Future has created a musical path so recognizable that other artists have followed in his sonic footsteps. But in the wake of his record-breaking albums, FUTURE and HNDRXX, what’s evident is that he’s become his only true competition. In a candid interview, the artist talks about the work ethic that got him to where he is. Read this story and more in the latest issue of Highsnobiety Magazine.
It’s a sleepy Friday afternoon on a tree-lined street in Clinton Hill, barring the burst of activity along a stretch of road where quietly ostentatious million-dollar brownstones sit alongside immaculately renovated pre-war apartments. The man of the hour is running late, but Future’s staggeringly efficient team arrives well in advance of his Plutonian descent, heralding his coming with a flurry of last-minute preparations.
The 33-year-old’s stylist, Bobby, whom he started working with a little under two years ago, hangs up thousands of dollars in garments while his two assistants line dozens of pairs of Reeboks—including Future-endorsed silhouettes like the ZOKU Runner, Instapump Fury and Furykaze, his first collab with the brand — directly below a large-format Kehinde Wiley painting; it is just one of many pieces of priceless art decorating the private location. For a musician whose lyrics seem equally as besotted with the trappings of wealth as actual financial capital, the deceptively grand home brimming with aged wood and specially commissioned work feels like a natural extension of the hedonist fantasy Future has managed to make a personal reality.
Nayvadius DeMun Wilburn was born November 20, 1983, in Atlanta, Georgia’s Kirkwood neighborhood. Though his mother found work as a 911 operator, the Honest rapper’s earliest mixtapes offer a glimpse into an extended family of street-savvy grifters and hustlers. In high school, he discovered he had a first cousin in the music industry—Rico Wade of the legendary production trio Organized Noize, the Southern icons behind TLC’s “Waterfalls,” OutKast’s genre-defying debut album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, and most recently, several tracks on Big Boi’s latest project, Boomiverse. The two connected at a family funeral.
The future Future honed his craft in Wade’s studio, affectionately referred to as “the Dungeon,” sharpening his innate songwriting abilities. Eventually, Wade facilitated his first major songwriting credit—the hook of Ludacris’ 420-friendly single, “Blueberry Yum Yum.” Later, Future would also pen the infectious hook to YC’s one-off smash “Racks.” Most notably, the Dungeon is where the perennially jewelry-ornamented rapper earned the name “Future,” a much more fitting moniker than “Meathead,” his one-time nickname of choice.
As Bobby builds outfits—speculatively pairing an oversized Balenciaga puffer with a studded T-shirt and a set of shades (sunglasses have become an omnipresent part of every Future Hendrix look)—Future’s longtime brand manager, Ebonie Ward, pre-screens questions, deftly rejecting any that hold even the slightest danger of being taken out of context. “Don’t worry he’s super chill,” she says, having relegated a handful to the “don’t ask or this interview will be over” pile.
Given the level of scrutiny that followed his very public relationship, engagement, and 2014 breakup with R&B singer Ciara, with whom he shares a three-year-old son, it’s not difficult to intuit why such safeguards might have naturally developed. Not only do they minimize speculative theories, they give Future a comforting level of autonomy over his image. Still, speculation is arguably central to his career, particularly because he has managed to exist between the fringes and the mainstream with a longevity few others can claim. The DS2 rapper’s influence in popular culture is as vast as it is ubiquitous, and it’s certainly not constrained to his Atlanta stomping grounds.
All the way on the East Coast, in Brooklyn and Paterson, New Jersey, respectively, Desiigner and Fetty Wap became two of the biggest names in music in 2016. Ironically, each of their breakthrough singles distilled the very essence of Future’s 2012 debut album, Pluto. From its hazy, melancholic, pharma-induced sonic quality to Future’s permanently aggrieved sing-rap style, both wielded his avant explorations of emotive melody and auto-tune firmly to their own ends. Desiigner managed to do it with such eerie effectiveness that Mike WiLL—one of Future’s frequent collaborators—initially thought “Panda” was a Future single.
FUTURE and HNDRXX, the rapper’s latest LPs, were released a mere week apart and promptly broke multiple Billboard records. In February, he became the first artist to have two number one albums in consecutive weeks. He also holds the distinction of being the first artist in the chart’s 61-year history to replace himself at number one in consecutive weeks. Such levels of commercial success make it difficult to reconcile how mainstream music managed to remain out of touch with the depths of Future’s influence for so long. Consider this: Fetty Wap and Desiigner received Grammy nods in 2016. Future has never been nominated.
This uniquely insider-outsider status contributes to the endless explorations of who Future is outside of music. He’s repeatedly been referred to as “emo,” and his more despondent lyrics have been dissected with the intensity of a researcher pouring over a rare folio. More than a few journalists have even put on their psychologist caps to write lengthy opinion pieces on whether his codeine-soaked output is truly indicative of a mental health crisis.
