to be critically scrutinized, it’s designed to slap in the club. The success or failure of Purple Reign as a work of art would depend on how it fares at high volume, not when hyper-analyzed through headphones. I don’t think this perspective is entirely wrong — I bet that’s how Future sees it, at least — and when judged by that standard, Purple Reign is a moderate success. It’s hard to criticize an album for doing what it sets out to do.

But I don’t think that’s a particularly lofty goal, and I think it’s been done way more artfully by many other rappers. I don’t think Future is authentic, which I could live with if I liked the persona he’s created for himself. To like Future, you either have to listen without paying close attention or resort to complicated justifications for why he’s cool. I don’t think he’s cool, and despite its occasional high points, I don’t think you should download Purple Reign.

Max Van Zile is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].