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Future, The Best Rapper Who Rarely Raps

His album Pluto 3D blurs the line between club bangers and heart-crushing, hyperemotional confessionals.

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Future’s Pluto 3D is one of the year’s best rap albums, which is kind of a weird thing to say since he barely raps on it. But that’s the thing: He doesn’t have to. The album is the logical continuation of Future’s appearance on YG’s “Racks”, so it’s full of Auto-Tuned hooks and pop-oriented spins on Atlanta’s Bricksquad sound. But Pluto builds artistically on the sound as well. Future’s no longer comparable to T-Pain, the gold-and-sequin-covered elephant in the room when it comes to Auto-Tune. He’s still making radio-oriented rap, but throughout, it has a melancholy, almost tragic undertone. Even at his most boisterous, Future veers closer to Kanye’s sad robot 808s and Heartbreak territory. But that’s not exactly right either. Because, for all its sci-fi futurism, Pluto doesn’t have the cold and clinical aesthetic detachment of Kanye. You can picture Kanye in the lab, turning himself into the saddest sad robot when he made 808s. In Future’s case, he’s more like a sorry scientist attempting to build the perfect party bot.

Future crafts raucous anthems about money, cash, and hoes that sound as earnest and pained as Michael Bolton’s ballads. His ballads, as it were, are frenetic and propulsive. There’s a song on the album called “You Deserve It,” which I had to listen to about five or six times to figure out whether the titular “deserve” was an admonition or braggadocio. (It’s the latter.) The emotional plumb line on Pluto 3D is as screwed and wavy as Future’s Auto-Tuned voice. It’s as if Future’s goal was to destroy your expectations for what sort of messaging and feeling you can draw out of rap tropes. The centerpiece love songs — “Astronaut Chick,” “Neva End,” “Turn on the Lights” — go as hard as the bangers, and the bangers reach a Bacchic frenzy that culminates in the sort of emotional climax you’d normally associate with the sublime.

The album’s production provides much of its emotional thrust. Future has an impeccable ear for beats, tapping some great Atlanta production talent like Sonny Digital, Will A Fool, and the estimable Mike Will. Every song sounds like it’s coated in stardust, but they never simper. The album has a hard, ratchet backbone that’s responsible for its propulsion.

A lot of Pluto’s aesthetic has to do with rap’s somewhat recent love affair with MDMA. (As a point of reference, Future’s first post-Pluto mixtape was called Welcome to Mollywood.) There’s a palpable busyness to every song that you can almost feel rubbing up against you. It’s like headphone music for the whole body. I suspect it’s this ostentation that not only allows Future to transmute fairly uncomplicated musical ideas like “Straight Up” into a gum-showing smile, it’s also responsible for the utter listenability of the slow-tempo love songs.

One of those songs, “Turn on the Lights,” is one of my favorite songs in a long, long time. It’s the rare song that’s (sort of) sweet that can fit right in with the rest of the album’s dirty space-age orgy ambience. The airy production by Mike Will (who’s on a short list for producer of the year) puts just the right spin on Future’s spacey style. The booming bass keeps the song just grounded enough so that the melodic bed of synths doesn’t float away. The song is haunting and emotional, thunderous and tender — so well-produced that Future can say wholly earnest but middling things like

I heard she got a pretty face and stand up like a stallion.
I heard that she’s a precious jewel. You treat her to medallions.
I want be the one to find out if I go to prowling.
And if I get her number, you know I can’t wait to dial it.

I mean, yeah. Future won’t be winning any Pulitzer Prizes for the lyrics, but when you put it all together, it works really well. The simple brilliance of combining a generic rap love-song wish list with top-notch production and overemotional vocals brings the song to a place few venture. If Juicy J’s “Bands a Maker Her Dance” (another Mike Will song, another song of the year contender) is a seedy and sinister nightscape, “Turn on the Lights” is the rosy hopefulness of dawn — glorious.

The magic of Pluto is that Future’s using the same tools, the same tropes, as basically every other rapper, yet the result is unlike anything else out there. He’s making ratchet music with a bleeding heart. He’s made a singular record that can easily swerve from mollied-out bliss to deathly seriousness — all while maintaining a serious, committed relationship with sounding fun. It’s a huge artistic statement that doesn’t go out of its way to tell you that it’s a huge artistic statement.

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