Backstage at The Wendy Williams Show, Future’s team are nervous about his early-morning appearance. It’s 8 a.m. in late March and the rapper, who is scheduled to be a guest on the daytime-talk show, is either late or taking a nap. But his group of assistants are all here, including a stylist, who’s steaming and organizing a rack of clothes, sneakers, and hats in one of three dressing rooms, and a digital-marketing representative from Epic Records, who will take photos to post to Future’s Instagram account. His hairstylist, Shekinah, from T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle, flirts with his bodyguard while the rest of us wait.
As Williams’ warm-up DJ energizes a studio audience of middle-aged women with cuts from Swedish House Mafia and the Knife Party, the rapper’s publicists are setting boundaries with the show’s producers about which subjects are off-limits. Although the Atlanta-born musician is soft-spoken with an easy charm, Williams’ format isn’t much different from a tabloid reporter’s celeb-gawking. And since he’s currently engaged to Ciara, a very famous singer who also happens to be very pregnant, everyone is a little on edge about the gossipmonger’s line of questioning.
That is, everyone but Future. “Oh, they’re keeping it tuuuurnt at The Wendy Williams Show? Alright, alright,” he drawls, smiling widely as he appears, peering out of a dressing room. “How do I look?”
Even without the camera focused on him, Future — whose legal name is Nayvadius Cash — is a hard person to miss. His long braids are dyed blonde and loosely tied into a bun, making him taller than his already imposing six-feet-four inches. There’s a small star tattooed on his throat. He has a frequent half-cocked grin that immediately offsets his looming stature and an expensively striking sense of style. Today, he’s dressed in nearly all black and wearing a list of names as impressive in fashion as his peers are in rap. Almost as soon as he hits the set, Wendy Williams brings out her “shoe cam” to zoom in his pristine, high-end Air Force 1 high-tops, a limited-edition collaboration between Nike and Givenchy’s creative director Riccardo Tisci.
The performer’s shoes aren’t the only thing in the spotlight. Future is less than a month away from releasing one of this year’s most anticipated rap records, Honest, for Epic Records, executive produced by Mike WiLL Made It and featuring guest verses from Kanye West and Drake, among others. His first-ever headlining tour will follow, as will his marriage to Ciara, and the baby that they’re expecting. And although he doesn’t know it yet, the 30-year-old performer will take the stage with his recently reunited hometown heroes OutKast during their Coachella headlining set, where, alongside André 3000, he’ll perform their Honest collaboration, “Benz Friends (Watchutola).”
For Future, the last three years have been one Auto-Tune-gargled verse after another, all the way to the top. His grainy, emotive style and melodic hooks have made him the new voice of Southern rap. Since his radio-breakthrough appearance (and writing credit) on YC’s “Racks” in 2011, the Atlanta rapper has become the go-to figure for an audience that wants both the sensitive seduction of Drake and the trend-conscious street-rap of hype men like Gucci Mane. He’s since released seven mixtapes that bridge that gap, plus his debut full-length, Pluto.
Really, almost every single he’s been on in the last two years has been a success. His emotional, heady hooks have helped make songs like Rihanna’s “Love Song,” Rocko’s “U.O.E.N.O.,” and Lil Wayne’s “Love Me” into Top 10 singles on the Billboard Rap and R&B charts, and he co-wrote “Body Party,” Ciara’s massive comeback single last year. With Honest, Future hopes to reclaim both his voice and his style for his own full-length release — to build a statement of his own, one that he says best reflects both his life in full and where he is, personally and creatively, at this exact moment in his life.
Where he is right now, however, is on The Wendy Williams Show’s purple couch.
“You’ve got a nice smile,” the talk-show host says approvingly. “With all of your original teeth.”
The conversation shifts from public inspection to personal interrogation: His wedding plans; the 15-karat engagement ring he gave his fiancée; the photos of Kim Kardashian and La La at Ciara’s baby shower; the announcement that Future’s fourth child — his first with Ciara — will be a son.
“It really takes a certain kind of man to be able to have four women, who have your kids, get along so well,” Williams says, as a group photo of Ciara with three other women is shown onscreen. You can practically feel Future’s team cringe from the side of the stage. But the rapper is amiable, engaging, and gentle throughout the interviewer’s less-than-subtle prodding. He expects people to bring up his past and his significant other; it’s all part of the deal he signed up for when trying to break through to her level of recognition. “One of those women is my sister,” he replies, calmly pointing out his younger sister Tia in the photo. “They get along great.”
Williams starts to inquire about Future’s decision to “choose marriage,” but she interrupts herself to fawn over the gigantic, glittering diamond pinkie ring on her guest’s right hand. His left hand has no jewelry, but the letter “C” is inked on his ring finger, a placeholder for the wedding band from Ciara. Hidden from view beneath his black Rick Owens leather jacket, many more tattoos are scrawled up and down both of his arms. Most prominent are a matching set on his right and left forearms that read, respectively, “DUNGEON” and “FAMILY.”
