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Faded Signs

The Political Economy of Future

In an interview with Future on Beats 1 Radio on Thursday, journalist Zane Lowe asked the prolific rapper, “Do you see a time when this addiction you have to creating will move into a different stage in your life, and other things will take priority?”

For fans of Future’s incredible output these last three years, the question hangs in the air like so many of his hits at the nearest nightclub. The last seven days alone have seen the release of two more fruits of Future’s indefatigable labors: FUTURE and HNDRXX, released a week apart from one another on Feb. 17 and Feb. 24.

“It’s hard for anything to overshadow my music right now,” Future replied to Zane. As much of that music as is currently on the market, he’s right.

I was born in 1984—an older fan by hip-hop standards, and no longer quite the target audience of the mixtapes made by younger Millennial rappers in this era of instant Internet celebrity and music streaming services. My first memories of rap are wrapped in celluloid cassette tape and the plastic packaging of compact discs. But I find the music of Future—born Nayvadius DeMun Wilburn a year before me in November 1983—to be a force. When I’m overworked, interviewing for yet another short-term contract position, or about to embark on a large writing project, he’s all I want to hear: The gritty ambition of “Digital Dash” and the petty glory of “Fuck Up Some Commas” trace a familiar mood on this 21st-century terrain of vanishing opportunities and ruthless opportunism. The scorched earth of American neoliberalism—where a sense of exceptionalism is an aging Millennial’s shield against declining social entitlements—is the soil of Future’s creative flowering.

The highlights of Future’s discography span the strange interim period between the exit of Obama and the ascendancy of Trump. Honest (2014) set the table for the smashes DS2 (2015) and What A Time To Be Alive (2015). The election year of 2016 saw the rapper only go gold with yet another album (EVOL) before the this month’s deluge of FUTURE and HNDRXX. This body of work shows shades of the contrasting political moods that they were made under.

Enabled as it is by White record labels, the spectacle of Black empowerment fronted by Future is the ultimate post-racial fantasy: a wealthy Black man in the public eye who feels no need to use his platform to stump for any political cause. Concurrently, the galling materialism of Future’s records are gilded testaments to the triumph of the Trumpian worldview. In the not-so-distant future, a documentary series on whatever replaces Netflix will relay the 2010s as a time when the symbolic progress of the Obama years attached seamlessly to the autocracy of his billionaire successor. Future has submitted an impressive bid to provide the soundtrack for that film. What a time to be alive.

Capitalism is Future’s favorite subject. On FUTURE, he gives songs titles of “Rent Money,” “POA (Price on Application),” “Poppin’ Tags,” “When I Was Broke.” The album reinforces the sense that he exists specifically to take American materialism to its cartoon extreme. Here’s Future, ad-libbing the sound of a money-counting machine on “Zoom.” There he goes on “Rent Money,” bragging that “I got the money comin in, it ain’t no issues.” By the time he arrives at album closer “Feds Did a Sweep,” I wondered about the conscience of a man who’s never publicly proclaimed “Black Lives Matter” but utters “put a dollar sign on my enemies.”

Is Future capable of integrating any social concern, beyond accumulating wealth and killing foes, into his musical persona, filled as it is with gruff threats and ghetto-bourgeois boasts? How many fans will recite “the top come of the Lamborghini, cause I’m a super trapper” but never amass enough gross lifetime wages to buy one?

The souped-up neo-New Jack Swing of HNDRXX and its stellar production suggest something different: an easier listen with more sensitive themes that might set the template for a new trend in R&B. But the advent of emotion is not enough to divorce Future from his preoccupation with economics. “I put a whole lotta work in, I just begun,” he raps on the rugged “Lookin Exotic.” On the breathtakingly misogynist “My Collection,” he equates his stockpile of exes to material possessions in a metaphor reminiscent of a chapter titled “Choice and Options” in Aziz Ansari’s 2015 book Modern Romance. On “Damage,” he obnoxiously chases a romantic hook (“Girl, I’ve been there for you”) by singing “Money coming so fast!” It’s not a non sequitur but a window into an acquisition-obsessed psyche. To Future, the rush of romance is comparable to the pursuit of deeper pockets.

“Money can cause psychological havoc,” writes William Davies in his 2015 book The Happiness Industry. “The central fact about money is that it must perform two contradictory functions at once: to serve as a store of value and as a medium of exchange.”

In other words, money requires mental dissonance. We’re encouraged to save it at the same time that we have to spend it. We want it in reserve, yet we can’t wait to blow it. Capitalism systematizes the inherent instability of cash with emotional peaks, devastating falls, climbs back to the top and unsettling signs that something is not quite right when we’re back on the summit.

Two albums with distinct plots on the same graph, FUTURE and HNDRXX are sonic stock sheets of Future’s materialistic frame of mind. They salve his bipolar bonanza of accumulation: “Oh you did more drugs than me? You must be hallucinating!,” he taunts on the sedated “Hallucinating.” On the sensational “Sorry,” he laments, “the game is doped up, every nigga’s using.” Indeed, Future’s bouts with drug abuse are well documented. Our participation in the economic system he celebrates is itself a mentally destabilizing environment that creates the problems that drugs are then prescribed to fix. For Future’s musical personality, a life of getting rich by selling cocaine was a ticket to using codeine to cope.

Currently the #1 and #2 best-selling albums on iTunes, all of the tracks on FUTURE and HNDRXX take place somewhere on the emotional trajectory of the film Scarface—from the charming aspirations of a marginalized hustler to the violent paranoia of an apex predator. Where FUTURE luxuriates in the heartless imperatives of this damaged lifestyle, HNDRXX deepens the field, supplying a director’s commentary on the character he created. Future’s lyrical lens captures us as we never want to be: participants in a manically materialist world where money and love simulate the highs and lows of addiction.

The problem is not Future—it’s that this is the present. His vision of these times is the best and worst of what he has to say. If only these albums weren’t so relevant.

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