The reality of existing under a microscope is something Future has managed to harness to his advantage. What Future thinks, feels, likes and dislikes is often left open to interpretation—largely, it would seem—by his own design. Since his defining run of early mixtapes—released in such rapid-fire succession even Lil Wayne would be impressed—the rapper has cultivated a sense of approachable mystery, which we quickly learn is underscored by a streak of mischief.
When Future emerges from the set into temperate afternoon weather, none of his entourage seems surprised that he immediately starts cracking jokes. First, he can’t believe his eyes when an exceedingly burly delivery man putters by on a moped that could be the two-wheeled equivalent of a clown car—it looks positively dainty in relation to his bulk.
“Nah, that’s the weirdest shit I’ve seen in New York,” Future proclaims between bouts of astonished laughter. “That nigga like 400 pounds, all muscle, ridin’ around on a scooter. He need to be on a goddamn Ninja or a Kawasaki.”
Moments later, a car full of people recognize who is casually smoking a blunt on a nondescript Brooklyn stoop. Naturally, they pull over to wheedle Future’s security for “just one picture, man.” Though the beefier of the pair says the set is closed, Future indulges them with a smile and quick pose.
Later, he sits nestled between the legs of a hairstylist who systematically parts his blonde-tipped dreadlocks before braiding them neatly down his back.
“I want you to ask me the realest shit,” he says inhaling a thick cloud of smoke. “Don’t ask me something about somebody else. I can’t answer unless they’re right here to really respond to my answer. Ask me something that can’t be debated on, just ask me about me.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by the people who have become part of his extended inner-circle—his brand manager, his manager, his stylist, his independent publicist and photographer. By extension of their constant proximity, they have access to a much more private side of Future, one they describe as gregarious; deeply family-oriented; a mentor to young musicians; and a consummate jokester.
By the time the shoot has wrapped, the sun has set and Future’s team is discussing plans for a group dinner. Future doesn’t care where they go as long as it’s private and not too far away. “Any chance I could get you to say sensational IRL?” I ask before we part ways. “That’s gonna cost you a mil,” he says rising to his feet with a laugh. It’s just the sort of answer you’d expect.
So, conjecture aside, here’s Future, in his own words, discussing the things he feels like talking about.
What inspired your nonprofit, Free Wishes?
My nonprofit was inspired by the kids. I have a fan base that looks up to me. Being able to go back and see them and take pictures with them and listen to some of their jokes and stories, it’s just nice. I grew up sometimes not having things and wanting to be in a position to be able to give. I’m always happy to see a smile on someone’s face. I love seeing other people happy; it makes me happy to bring joy to someone else’s family.
You know, maybe someone wasn’t able to get a pair of shoes or wasn’t able to afford a jacket when it was cold outside. Having the chance to get them a jacket to wear to school is a great thing. It’s also a way for me to give back to my neighborhood. I always go home during Christmas but normally I’m on the road. Free Wishes gives me a chance to see everyone, and get my family and friends together to give back.
Is dedication and sheer force of will how you maintain your prolific pace?
I’m always making music. I feel like that’s the key. Music will change in just three months, so if I go to Europe for a whole three months and come back, the music scene will be completely different. I just try to stay in tune with what’s going on: I keep my eyes open for the new artists, listen to new melodies on the radio; pay attention to the tempos playing in the clubs. There can be a song that’s a hit for me and then another hit end[s] up coming out two months later that changes the whole sound. There might just be a different tempo and it’s a smash. At the end of the day you just have to find the tempo. Find something good about it, but still stay true to yourself.
Being yourself [musically] is the most important thing because if you think your shit ain’t working and stop trying and then somebody else tries it and it starts working for them, you’re going to be mad. Some people try to be everybody, so that’s why they burn out. There’s longevity in being yourself and not trying to be 10 other people.
Gucci Mane commends your work ethic in his autobiography, specifically in reference to the Free Bricks mixtape. He said he’d never met anyone who stayed in the studio the way you did. What’s the longest you’ve ever recorded?
Without leaving? I used to stay in there for a week or two. I wouldn’t let nobody leave either. I got in an argument, I remember, this is a true story. I got in an argument with a dude, he really got mad because I wouldn’t let the engineer leave the studio. He got mad at me, but he wasn’t complaining, he was scared. He was like, “Yo, that shit ain’t right, that shit ain’t right. You just had him recording you for a whole fucking week, he never even went outside.”
I was like, “Nigga, we was in the house the whole week too, we never even went outside. Why you want to go outside when I’m recording?”
Then he was like, “You need to feed him.” I told him he’d been eating. There was a Wendy’s up the street so we just got people to bring us Wendy’s every day. That was [the engineer’s] excuse for leaving the house.