Rico Wade, one-third of Atlanta-production crew Organized Noize, spent the late ‘90s and early ‘00s in his basement studio, a space affectionately called “the Dungeon.” The crew who hung out there — a tight-knit collective of rappers, producers, and engineers known as Dungeon Family — specialized in taking weird, outlier vocalists and making them into something that charmed both classic hip-hop stans and club-goers. Responsible for hits like TLC’s “Waterfalls” and En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go (Love),” and all but discovering Goodie Mob and OutKast (they produced 1994’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik as well as hits from 2000’s Stankonia), Wade’s collective was a keystone of the burgeoning Southern-rap community.
It was around 2001, when Wade and his crew had just finished recording and releasing Bubba Sparxxx’s “Ugly,” that his younger cousin Nayvadius — the future Future — began hanging around the Dungeon. Nayvadius, under the name Meathead, was already rapping on the streets of Atlanta’s Kirkwood neighborhood, where he grew up, but it was their grandfather that encouraged the two cousins to work together, in the hopes that it might keep his younger grandchild out of trouble. “He was at risk of being in a bad place,” says Wade, explaining by phone from Atlanta that as his younger cousin grew older, his friends became involved in the illegal activity that was common among teens from the area.
“I took him out of the trap then,” he says, using the 15-year-old Future’s early love of rap as a way to get him to spend more time in the Dungeon. “He knew he had to sit in the back and watch,” says Wade. “He knew better than to jump in with the grown folks.” It helped that Future was guarded by nature, a quality that, when paired with his cautious curiosity, quickly became an endearing quality to Wade’s crew. “I wanted him to stay away from the drugs, the hood. I told him, ‘Don’t do that no more. Don’t be that kind of person. I don’t want you to get locked up and I think you can make a difference.'”
“Things weren’t easy then,” says Future of his teenage years. His father left when he was 10 years-old, and his mother worked constantly, leaving babysitting duties to his grandmother and other extended family. He credits car rides with his mother listening to pop R&B on the radio — Luther Vandross, Michael Jackson, New Jack Swing — as subtly, inevitably influencing his own earnest croon. But he was also infatuated with rap and the lifestyle it represented. He would sneak off to ride around with his friends listening to Too $hort and Juvenile when he could get away with it. The New Orleans block-party style of Cash Money appealed to him too; the collective’s fondness for white tees and swigging lean would become an influence on his own style. His cousin’s Dungeon Family became his mentors. “Music was always there in Atlanta,” he says. “There was the drugs, there was the lean, there was the guns. But there was also pride.”
"There are so many people that get in the way of an artist making their music," Future says, frustrated. Two tracks that were scheduled to be on Honest didn't make the cut for legal reasons. "Good Mornin'," a song that sounds similar to Beyoncé's "Drunk in Love," was axed because both artists got the Detail-produced instrumental, but Beyoncé beat him to the release date. Then there's the Nicki Minaj collab with a "Careless Whisper" sample that was left out over copyright issues with George Michael. Now on the phone with WiLL, Future sits down on one of the ice-cream sandwiches and sighs, fidgeting with his beanie (it reads "LIVEWELL") as his producer delivers news about some new hump to deal with. (Later, at a press listening of the album, he would play the Nicki Minaj track in question and comically encourage bloggers to leak it, as his publicist anxiously asked them not to.)
Being out in public with Future means watching him get recognized. A kid inside the store whispers and pokes his friend to alert him of the musician's presence before not-so-subtly grabbing a shirt the rapper has been fingering moments earlier, to buy for himself. Future's fame is not new, but it's still at a place where he enjoys being out in daylight, surrounded by his posse, with the chance of being seen. Given his frame and his dreads, not to mention his increasingly oft-photographed face, he's hard not to notice. And the instant he steps outside, a group of passers-by does: A man asks Future to pose for a photo with a teenage girl, who grabs her phone and takes matters into her own hands, standing on tiptoe and pulling Future down to her level as she takes a selfie with him. Onlookers start pulling out their cellphones, too.
Once we're back in the car, at the firm suggestion of his well-dressed bodyguard, it's only a matter of seconds until smoke fills the air. In a contented haze, Future pulls out his iPhone and opens Instagram, checking his tagged photos to see if his fan has posted her picture of him yet. She hasn't. "That was a special moment," he says, slowly blowing out a white fog. "That was definitely a moment." He takes off his sunglasses — a rare occurrence — and stares into the cloud of smoke swirling around him. "This is a moment. Can you feel it? This is a moment. We're having a moment."