In explaining Outkast’s often radical shifts in sound, style, and subject matter between albums, André 3000 has described those transformations as the natural result of the two- to three-year breaks he and his partner, Big Boi, would take between projects, wherein both rappers would live their lives, tour, fall in and out of love, expose themselves to new ideas, find different sources of inspiration, etc. All those new experiences went right back into the music. From an interview André did with Hard Knock TV:

It really boils down to the time in between the albums. Like, the life you’ve lived, your influences during that time—you know, turning on to new music, getting bored. All those things make up whatever the next album would’ve been.

But younger rappers no longer have that luxury.

And, you know, we were in a different time. Like, now you have artists that drop three, four mixtapes a year—and an album. But it was—you gotta think, we were like two years between every album. So we were damn near like different people between every album. We were kids when they first met us, so by the time y’all saw us at, you know, Stankonia and all those albums, we were just growing into being an adult, not really knowing what we were about, or trying to figure out what we were about, so. You were just seeing growth, and the music went with it.

André isn’t exactly critical of rap music’s new hyper-productive era, but he does point out how it changes things. Take, for the example, the current superstar rapper whose prolific nature is most likely to stifle any artistic growth: Atlanta’s own Future, the progeny of that city’s beloved, Outkast-affiliated Dungeon Family collective. Implicit in André’s thoughts is a clear question: How can musicians expect to grow as artists, if they don’t have time to grow as people?

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Future first appeared in the mainstream consciousness as an omnipresent yet curiously secondary figure in hip-hop—a schtick-y, T-Pain-esque hook man whose features registered more strongly than his solo work. (See “Racks.”) In 2015, however, he took his place in the spotlight, and is now the single most accessibly innovative and entertaining rapper doing it. His only true current peer in terms of visibility, productivity, and genre-bending creativity is the similarly brilliant Young Thug (whose scattershot approach to releases somewhat curbs his appeal to all but the most dedicated), and while Future’s star shines a few watts dimmer than the likes of Drake and Kanye, it’s telling that Drake was so enthralled by the sizzurp-sipping singer’s wave at its peak that he felt the need to hitch himself to Future’s star via a full-length collaborative album, September’s What a Time to Be Alive, while Kanye himself so coveted the Future sound that he did what he so often does: hit up the nearest bootleg version (in this case, a fairly unknown sound-alike Brooklyn rapper named Desiigner) and gave him two prominent spots on his new album, The Life of Pablo.

Where most of rap’s caste of elites earned their spot via a hit song or two— or through a prominent cosign, or thanks to the industry’s dogged determination to make that person happen—Future got there the only way he knows how: the man of the streets got there from the streets. After a clutch of underground mixtapes, his well-received “official” 2012 debut, Pluto, and his 2014 sophomore effort, Honest, he found himself at a musical and personal crossroads, and proceeded to go on one of the most remarkable stretches of repeated and incessant excellence the genre has ever seen.

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On October 28, 2014, coming off the fan-pleasing yet commercially underwhelming Honestand fresh out of a long-term, high-profile relationship with the R&B singer Ciara—Future released the free online mixtape Monster. In 2015, he released three more mixtapes (Beast Mode in January, 56 Nights in March, and the Drake project What a Time to Be Alive in September) and another formal album (July’s DS2), each of which featured a diverse array of sounds tied together by how stunningly great it all was. After a four-month “drought,” he returned last month with the mixtape Purple Reign, and followed that less than a month later with EVOL (that’s love spelled backwards, naturally). All told, in less than 18 months, Future has released more official songs than Outkast managed in the six and a half years spanning from Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik to Stankonia. It’s a full career mashed into a year and a half.

