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 outher “shoe cam” to zoom in his pristine, high-end AirForce 1 high-tops, a limited-edition collaboration between Nike and Givenchy’s creative director Riccardo Tisci.
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’s mid-March, a few days before his New York TV appearance, and we’re in Los Angeles’ Larrabee Studios with Future and his engineer while they master Honest. Entering the studio feels a lot like walking into an early-aughts Buddha Bar; dark, textured Victorian wallpaper closes in around gem-toned hallways and recording rooms lit by clusters of candles. Today is a rare day off for Future. He’s just arrived from Austin, where he performed at SXSW, and has come home to L.A., where he lives when he’s not in Atlanta, to attend Ciara’s baby shower. Tomorrow, he’ll go back to his hometown for his daughter’s birthday and then fly to New York to finalize album details with Epic before Honest’s release. “We got to get into the right mood for this,” Future says, turning down the lights and taking a drag of his blunt. “These are hits. We have to listen to this like it’s a movie.” As his engineer cues up tracks from Honest, it’s clear that setting is key for him; that he regards his albums as movies about the still-unfolding story of his own life and the people around him. And here’s a paradox: It’s his own success that enables the distance from his old hood that is a key part of being able to write about it the way he does. A strong puff of smoke knocks him back into the plush, brown leather couch.
Today, Future is wearing jeans that are ripped at the knees, a green sweatshirt with the word “Honest” scrawled across the front, Timberland boots, and a pair of black sunglasses he keeps on when he’s especially high. Though he doesn’t often get sentimental, being in the studio has made Future reflective. “I write what comes to me,” he says. “I get beats from Mike WiLL or Khaled or Clue and just record hooks.” (He says that he has “thousands” of songs already recorded, including a track with J Lo and one with A$AP Rocky.)
He signals to his engineer and a sample from “Dougou Badia,” a 2012 Amidou & Mariam song featuring Santigold, pours through the speakers. Future jumps up and starts dancing in the corner. “This shit is craaaaaazy!” he shouts. The sample is the opening to “Look Ahead,” the intro track to his new album. He ties up his dreads and nods enthusiastically to the beat as if it was his first time hearing it, though it’s obviously not. “Who sings this song?!” It’s unclear whether he’s asking about the sample or congratulating himself.
Santigold is sampled, but Honest is full of featured appearances by the current kings of rap. Drake and Kanye guest-star on slow-burning ballads “Never Satisfied” and “I Won’t.” Wiz Khalifa and Lil Wayne show up on the more aggressive tracks “My Momma” and “Karate Chop,” respectively. Then there’s the lead single and current radio smash “Move That Dope,” featuring Pharrell, Pusha T, and Casino. Future didn’t have to call in favors, either; they came to him.
“‘Move That Dope’ almost didn’t make the album,” says Future. “I put down the hook and left it. Mike called me over and over and over.” Mike claims those calls were to urge Future to revisit the studio cut and to see if a single could come out of it. The producer ended up taking a throwaway verse Future had left in a session and putting it on top of the “Move That Dope” beat alongside the hook. “Pharrell heard it and we both thought it sounded like some old Neptunes shit, like Clipse’s ‘Grindin’,” says Mike. Then Pharrell asked if he could record on the track. “I couldn’t say no to Skateboard P!” he continues. “If Skateboard P asks you if he can put down a verse for you, you say yes.” Given the song’s resemblance to “Grindin’,” they asked Pusha T for a verse as well. Since its February release, “Move That Dope” has steadily lived in the Billboard Rap chart’s Top 10.
The air in the studio is heavy with smoke. Future gets serious as he plays “Special,” a song that features his cousin Young Scooter, who’s also a Freebandz signee. The track sounds like a means of distancing Future from people in his past that might drag him down. “You’re not even trying to be special,” he sings to the street hustlers who would draw him back into the game that once got him arrested for possession of drugs and receiving stolen property. “Special” is directed at those who come to him for money, guidance, or both, but fall into the same, negative patterns; the ones Future has outgrown. “I thought about how hard I tried to get out. I thought about how I was trying to be special — you’ve got to be special to get out of the ‘hood.”
