Frequent collaborators Drake and Future make for interesting musical bedfellows, though it is easy to see how these opposites attract. Drake’s meteoric rise to global superstardom has frequently been marred by claims from those in the wider hip-hop community that his pop appeal, sensitive persona, and middle-class Canadian upbringing prevent him from aspiring to the “realness” which is the cornerstone of so many rappers’ personalities. The same cannot be said for Atlanta born trap-balladeer and strip club enthusiast Future. For Future, who has some crossover appeal but whose songs would be unlikely to carry the same wedding-dance-ubiquity of Drake’s biggest hits, their work together brings his music to the ears of a large swathe of listeners who would otherwise pass him over. In turn, Drake can bask in the reflected glow of Future’s more traditional street savvy appeal and credibility.
This is not to suggest that there aren’t artistic reasons for their collaborating, their marriage of convenience eventually culminated on their 2015 “retail mixtape” What A Time To Be Alive, a fleeting project recorded in six days. While the record did feel hastily put together, this didn’t necessarily conflict with its success. It was the product of two artists on the top of their games throwing together a 40 minute tracklist (including radio banger “Jumpman” and the majestic “Diamonds Dancing”) in less than a week, and it generated more buzz than some artists do in their entire careers. But while the tape punctuated career making hot-streaks for both artists, between then and their most recent projects they’ve both suffered setbacks through trying to keep running with a winning formula. It feels like the two are now starting to rub off on one another in more than just their sensibilities. HNDRXX feels like an album crafted with Drake’s meticulousness, and More Life suggests that the Canadian is at last learning how to go with the flow like Future.
Drake built up his last studio album, Views (2016), to be his career defining artistic statement. He had previously built up a catalogue of albums and mixtapes which were praised for the care and attention that had gone into crafting cohesive listening experiences, and this next record was to be his magnum opus. Views was a commercial behemoth, but many music writers were underwhelmed upon hearing it; Drake had arguably refined himself to the point of self-parody. In contrast, Future built himself a platform on a trilogy of mixtapes leading up to his acclaimed third studio album DS2 (2015). This album, along with Monster (2014), Beast Mode (2015), and 56 Nights (2015) explored dark personal struggles relating to his public relationship and breakup from R&B singer Ciara and his reliance on codeine and other intoxicants. These tapes were built on consistent sonic themes of booming bass, rattling percussion and distorted vocals which currently permeate hip-hip and, while they weren’t necessarily pushing boundaries, listening to them they remain immersive experiences. However, post-What A Time To Be Alive this approach gradually began to provide diminishing returns as Future’s output became too repetitive and the style he had made his own came to stifle his later albums and mixtapes.
So now to these artists’ newest projects. Released a month ago, HNDRXX follows Future’s eponymous fifth album, released just a week previously. While Future contains a decent portion of his signature bangers, it still struggles to throw off the shackles of his misanthropic introspection. This follow up, which Future himself has described as “the album I always wanted to make” finds him at last breaking new ground. HNDRXX feels like a far more thought out project, pulling together elements from his large discography and giving the listener a cross-section of everything that made him so listenable. “Incredible” and “Fresh Air” hark back to the exuberance and energy of his early albums, and for the first time since Honest (2014) we find Future embrace the idea that he can be positive and dare I say it, happy? This is apt, since it is a newfound honesty which characterises some of the highlights of HNDRXX. Heartfelt seven minute closer “Sorry” sees Future finally break from the artful persona he adopted when blaming his problems on the women and the drugs, and is a frank and quite touching admission of guilt about more than just his personal life. Throughout HNDRXX Future’s brilliant grasp of melody is deployed to stirring effect and many of the tracks remain with the listener, demanding repeated plays.
A lack of openness or Honesty (with a capital H) in his music is not something with which Drake would be readily associated. He has turned his self-conscious displays of emotion into a lucrative well of material: every drunk phone call or longing scroll through an ex’s Instagram has become currency for Drake. This is not a criticism; while artists like Kid Cudi and Kanye West pioneered and inversion of Hip Hop’s masculine approach, Drake has made this emotionality his own. As he has grown in stature he has tried to integrate this heart-wrangling with more overt and celebratory raps about his fame. His most successful projects are those in which he has let one of these ideas breathe: the career defining second album Take Care (2011) was a study in failed romance, while more trap inspired If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late (2015) benefits from a more traditional approach to rap lyricism. In each case though, Drake has piled the pressure on himself to craft something which stands out as a project. Releasing More Life as a “playlist” takes off some of this pressure, allowing Drake to enjoy himself a little more. It sounds like a combination of some cuts from the Views sessions, as well as some of his more out there experimentations with some of the scenes he has been embracing recently, namely dancehall and grime. While it’s easy to laugh at Drizzy’s affected British or Caribbean twangs it’s also easy to imagine tracks like “Madiba Riddim” soundtracking the Summer. In fact a general sense of ease comes across in a number of these songs, “Passionfruit” is so relaxed it might allow for some collective unclenching after the laboured wordplay that pervades Views.
Whether conscious or not, taking leaves out of each other’s books has worked for both artists here. A more holistic approach to song and album-craft has elevated Future to a new level of artistry, and avoiding over-curation sounds like it might just have allowed Drake to have a bit more fun.
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