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SPIN Essentials

Future, ‘Pluto’ (A1/Free Bandz/Epic)

SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: April 17, 2012
Label: A1/Free Bandz/Epic

At first, hip-hop was an exercise in musical distillation. It freed words and music from their melodic obligations, leaving only the barest form of rhythm. But almost immediately after that big bang, musicality slowly seeped back in. Rappers cribbed notes from R&B and dancehall and pop, sporadically re-inserting that genetic material into hip-hop’s DNA. Very few of these fusionists could sing by traditional standards, but they compensated with magnetic deliveries and outsider charm. And over time, standards of good singing warped exponentially, each new iteration stranger than the next. It’s as if rap, after first stripping itself down, has spent the four decades since piecing itself back together from jumbled fragments, like a head-trauma patient reconstructing his memory, or an alien ship piecing together a scrambled transmission.

Future is the latest in this long line of aliens, and he’d probably be quite proud of that distinction. The Atlanta MC raps infrequently on his commercial debut, Pluto, and yet it’s a record that, in cultural terms, can only be defined as a rap album. He leans hard into all those post-Lil Wayne clichés — goofily aligned punch lines, spaced-out drug analogies, dope-boy boasts, designer name-drops — but delivers them in a strained, melismatic warble, drenched in Auto-Tune and constantly cracking. Imagine P-Funk’s Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk re-imagined by Mike Patton, but with unbridled swagger replacing any semblance of pitch or poise. The closest precedent for this approach is probably Wayne’s drowning 2007 mixtape ballad “Prostitute Flange,” but Future pushes past even that level of oddity. It sounds as if he’s purposely affecting a Wayne-esque studio-treated water-gargle before the actual effect is added to his voice. He’s mutating the mutation. And it often sounds magnificent.

In a vacuum, Future would be making difficult experimental music; in hip-hop, he’s a populist star. His half-dozen mixtapes, each one less rappy than the last, have spawned about as many legitimate hits in the past 18 months, from his breakout YC collaboration “Racks” to the currently rising trap-rap hymn “Same Damn Time.” The success is both a testament to Future’s knack for writing absolutely infectious melodies and a reflection of where rap radio is right now — Atlanta rap radio in particular. For years now, broadly hooky, shamelessly triumphant post-kiddie sing-a-long swag rappers like Roscoe Dash and Travis Porter have dominated the format; Pluto builds on that formula, but bends it to a more mature end. The producers find a solid middle ground between catchy anthems, Lex Luger’s aggression-oriented thud, and the sparse fog of ATLiens-era OutKast. (Future is the younger cousin of OutKast/Dungeon Family mentor and producer Rico Wade, and Pluto wears that influence loosely, without ever feeling formally indebted to it.) As a rapper, he also turns the swag-rap impulse inward with the impassioned delivery of a grizzled bluesman. And yet he never feels any less optimistic than his predecessors.

Like his peers, Future raps well when he wants to — he did train under the Dungeon crest, after all. But he tends to reserve that double-time flow for short bursts of contrast (perhaps just to tease us). Mostly, he stumbles and slurs through hooks that bleed into verses, his lyrics half-baked with an almost childlike innocence: “Since we first got together / Things changed for the better / I got diehard fans / And they treat me very special.” But this simplicity gives him a lot of room to thrash about emotionally. Whether lamenting lost loved ones on “Permanent Scar” or sappily self-actualizing on “You Deserve It,” he raps (or half-raps, or non-raps) like he cares about nothing else in the world — every syllable is a grand performance in and of itself.

And while in the past, Auto-Tune was predominately used as either a corrective measure or an emotion-blunter, Future uses it to magnify his sense of urgency. He’s a robot with a heart who’s at his most potent when he’s love-struck — Pluto might be the first album in rap history where the ballads are stronger than the bangers. Then again, most of the ballads tend to bang as hard as the bangers, proving that a devastating low-end can convey passion and pain as effectively as it signifies menace. Gucci Mane beatsmith Mike Will, in particular, shines in this capacity, delivering a trio of tracks that are both melancholically affecting and strangely psychedelic. His “Turn on the Lights” cascades New Age synths over a stripped-down 808 slap as Future croons messily, though quite tenderly, about his dream girl: “I want to tell the world about you, just so they can get jealous.”

Tracks like these maximize Future’s flaws in the name of sensitivity, refining his sloppiness so it serves as a device, not a deficiency. His newest songs are so well-defined, in fact, that they almost render his earlier efforts irrelevant: Last year’s near-novelty hit “Tony Montana,” on which Future does a poor impression of Al Pacino’s poor impression of a Cuban immigrant (another double mutation), feels ancient in the midst of his more advanced experiments. But Scarface references, like dead homies and Louboutins, are street-rap staples, and for all of Pluto‘s diversions, it is still a street-rap album. As much as his early tracks benefitted from the freedom that hip-hop offers, he now seems burdened by its conventions. The purist will listen to this and imagine how much better it would be if Future tried to rap more. The more adventurous listener might wonder what he could accomplish if he broke free of his genre’s gravitational pull entirely.