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Review: Future Sings the Computer Blues on ‘Purple Reign’

Future at Power 105.1's Powerhouse 2015 - Show
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 22: Rapper Future performs onstage during 105.1’s Powerhouse 2015 at the Barclays Center on October 22, 2015 in Brooklyn, NY. (Photo by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Power 105.1's Powerhouse 2015)
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: January 16, 2016
Label: Self-released

2015 could have ended Future’s career. After years of calling himself an astronaut, Fire Marshall Future, and even Future Hendrix, he embraced a villainy that ran deep across three mixtapes (Monster, Beast Mode, and 56 Nights), plus his most successful solo commercial record (Dirty Sprite 2), and a surprise joint release with Drake, which has moved 500,000 units since its September release. It’s not unrealistic to assume a very casual rap fan or anyone with a radio who hadn’t experienced Future before 2015 would have him pegged as a “dark” rapper who strictly sings about lean, pills, and having anonymous sex.

But those people missed the triumphant highs of 2012’s Pluto and 2013’s F.B.G.: The Movie. They missed the introspective, personal rapper who had a power-ballad like “Deeper Than the Ocean” as well as the puddle-shallow “Racks” in his catalog. They missed his verse on the incredible 2012 Gucci Mane song “Fuck Da World.” This is what made Future’s 2015 such a run — he was once this person, then he became another person. A rapper who strictly raps about lean, pills, and anonymous sex isn’t novel. But when placed against the context of a song like “Permanent Scar” off of Pluto, that’s where the effectiveness of Future’s 2015 was born.

As the post-2015 mixtape Purple Reign proves, Future’s not a one-note artist and never has been. He eagerly wants to prove himself with every release, especially given the brevity and singularity of every record since 2014’s Monster. And while Purple Reign is not a masterpiece, it is a thoughtful, if slight adjustment on the lens of where Future stands, at a crucial moment in his career.

The record’s first full song, “All Right,” boldly kicks off the album, and just a few bars in we’re met with “Hit the club / Pop a few bottles and fuck a few models, all right,” as you wait for the beat to blossom into a dystopic Dirty Sprite 2 trap song. But it doesn’t. Keeping a lurching, crawling pace, it recalls the Future and Big Sean-assisted “Royalty” from Jeremih’s Late Nights. When he says, “You said you’d always be there for me baby, you said it, all right,” he twists the titular refrain into sarcasm, instead of affirmation. Future still has his knives out, but he’s more measured. It seems to signal a part of his long journey into the wilderness is over. He’s still doing Future things, but his callousness has turned into a kind of stoicism.

A surprising thing also happens on ?Purple Reign — he taps into his old, pre-Honest rapping style a few times, and the moments that cut deepest ultimately recall the somberness of Future’s more straightforward raps from tapes like 2011’s Streetz Calling and 2012’s Astronaut Status. From “Never Forget”: “I ain’t make my auntie’s funeral I ain’t never forget it / I know she know I love her and I hope she forgive me.” From “Never Forget”: “I ain’t make my auntie’s funeral I ain’t never forget it / I know she know I love her and I hope she forgive me.”

Compared to the all-Zaytoven-helmed Beast Mode or the more industrial 56 Nights, the muted, monochrome beats of Purple Reign render it slightly one-dimensional. And whether or not this is because the entire project feels rushed, or because this is the opening shot of yet another phase in his career (mere days after this dropped Future teased more music to come) is hard to tell, but on Purple, the listener is forced to reckon more with what Future’s actually saying, rather than merely getting caught up in the musical mayhem of a banger like “March Madness” or “Where Ya At.”

Whether it’s the stuttering “All Right,” the gorgeously minimal “Run Up,” or the dour one-two punch of “Perkys Calling” and closer “Purple Reign,” the best moments are the ones that wed inventive production with Future’s most affecting rhymes. On Dirty Sprite 2 he half-mournfully sang “I just did a dose of Percocet with some strippers,” but here he delivers the dejected hook, “I can hear the purple calling, I can hear them perkies calling / I can hear them xanies calling, I can hear the streets calling,” and the sense you get is of a person who’s being involuntarily pulled in a bunch of directions at once.

“I just need my girlfriend,” Future repeats on the refrain of the closing “Purple Reign,” and while the “girlfriend” he’s referring to is lean (and the “reign” is his own), you can’t help but hear the line as a real plea for companionship. It’s this moment that seems to signal Future attempting to put his more vicious demons in the rearview mirror and opt instead for some coping mechanism. He could have ended his career last year by pulling the same cards repeatedly, but here he pushes himself to the introspective writing he perfected years ago. It feels like the long nightmare of 2015 is over — the catch is a new one may be starting to form for 2016.