Future’s best since Dirty Sprite 2.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, but here it is. Scarcely a week after the disheartening Future, here is a Future album that reaffirms our belief in a star that only weeks ago seemed in danger of skidding off the map. HNDRXX isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s his best since Dirty Sprite 2, and good enough that you don’t have to kid yourself that that’s an accomplishment.
The reason for its success is simple: it does something new, and it does it well. This is the most pop thing Future’s done since his debut Pluto, which established him as a star but was still a couple years removed from the nihilistic space cowboy persona he’d ride into what was, until now, looking like the sunset. He even opens it by deadpanning “You wanna come to paradise?/ Matter fact, you wanna come to Pluto?”—then chuckling, knowingly, before flicking on the Auto-Tune. The difference between Pluto and HNDRXX is everything that’s come between—not just the sonic template he’s honed and settled on since, but what we know about Future himself.
Future was a “bad guy” on Pluto, but no more so than the pop-rappers he took after: Soulja Boy, Shawty Lo. Starting with his phenomenal 2014-2015 mixtape trilogy, he honed his badness beyond swagger into its own art, becoming a hopeless creature reveling in the fruits of the rich-rapper life but too numb and paranoid to enjoy them. We weren’t supposed to want to be him, we weren’t supposed to even like him, but we got to know him well, so much so that by about the beginning of 2016 he was wearing on our nerves like a needy roommate. His steadfast refusal to change his basic formula—monotonous, Auto-Tuned rapping over gothic trap beats—made the prospect of keeping up with him and his voluminous output even less appealing.
The Future we hear on HNDRXX is the Future we know and (maybe) love. The context is entirely different. He wants us to believe him as a pop star—specifically, a modern-day male alt-R&B bad boy. The template for this style is the Weeknd, who’s the first voice on HNDRXX other than Future himself. In a post-“Blurred Lines” era where the misogyny that’s long pervaded male-sung pop has shot to the fore of critical discourse, artists have been forced to disguise themselves as rakish rogues to get away with saying the kind of sexist shit most male listeners wouldn’t have batted an eye at before. Per this logic, it’s the persona saying it, not them.
HNDRXX isn’t morally horrendous by R&B standards; compared to an R. Kelly or Terius Nash album, it’s positively enlightened (possibly because Future isn’t as monstrous a human being as either of those two; though he’s put his ex-fiancé Ciara through very public hell, he’s not a rapist like Kelly or a woman-beater like Nash as far as I know). It’s still hideous, though, to hear him soothe his sadness over losing Ciara by repeating “Even if I hit you once, you part of my collection”—more so because of the guilelessness with which he sings it. It’s also hard to take the seven-minute apology “Sorry” seriously when he snipes at Ciara for much of the rest of the album (“Baby mama back drinking liquor/ Now she trying to fuck my life up,” from “Damage.”)
But astonishingly, Future actually comes across as kind of sweet for much of the record. This isn’t an adjective you’d think to pair with a guy who started his best album by bragging about the shoes he fucked your bitch in. But this is the first album where Future actually sounds boyfriendable. When he sings “You wanna fall in love with the bad guy” on “Testify,” it’s a knowing nod to his rakish reputation rather than a chest-puff. On “Lookin’ Exotic,” he’ll take you shopping in Paris. On “Incredible,” the record’s purest pop song, he offers to spend the night with his girl doing Vicodin; amazingly, it sounds like he’s less thrilled with the idea than she is.
HNDRXX’s best song is “Use Me,” on which he’s positively Prince-like in his willingness to utterly surrender to a woman as atonement for wrongs only implied. He promises to fuck up the person that hurt her—then threatens to kidnap back her child from her baby daddy, mirroring his own situation (he’s not allowed to visit the child he had with Ciara, as he explains on “Comin’ Out Strong”). Then he belts the title, the intensity increasing with each repetition, his voice pushing against its own limits in its ascent upward. It recalls nothing less than “The Beautiful Ones,” a comparison driven home by a very Dr. Fink-like organ solo towards the end. Not even the depths of Monster rival its power. It’s enough to make you choke up just thinking about it.
HNDRXX is rarely this intense, and it’s a happy accident that “Use Me” explains what’s going on in Future’s head far more adequately and movingly than “Sorry;” we feel worse for him when he’s not trying to elicit our sympathy. The way HNDRXX rocks back and forth between tenderness and solipsistic rage is jarring. It’s harder still to feel for him considering just how mean Future was, what with its relentless threats and machismo and drugged-out sex and lines about grabbing that pussy like Donald. Maybe we’re meant to hear the two records as a piece, with the debauchery on Future explained on HNDRXX as him just missing his girl.
Future isn’t any better because of HNDRXX, but the rapper’s willingness here to show new sides of himself—both sonically and emotionally—makes that former record a lot less of a letdown and proves there are still plenty of avenues open for Future to pursue. It’s understandable if you gave up on following Future long ago. He’s frustratingly prolific, and for all we know he could be preparing to drop five more albums tonight. Though Future just made music history as the first artist to replace himself as holder of the title of number one album in America, this is one of the easiest major rap albums this year to miss. It’s also, so far, one of the best.