The song doubles as a hat-tip to the role Ciara played in Future’s more recent self-discovery. “I just got into the relationship. It was fresh and I had to think,” says Future about writing “Special.” “I was just like, ‘You’re on that purple drink, how’s that gonna look to people?’ Like I’m drinking lean and she’s this amazing R&B singer diva. I thought about people saying to her, ‘You are the pop star and this dude right here, he’s just this n—- drinking lean.’ How’s that gonna look?” He’s since quit the codeine-spiked drink, wanting to be fully available to both his family and his work. It’s taken some time for him to reconcile his past and his present. “I am who I am,” he says. “Ci helped me see that. You’ve gotta be special just to know the qualities in me and overcome everything somebody else has to say. It took a special person to see the realness.”
Over the next two hours, we listen to Honest as he talks us through the album. There are the trap-loving stomps “Covered N Money” and “Shit,” experimental ballads “I Won” and “I Be U,” and the weirdo art-pop elements that appear on “Look Ahead.” Like “Special,” the Andre 3000-featured “Benz Friends” connects him back to Kirkwood and the Dungeon. The song is miles away from the rapper’s last contribution to a car-fetishizing hook (Ace Hood’s 2013 hit “Bugatti”) in both its orchestral production and coy, freestyle flow, but it’s also indicative of where his head is. Though he may have gained both fame and money by punchy trap into R&B hooks, he’s not beholden to them.
“Never Satisfied,” he says, is a reminder to keep focused as things get hectic. “I could be overwhelmed, but there’s so much good happening at the same time,” he says, the combination of flickering candlelight and a fully smoked blunt starting to settle over him. “You don’t have time to think about it and just live for it. You’re trying to chase that moment; the moment that defines you as a whole. It’s moments inside of moments.”
He pauses for a moment to consider the spiderhole before continuing: “The universe is my third brain.”
Whatever this is supposed to mean, it briefly illuminates Future’s fascination with space. If his environment comprises one element of his decision-making, his head and his heart complete the trifecta. More than just a hook-driven meme, the rapper’s frequent references to “astronaut status” sound like a way to make it all make sense: An astronaut’s-eye view of the world below as something finite and graspable. (And with a stratosphere’s distance between himself and his peers.) Future’s current place in rap marks the intersection of multiple vectors in his life: His unsettled past reconciling with his current success; his luck that his early hits broke right as Southern rap’s trap-toting resurgence did; his coming marriage and new family. The moments that define him as a person are colliding all at once.
The Gansevoort Park’s Manhattan rooftop is wet from an earlier misting of rain and Future hates the cold. It’s the day after his appearance at the Wendy Williams Show, and we’re having lunch at the hotel’s restaurant. It’s been a few days since we were in his L.A. studio and he’s tired, though he would never admit it. “It never stops. You can’t stop,” he says between bites of his grilled chicken sandwich. “I told everyone they had to leave me alone for my daughter’s birthday. They gave me that. I had that one day. Now I’m back.”
It requires two cars to carry Future’s road-family of publicists, managers, friends, and bodyguards around with him. He rides in a black Escalade as we drive down to Soho, where he wants to go shoe shopping at Billionaire Boys Club and Open Ceremony. The car quickly fills up with smoke as Young Thug’s manager passes a joint around the car. Rick Ross plays on the radio and Future stares out the window from behind his sunglasses. “The only music I listen to is the radio now,” he says. “Do you know that song ‘Paradise’?” He’s referring to the sad, lovely ballad by Coldplay. “I heard that song so many times on the radio it became my favorite song. I’m a fan of Coldplay.” He mentions his “Real & True” collaborator Miley Cyrus too. “I first heard ‘Wrecking Ball’ on the radio too. Man, I love that song. I could listen to it over and over. That song destroys me.”
The inside of Billionaire Boys Club, a small store on Broadway that hosts Pharrell’s side project and fashion line, looks like a young Future’s fantasy. Streetwear lines the walls, and the arched ceilings are covered in starburst illustrations designed to look like the children’s cartoon version of space. The benches are giant, plastic ice-cream sandwiches. Beneath Future’s feet, meanwhile, the floors are covered with an image that’s meant to look like the cratered surface of the moon. Houston, we have achieved Astronaut Status. But the work never ends: Mike Will is on the phone, calling about the licensing for a sample on the album.
“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.”