First Of The Month is our monthly rap column.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Sweat and Suit. One time Nelly told me that when he and Tim McGraw were recording “Over and Over,” McGraw got frustrated, mumbled something about going to get food or calling Faith Hill on his Sidekick, left the studio, and never came back. The engineer pieced together McGraw’s part; the next time he and Nelly saw each other was to perform the song at an awards show. Anyway—Sweat and Suit. The whole conceit was that Nelly was exercising each part of his personality, rapping over the NBA on NBC theme and then hosting dinner parties with Jaheim. He announced them at the same time. The covers fit together, and they were displayed that way at Wal-Mart.
Future tweaked the model. After an uncharacteristic twelve-month gap between solo projects (one admittedly broken up by a Future-heavy mixtape from DJ Esco), the Atlantan cropped back up with a long, cryptic, seemingly heartfelt note on his Instagram, and with a new album, FUTURE. If the note, which was framed as an apology, hinted at a bloodletting, FUTURE was a disappointment. Some songs, like the “Mask Off” or the closer “Feds Did a Sweep,” open up a vein, but for the most part the record rehashes EVOL, and long stretches of Purple Reign. In isolation, the songs were good enough, but it seemed like a disappointing moment of stagnation. (N.B.- On revisitation, DS2 is remarkably narrow in scope. It’s probably a testament to how dialed in Future was in the summer of 2015 that the album seemed to cover so much emotional ground.)
HNDRXX changed all that. Announced just days after FUTURE, the album at first seemed like a stunt to give Future the #1 album in the country in back-to-back weeks. In reality, it’s his best retail album since Pluto. Over another 17 tracks—which somehow seem too short—Future returns to his R&B fusion roots, crafting a string of made-for-Billboard hits with heartbreak and regret (lots of regret) bubbling just below the surface.
Any combination of “Incredible,” “Fresh Air,” “Testify,” “Selfish,” or “Damage” will probably soundtrack your summer. Where FUTURE found a pocket and never left, HNDRXX tends toward precisely crafted pop, the kind that Mr. Hendrix could have passed to any number of high-profile artist. The album is relentlessly bright, to the point where an extended, exuberant guest spot from Rihanna seems like the most natural thing in the world.
Then there are the moments that hint at something darker. “Solo” and the closer “Sorry” attempt to grapple with the fractures in Future’s personal life that sent him careening into superstardom. The latter especially seems to consider, at least implicitly, the notion that he overreacted, or at least was reductive, in how he treated the dissolution of his engagement to Ciara. Circling back to that moment in Future’s life proves to be important not only with regard to his personal development, but in his artistic progression.
As much as critics and fans point to the Ciara breakup as the moment when Future was pushed in a darker direction, he’s implied in interviews that the change of course was dictated just as much by the tepid reaction to the sunnier Honest. And while the grimmer, gruffer approach that he took from Monster through FUTURE yielded some truly astonishing music, it always seemed as though he was squandering his potential as an unabashed pop artist. HNDRXX sits comfortably alongside the best records in Future’s discography because it employs the widest range of his talents in service of a world view that’s been fully fleshed out, rough edges and all.
When music is said to be for either men or women, at the expense of the other gender, it’s usually a comment on aesthetics. (It’s also usually wrong.) But Jidenna’s full-length debut, The Chief, is driven by the sort of deep, stubborn tie many men have to their fathers. “Classic Man” and all its tailored glory was a style informed by the Wisconsin native’s late dad; here, on “Long Live the Chief,” Jidenna raps “I don’t want my best-dressed day in a casket.” With the added context of his father’s funeral in Nigeria—guarded by private security, helicopters vulturing and kidnappers in the shadows—the aspirational writing (dinner with Clintons, school with Kennedys) has more weight. It’s not hard to see why he started buying canes. The Chief spends a good deal of time dabbling in different genres; Jidenna’s personality generally comes through more clearly when he raps, but two notable exceptions, “Adaora” and “Bambi,” are highlights.
If you’ve been in the club with Speak, you know. If you haven’t: the Moreno Valley native is the sort of person whose mitochondria rattle along with the speakers, who can move a crowd as if through sheer force of will. But you’d be wrong to expect SPEAKPANTHER, his eight-song collaboration with Dream Panther, to be an up-to-11 set of maximalism. Instead it’s smartly constructed and carefully considered: see “Viva la Lagunilla,” where roaches are suspended in a dream state, or “Dollar Beer, Free Shots,” which feels like the moment you cash a paycheck blown up to two and a half minutes. It’s early, but this’ll be one of the year’s most persistently fun records.
Paul Thompson is a Canadian writer and critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in GQ, Rolling Stone, New York Magazine and Playboy, among other outlets.