Notes On Hip Hop (II)

by by By Taylor Kelley

For the first time since T.I.’s Trap Muzik dropped in 2003, there is no obvious top dog in Atlanta rap, a strange phenomenon given the city’s central importance to hip hop. T.I. has been washed up for a while, Gucci Mane can’t stay out of jail, and Young Jeezy never managed to build much buzz around the strangely flat 2011 release Thug Motivation 103.  With all due respect to Waka Flocka and the artist formerly known as Tity Boi, the heir to the throne appears to be Future.

Future is as Atlanta as they come. Born in Decatur but repping the Southside, he’s the cousin of Dungeon Family/Organized Noise co-founder Rico Wade and the rumored brother of rapper Rocko (of “Umma Do Me” fame). He even gave himself a name that another rapper already had, a move straight out of the J-Money playbook. His rise to fame was quick: after getting a feature on YC’s hit “Racks” early last year, Future dropped a series of very popular mixtapes, most notably Dirty Sprite, True Story, Streetz Calling, and Astronaut Status. While many of his songs are ubiquitous on Atlanta radio and in clubs, a few have reached nationwide audiences: the repetitive but infectious “Tony Montana” (in which Future amusingly butchers a Cuban accent), the strip club ode “Magic” (after Atlanta’s superstar strip club Magic City), and the panoptical “Watch This” (featuring his probably-not-actual brother Rocko). This relatively modest success landed him a spot on XXL’s 2012 Freshman list, as well a bizarre performance on Jimmy Fallon earlier this month in which he rapped the first verse of “Magic” twice, seemingly by accident.

Pluto (A1/Free Bandz/Epic) is Future’s major-label debut, but unlike many rap studio albums, the sound of his mixtapes is left more or less intact. Future’s trademark style has two principal elements: his raspy, emotional vocal style and the Atlanta trap-rap production, these days a combination of the blaring horns of “Futuristic” rap and the rolling-R high hats and snares pioneered by Lex Lugar. Usually through a fairly strong Auto-Tune filter, Future’s flow is as much singing as rapping, though every fifth song or so tends to be just rap. His pop sensibilities and melodic delivery often get compared to Atlanta pop-rappers Roscoe Dash and Yung LA, or sometimes even “Lollipop”-style Lil Wayne, but really he is closer to dancehall artists like Vybz Kartel and Mavado. His music exists on a spectrum between introspective melodrama and hard-as-Flocka bangers, usually falling somewhere in the middle. “Permanent Scar,” for example, is about as emotional as rap comes: Future covers well-worn subjects like his friends dying, but adds some complexity with a verse about his uncle’s attempted suicide and lines like “my little cousin caught a body and he still fightin/ and I got killas in the yard, Future all they recitin.” On the other hand, “Same Damn Time” is basically a clinic on how to go as hard as possible, with Future yelling about all the things he does simultaneously (most of which aren’t that impressive, like selling cocaine as well as mediocre weed or popping bottles while on the sofa). While some may find melodrama and melody ill fitted to trap rap, it’s an established genre in dancehall, and the fact that Future pulls it off outside of Jamaica is a huge part of his appeal.

Pluto still suffers from some studio-album ambitions: an amateur, Outkast-style introduction fails to set the tone, the fancy production quality makes many the of beats a little smoother and softer than they should be, and gratuitous spacey synths serve as a hollow motif without adding much to the songs. Future seems to have forgotten that his interest in the cosmos and Pluto was originally a reference to how high he was, not some sort of metaphysical condition. Furthermore, the emotional songs on Pluto (“Neva End,” “Permanent Scar”) don’t compete with their equivalents on the mixtapes, particularly “Long Time Coming” or “Feeling I Get” from True Story. In fact, the album’s two best songs, “Magic” and “Same Damn Time,” both originated on mixtapes.

That is not to say the album is not a success, though. Only one legitimately bad song (“Astronaut Chick”) out of fifteen on a major-label rap debut is a remarkable accomplishment. Out-of-place features and questionable experiments frequently derail rap studio albums, but the only song that fits into that category is “Parachute,” which features R. Kelly (never a problem) and is actually one of the better new songs. “You Deserve It” and “Straight Up,” both of the inspirational anthem genre, are very solid efforts and will definitely be regulars in my Future rotation. “Im Trippin,” an otherwise forgettable ditty about doing lots of drugs, is saved by an immensely entertaining verse by Juicy J of Three 6 Mafia.

If you haven’t heard Future before, I’d suggest you download his best mixtape, True Story. For many people though, Pluto will be their first exposure to the rapper, and the album is definitely good enough to expand his fan base. Whether or not it brings him the commercial credibility he needs to ascend to the throne in Atlanta will depend in part on the success of the album, but it will also be crucial that he use the nationwide attention to craft a more compelling public persona. Up to this point, his success has been much more a product of his music than his charisma—as a fan I still have a hard time describing his personality. To get to the top he’ll have to bring the music and the charm at the #samedamntime.

TAYLOR KELLEY B’12 got on UGG boots and shit.