An abridged version of this review has been published by the blog Pretty Much Amazing, which you can read here.
By and large, the story behind DS2, Future’s latest album, should be the unprecedented run he’s been on up until this point. Because let’s face it, it’s quite unheard of today for a bona fide street rapper like Future to do what he’s done in such little time. The (approximately) nine-plus months of dropping three quality mixtapes for download, generating grassroots hype via fervent fan support, nine-plus months of critical re-evaluation and further acclamation, major magazines putting the DS2 blip on their radars, nine-plus months of “Fuck Up Some Commas” climbing on the charts, nine-plus months of pan-flash rap acts finally being picked off one-by-one. Even with DS2 ostensibly completed and released to the public (with less than a week after it was first announced,) the insanity just continued: Future’s free record release show in Los Angeles was canceled after a crowd overwhelmed the Sunset Strip. Desperate and out of ideas, promoters relocated the show to a larger nearby venue. Then it was shutdown. For the second time.
But sadly, most publications would rather take Future’s redemptive nine-plus month journey and put their own spin on it—mostly in the form of click bait—with sites endlessly flooding everyone’s feed with cheap gossip. And although Future doesn’t shy away from the spotlight, he has wisely avoided the trappings of the cliché celebrity lifestyle as well as the incongruous tabloid fodder that often comes as a prepackaged deal. “My relationship was bigger than me,” says Future in a rare sit down interview with Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club. Future, who is of course referring to his relationship with (now) ex-fiancee Ciara, made a conscious effort to keep his name out of the headlines as he went on his album high-quality mixtape tear last October. This tear would produce a triptych in the form of Monster, Beast Mode and 56 Nights. This now infamous trilogy of no bullshit street rap tapes chronicled Future’s syrup-drenched headspace post-engagement that can only be described as the musical equivalent of driving a blood red Ferrari at full speed off of a bridge and into a sea of codeine.
Which is why DS2, Future’s third commercial album with Epic, feels more like an exclamation mark on a booming rap career and equally exciting life story than a chicken scratch run-on sentence. And with that being said, Dirty Sprite 2—covertly slapped with the retail based DS2 to avoid a potentially messy lawsuit—can be seen as a wake up call for many who’ve been hearing the name Future and a reminder to those arriving late to the party start paying close(er) attention. Throughout, Future channels the four year old Dirty Sprite and consciously returns to his Kirkwood, Atlanta roots, a place he and fellow Lil’ Mexico resident rapper Young Scooter (although don’t say I called him that) have painted as being nothing more than country dirt roads. And although Future is often portrayed, alongside other rappers under the imprisonment of the “trap rap” tag, as merely glorifying a less-than-ideal lifestyle by the Tipper Gores of America, he’s usually very humble and thankful for all of the riches and successes that come his way (“I know I came from poverty, I got my name from poverty/ I know for sure, for sure/ If my Granddad was livin’, I know he’d be proud of me” he professes on “Blow a Bag”). The grinding and hustling—twelve combined mixtapes, three albums, a reissue, and a bunch of singles and features—over the course of five-plus years can be filed under “primer”-era Future and DS2 is the logical summation.
Smartly abandoning the sappy love balladry that alienated many on his debut album, Pluto, and trimming all the excess fat that made Honest, an otherwise solid sophomore effort feel largely uneven, Future goes for the gut and DS2 can pack a wallop. “Thought It Was a Drought” starts the album as effectively as any opening song on a rap album in the last five or so years: With Future quite literally mixing Actavis brand cough syrup with a soft drink of choice right there in the recording booth. (My guess? Either Fanta or Sprite.) Mind you, while the soda is irrelevant it is important to note what prescription-strength cough syrup he’s drinking here—the distinction of the Actavis brand—and it not being some weak off-brand stuff. And just in case you weren’t hip to the acronym serving as the album’s title Future will catch you up to speed in no time. To record himself mixing together this dangerous intoxicating substance on a commercial album gives DS2 an immediate lived-in quality and finds Future finally comfortable in the cockpit of his UFO. “Bitch, I’m’a choose the dirty over you/ You know I ain’t scared to lose you,” he mumbles with the grit of his voice scrapping like sandpaper as he reminds the world that no one comes between Future and his drugs.
That isn’t to say DS2 is a monolithic trap banger à la Flockaveli; quite the contrary as Future largely swerves the “turn up” lane and heads directly into the newfangled “look-from-within” or contemplative bangers space that’s being currently occupied by fellow ATLien, Young Thug. After all, it was Future who, equipped with just Mike Will Made It’s signature production style and his heart on his sleeve, first began churning out “ballads” that would bang harder than, well, the typical “bangers” of the time. (Check out his breakout single “Turn on the Lights” from 2012.) It may seem rather low to put quotes over the words ballads and bangers in the year 2015 but it’s necessary in the curious case of Future and even a project like DS2—easily his most traditional rap album to date—because of how clear the distinction between the two can often be. Before, when a song featured Future singing (in his trademark clumsy Auto-Tune, no less) it’d immediately be written off by rap purists as tear-stained R&B. But Future, who was already a naturally gifted songwriter by the time Dirty Sprite dropped, having trained under the studious Dungeon Family collective, has learned a lot about carefully stitching together a good song that gives the listener plenty to chew on. DS2 is a light and breezy thirteen tracks that accentuates Future’s many strengths and elevates his already powerful stories to Hemingway-like heights.
