Future is one of those artists that the professional critics rave about, while the amateur critics generally dismiss him as an overrated no-talent. I myself have actually learned to respect him: he doesn’t have the kind of talent we generally associate with the Rap genre (that is, lyrical ability), but the repeating melodic fragments that form his hooks are actually quite sophisticated for Pop music, reminiscent of Classical Minimalism like the works of Philip Glass. And his nihilistic emotional content is a strikingly complex and adult tone for a relatively mainstream Pop artist to strike.
This album, his second overall, was his critical breakthrough and the first of his albums to make a significant commercial impact, even if he wouldn’t actually have a chart hit as a lead artist until over a year after its release. The professional critics loved it as much as they love all his work, but even the few amateur critics who like Future seem to despise this particular album. Given this wild difference of opinion, I thought I would investigate and see whether the album was the masterpiece the music press had hailed it as, or one of the worst albums of the decade as the internet reviewers all seemed to maintain.
To be honest, like most of the amateur critic set, I was somewhat biased against the album to begin with because of the quality of its singles. Put simply, the album contains some monumental duds, including three of the worst songs of the decade, and all of them wound up being released as singles. The first single, “Karate Chop”, might actually have been decent if not for an unbelievably offensive guest verse by Lil Wayne (for those who don’t know, this is the one with the notorious “beat that pussy up like Emmett Till” line). The third single, “Shit”, features Future unwisely trying to sing without his trademark auto-tune: let’s just say the result lives up to its name.
The other truly awful single is the unbearably smug and sexist “I Won”, apparently written about legendary Crunk singer Ciara, whom he was dating at the time. This song makes their breakup shortly thereafter not all that surprising, and its one redeeming feature was inspiring one of the all-time great response songs with Ciara’s “I Bet”.
“Move That Dope”, while not nearly as bad as the aforementioned other singles, is a not-entirely-successful attempt to blend Future’s style into a Pop format. The guest rappers (including Pusha T and Pharrell Williams) actually do very good work here, but the repeating hook sounds less like Future’s usual fragmented melody and more like something in the vein of “Imma Be” or “Whip My Hair”. It’s certainly vastly better than most of the Pop-Rap songs Future was featured on in 2013 (“Bitches Love Me”, “Bugatti”, “U.O.E.N.O.”), but it doesn’t really catch him in his element, and he winds up being the least interesting thing about it.
The album as a whole also features a less than fully developed incarnation of Future’s performing persona. His trademark nihilistic tone is somewhat downplayed here, and the standard Glam Rap tropes that form his lyrical content are presented in a somewhat more straightforward manner than on his later songs. Overall, while his music is already as sophisticated as it would be when he started having actual hits off his own albums in 2015, the overall effect is less that of a dark subversion of Glam Rap braggadocio and more of a relatively straightforward singer-rapper in the Drake vein.
With all that said, there is actually a surprisingly large amount of genuinely excellent material on this album. The title song (easily the album’s best single) is actually quite gorgeous, as is “I Be U”, which is probably the most sincere and moving love song Future ever recorded. “Side Effects” and “I’ll Be Yours” are also surprisingly sweet and pretty love songs, showing a side of the artist that most would not normally associate with him. The rapid-fire spray of notes on the faster songs, like “Covered N Money” and “Benz Friends”, are gloriously overwhelming.
“Never Satisfied”, a collaboration with Rap wunderkind Drake, is actually better and more interesting than their much more successful collaborative single “Jumpman”, which would become Future’s first Top Forty hit a year after this album’s release. And with “Special”, Future offers one of the most penetrating challenges to the true uninspired formula-rappers out there that any interesting rapper has yet come up with. And the closing track of the original edition, “Blood, Sweat, Tears”, makes for a suitably grand and imposing finale.
There was also a ‘promotional single’ originally intended for the album called “Real and True”, with featured vocals from Miley Cyrus, then at the peak of her popularity. It’s not entirely relevant to this discussion, given that it didn’t actually make the final cut of the album, but I mention it because it’s quite possibly the best song Cyrus ever recorded. As a composition, it’s as good as anything on the finished album, and even Cyrus’ notoriously poor vocals can’t manage to ruin it, which is a feat very few other songs have ever achieved.
Overall, there’s a very simple reasons the professional critics liked this album better…they had actually heard the whole thing, whereas the amateur critics mostly only knew it through the singles. In spite of the poor choice of singles, I ultimately have to acknowledge that this is on the whole an exceptionally good album, and it offers some definitive proof that you can’t always judge an album by the quality of its singles.