For much of that 2015 takeover run, Future had more than enough significant lived experiences to work out in song. The Future-Ciara relationship was not only deep on a personal level—the two had a son and were engaged to be married—but also in the public sphere. They were a power couple not unlike Jay Z and Beyoncé, collaborating on songs (her smash hit “Body Party” being the most visible example) and generally existing in the public’s consciousness as an inseparable pair. All of that was stripped away when the two split up, following rumors of Future’s infidelity; the breakup, the desire to finally ascent to the top of the rap pyramid as his own man, the continued wrestling with what it means to emerge rich and alive from a formative environment where neither of those things can be taken for granted—all of this fueled what came next.

Monster was the dark, depraved, and depressed start of Future’s self-proclaimed reinvention/reintroduction (from “Codeine Crazy,” below: “I’m treating this shit like my demo”). Beast Mode further tinkered with the formula, served with a splash or two less codeine and a dash of Honest’s (somewhat) less nihilistic vibes. 56 Nights was the perfect distillation of the gritty and grimy sound he’d dabbled in but never fully committed to before, DS2 offered a not-at-all watered down version of that for public consumption, and What a Time to Be Alive established Future’s reign over everyone from the streets to the suburbs. But his 2016 work thus far is different: Purple Reign and EVOL both feel like a transition. He’s finally moving on.

While he’s always been a purveyor of the party jam, Future’s best work has always featured small moments of vulnerability; there were always broader experiences and emotions he was plumbing alongside the basic urge to get fucked up and act wild. Early on in his career, it was the unalloyed thrill of finally making it in the industry (see “You Deserve It”) and his search for a real love (“Turn On the Lights”). By the time Honest came around, deep into his relationship with Ciara, he was capable of being full-on romantic (“I Won,” “I Be U”). The run from Monster to DS2, most entirely recorded post-breakup, found him depressed and trying to salve the wounds of his past relationships amid the still-resonant echoes of aggression and suspicion and fear that typified his former criminal life. Cycling through various motifs and life phases, he’s shown a range and progression equal to Outkast’s in a much shorter amount of time.

But where to next?

It seems that Future is struggling to come up with the answer. So far this year, it hasn’t materially affected his ability to make really good songs: He’s still Future, after all. Both Purple Reign and EVOL are perfectly enjoyable in their own right—“All Right,” “Salute,” “Maybach,” and “Seven Rings” (to name a few) will have you sneering at yourself in the mirror, wildly gesticulating along with the lyrics as you, too, start to believe that you’re as impervious to toxic quantities of codeine, and as rich and wantonly materialistic, and as carelessly promiscuous, and as unhinged and terrifying and brilliant as the rapper portrays himself to be. He’s done this many times before, with, for example, Monster’s “Gangland” and 56 Nights“Now,” and it’s comforting to know that the manic energy propelling many of his most beloved songs remains. What’s missing now, though, is the depth of emotion that elevated some of those songs beyond playlist-friendly pump-you-up-for-a-night-out fare.

Purple Reign and EVOL are still dark, brooding, and debauched, but a few moments of brightness hint that the blackest of clouds once hanging over him have passed. Yet he still hasn’t found that through line with which to express this sentiment in a novel way. Future is clearly enjoying his new, more prominent status—where he has always rapped about parties and women, he’s no longer as existentially unfulfilled by them (or at least won’t admit to it). Now, his urge to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in one shot is rooted in fun, instead of merely distracting him from his painful memories. While the less angst-ridden environment he portrays feels honest, the method he’s chosen to communicate his budding positivity—by praising activities he’s already shown leave him hollow—doesn’t quite take.

These new songs aren’t bad, per se, but absent the fearless way he’d bare his soul in his verses and explore his darkest corners for all to hear on, say, “Throw Away” or “56 Nights” or “Codeine Crazy” or “Forever Eva”—in addition to those smaller moments when his mask of detached carnality would slip for a moment, and you could see him crying beneath it—Purple Reign and EVOL feel emotionally slight. After an entire career of revealing so much of himself in his music, you can’t shake the feeling that, if he’s not exactly hiding right now, then he’s at least unsure himself of which direction his emotions are pointing him, leaving him unable to work through them to the breathtaking effect we’ve grown used to.