Conversely, however, Future’s songwriting process on DS2 is a strictly no pad, no paper affair; something many rappers have alleged to do in the past, but rarely ever sounded this believable and palpable. Future’s M.O. these days seems to be to capture every thought and emotion, no matter big or small, that he’s feeling at any moment he’s near a recording station, which would explain why just about every track on DS2 featuring a grab-bag of quotable lyrics covering a wide range of topics and emotions. Just the way he playfully soothes you in with “I had to go to work with heavy metal” before suddenly splashing an ice-cold bucket of “I done seen dead bodies in the ghetto” in your face. Hard-hitting yet gut-wrenching. Elsewhere, like on album standout “Slave Master”, Future focuses his undivided attention to a singular feeling that connects with the beat and drives that synchronization of the two right into your soul. And yet, reading rap lyrics without the context of the actual music and artist’s vocal delivery is a seemingly pointless task, especially when you have the Dream Team of contemporary rap producers (Metro Boomin, Southside, Zaytoven) at your disposal, and who also have a bevy of grade-A beats for you to choose from. “I make beats come to life,” Future once said. And it’s none more truer than on DS2.
And if production is a deal breaker for you when it comes to rap music, then you’ll most likely have no trouble enjoying DS2 as it’s some of the most detailed and nuanced street rap production in quite a long while. In addition to having his hand in production on nearly every track on the album—bonus tracks notwithstanding—the 21-year-old wunderkind Metro Boomin is credited as an executive producer on DS2 as well. But for those keeping tabs this should come as no surprise with Metro being credited as an exec of Future’s Monster and he already has a laundry list of high-profile production credits to his name. His name has literally been boomin’ for a few years now. And the production on DS2 is A1 street rap we’ve come to know and love from Atlanta; with manic hi-hats, a crushing low-end, rich keys, exotic textures, and haunting yet also beautiful embellishments helping propel the album further and smoother along the already easy 42-minute run time. A common criticism of DS2 so far is, and I quote from the YouTube comments section to a popular Future video: “Many of the songs sound the same.” But that’s only because of how great of a job Metro did when executive producing the album—DS2 is the product of solid music management and careful sequencing. Sadly, this makes one wonder what Honest could’ve been had it had better sequencing.
Elsewhere, tracks like “I Serve the Base” hit you with a wash of vivid violence courtesy of distorted synths and rumbling bass. Tracks like these remind me that certain rap songs—primarily from a production standpoint—can blur the lines between experimental and pop music. And this is one of those songs. There’s a moment in the beat where an ominous pixelated shout (I want to say sampled from the 90s Sega video game Streets of Rage but I won’t put my money on it) is played up by Future, who slyly uses it to highlight his boisterous lines: “They tried to take the soul out me/ They tried to take my confidence and they know I’m cocky.” You may have thought Future’s d-boy lyrics and machismo would get boring after a third album but they’ve been dialed all the way up to eleven on DS2, to near sinister levels, which makes for a thrilling listen from start to finish. The five bonus tracks that come with the deluxe version of the album—”Trap Niggas”, “The Percocet & Stripper Joint”, “Real Sisters”, “Kno the Meaning”, and “Fuck Up Some Commas”—are all fine songs on their own but with the terrible order of tracks and the fact that we’ve heard three of those months ago is slightly disappointing.
Fans, critics and perhaps even Epic head honcho and (technically) Future’s boss, LA Reid, have been callously using the unexpected success of DS2 as a vehicle to sweep Honest under the rug. But Future, being an artist who has always been honest, doesn’t share the same opinion of the album as everyone else does. In fact, he’s been quite candid about his convictions regarding Honest, and the lukewarm reception it received both critically and (especially) commercially. His defense of a project he’s evidently very proud of—and one he should be proud of—is telling of Future’s unbridled love for music. For him, the focus has always been about music, which is why it’s evermore frustrating for Future when he’s constantly doubted and not given full control over his creativity (“Tryna make a pop star and they made a monster”). Even during his time with Ciara, a fellow recording artist, Future gave her career and music his complete attention, and would go onto receive a co-writing credit for “Body Party”, her biggest hit since 2010’s “Ride”. When Future and Mike Will Made It insisted on assisting Ciara with her then-forthcoming self-titled album, she allegedly was overtly against the idea and went a completely separate direction with the project. On the other hand, Mike Will may have been conspicuously missing from Future’s recent story but that’s looking to change very soon with anticipating growing for Ape Shit, the studio magic duo’s forthcoming, long-gestating collaborative mixtape. Whenever that inevitably drops we will mark the moment we begin “legend”-era Future.