Eventually he was like, “I need to eat something else. I want to eat my mama’s food.” I think he was trying to find a reason to leave. If it ain’t about the food, it had to be the name of the place or something. I ate Wendy’s every day too. Man survived on a double stack. Two pieces of meat on it, it was 99 cents; it was cheap. It was cheap as a motherfucker. Wendy’s owe me some promo now too. [Laughs]
Do you ever feel like your music is misinterpreted?
Yeah, but that’s supposed to happen because I’m smarter than people think. At the end of the day they’re not going to know I’m smarter than them until 10 years, 20 years from now when they’re still listening to me like “I’m just now getting what he said.”
Longevity, that’s what makes music classic. It’s not a classic when you hear it the first day and get everything you heard right then. It’s a classic when you go back 20 years from now and it can still relate to you. I said things in Pluto five years ago that people are just now talking about. There’s not nothing wrong with that, it just takes time for some people to catch on.
I want it to happen that way. If you knew what my next move was going to be or what I meant by hiding certain meanings in a song, it would burn me out. People would just be onto me from the beginning. It means more when you find out later on in life and you’re like, “Damn, he was thinking that deep.”
Some people try to be everybody, so that’s why they burn out. There’s longevity in being yourself and not trying to be 10 other people.
You’ve spoken pretty extensively about the role of strip clubs in breaking music in Atlanta. Is that a phenomenon centric to the city and you?
I don’t know because I don’t really know other people’s branding and marketing strategies, or even how they approach their shit. I only know what I did. It can be happening around me and I don’t even know it. I haven’t even paid attention to the influence I’ve had on things around me. I haven’t had a chance to just slow down and pay attention. Somebody could have been tweeting, ‘Man, I love Future’ for the last two years and even if it was another artist I couldn’t tell you.
Right now I want to make music I never thought I could make. I’m trying to perform in ways I never thought I could perform. I’m trying to go places I never thought I would go. This is the first time I’m experiencing certain things so I don’t even have time to pay attention to everything. Music has been my driving force since day one. There are certain things that I’m still trying to achieve in music, maybe when I do that I’ll be able to focus on something else. Right now, my music has been the driving force to get me where I wanted to get to in life.
Where do you ultimately want to be after music?
Still working on the plan.
What about interviews? Why is it so important for you to do them on your terms?
Being misunderstood happened a lot early on. I wanted to stop that from happening again. I know there are certain questions that need to be answered, I get that. I just don’t want to be asked about somebody else. That’s like a two-part question and then I end up answering the shit and other person gets mad about it. I had to learn to slow down with everything and just take a day to think about if I wanted to say yes [to an interview].
If you don’t, you might end up involved with something you said yes to because of what was going on at the time. Maybe you really didn’t have your mind right. Maybe you just wanted to respond because they told you to respond and then you respond wrong. I just take my time now, because I have so much going on throughout the day and I don’t want to respond to the wrong shit.
What about social media? How closely do you control your image there?
If I tweet something that makes you mad, I want you to be mad. I’m conscious enough to know like “man, don’t do it,” but at the end of the day, at certain times, people need to know how I feel. I want you to know I’m real, I’m human. I don’t want it to seem like everything is artificial to me. I don’t want it to seem like I don’t get mad, or this didn’t offend me, or that don’t affect me. I also just want my fans to know what I really think because people print shit all the time that’s not true. They just printed some stuff about my son. He was in a Gap commercial and they said that commercial came from a certain thing.
The information was wrong and people was really still printing that on the blogs anyway. I’m looking at it and I’m not mad that it’s wrong because it is what it is. But some of them [blogs] put an ignorant title next to my son’s name though. If it was just about me and I’m going through certain shit, it’s whatever. But you can’t say certain stuff because he [Future’s son] might look at it one day like, “What was they talking about?”
I don’t want him to read dumb shit because people are going off the wrong information. I actually got him that Gap campaign because I have a campaign with Gap. We both do—me and my son. I want people to understand that. Let the truth reveal itself before you going off of the first thing you read or see.
What about your business relationships? You’ve been working with Reebok most recently. How did that come about?
Just being fly (laughs). It’s a great partnership. They’re good people and it’s been like family so far. Music worked itself out so it’s a blessing that it put me in the position I am now. If I knew certain things that I know now, I would have handled certain situations differently. Even with knowing what I know now, I would have still dealt with Reebok. I feel like this partnership is me growing in my career. When I got to a point that I was ready to get this kind of deal, I was also able to understand the type of deal I was getting myself into. From the front to back I knew exactly what I was getting into. The fine print, I could read it and understand the language.
This story originally appeared in Highsnobiety Magazine Issue 15, which is available now from our online store, as well as at fine retailers worldwide.
- Words: Stephanie Smith-Strickland
- Photography: Thomas Welch
- Photo Assistant: Bryan Luna
- Producer: Taylor Spong
- Styling: Bobby Williams
- Production Assistants: Noah Thomas & Arianna Zaidenweber
- Videography: Sammy Suh