While EVOL is both more entertaining and unsurprisingly shallow, Purple Reign does occasionally pull back the curtain to reveal some depth, even if the effect nags at retreading other, better songs (see “Perkys Calling” and “Purple Reign”). In that mixtape’s first half especially, we find a typically debauched, coal-hearted, yet contemplative Future reveling in his hedonism and trying to fight against all that comes with it. On the surface, “Drippin (How U Luv That)” appears to depict a triumphant Future indulging in his decadent life of wealth and fame, as he invites a woman into his world, hoping to impress her with the opulence that surrounds him. The longer the song plays, though, what at first seemed like an exultant chorus begins to sound imploring. It’s as if he fears that the drugs and the designer bags and the bill payments are all he has to offer, and might be all she wants from him.

Consequently, he’s almost begging for her validation—“I could pay your bills right now, how you love that? / I buy you a brand new car, how you love that? / I’m standing on the bar, how you love that?” When he gets to the “Actavis and red, how you love that? / Actavis and red, how you love that? / Ace of Spades Rosé, how you love that? / Ace of Spades Rosé, how you love that?” lines, recited with a nearly unrecognizable voice mangled by smoke and alcohol and exhaustion, the red comes out more like a wheeze than a word. The emptiness is clear. You can frequent the swankiest of parties with the most beautiful women and the strongest drugs, but if it doesn’t result in a real, human connection, does it really mean anything?

From the club bangers best enjoyed at maximum volume to the brooding tracks that sound like the prelude to a robbery to the self-affirming anthems that make you feel like the king of the world when you blast them in your car, Future’s most effective work comes when he’s at his most outwardly introspective. Purple Reign’s “Inside the Mattress” comes closest to finding a solution to his newfound existential ennui, as he acknowledges his disillusionment with love and the trappings of success, but stays optimistic. From the chorus (“I’m gettin’ better, I’m at practice / I’m workin’ everyday, craftin’”) to the verses (“I get on the stage and I rap till I pass out / Hit another city and another city, I’m just groovin’ / I was tryna tell you I was losin’ / I was gon’ tell you I’m improvin’”), Future clearly knows that the cathartic act of work holds the promise of transformation, growth, and the potential for actual joy. On the second verse, the guy even gets some closure, putting his relationship problems behind him, and suggesting that while his impoverished, criminal-minded upbringing remains a source of pain, it’s also a fount of inspiration and a springboard to a better future:

I never told the world about you
I never told the homies ‘bout you, not once
I never had no bitter towards you
I never had no drama for you, not once
I never want to go to none of these award shows
That’s not me
Only the time will tell the day I prevail and get me a Grammy
Lil Mexico, kept it real from the start
If I did it for you it came from the heart
Came from the trenches and turned into art
I wake up and do it way better tomorrow

After so many songs about the paranoia and pain of being rich, famous, and unhappy, “Inside the Mattress” sounds something like a breakthrough, or at least suggests the sun finally dawning on a night that seemed to never end.

If there’s anything you should take from Future’s entire catalog—and not just the 2015 run that finally captured the mainstream’s attention—it’s that this is an artist who never stops plumbing his life to fuel his music, and as long as he remains as driven and inspired and hungry as he’s been so far, he’ll get to the next step eventually. As monuments to this period of transition, however, Purple Reign and EVOL offer only the vaguest hints as to where he’s going.

Maybe André and Big Boi knew all along that musically cannibalizing their life’s memories and feelings and experiences in their music would only be sustainable if they took extended breaks between albums to go out and do some more living. Or maybe that’s just the way the music industry worked back then, and they were just lucky to get all that rejuvenating time off. But it doesn’t matter now. Either way, the moral of the story is the same: New music without new experiences won’t sound all that new.


Image via Bennett Raglin/Getty Images.