Future Changed Rap for a Generation. He Doesn’t Know How to Feel About It

Future lounges in a white office, in a cream coat, occasionally flashing his pearly white teeth. It’s the eighth anniversary of Dirty Sprite, the 2011 mixtape that served as the foundation for an impossibly prolific run for the rapper. The tape — and everything that came with it; the drink, the drugs, the Future persona — spawned an era. Now, Nayvadius Wilburn is declaring the end of that chapter, split between relief and haunted by what, exactly, he wrought.

“I made it seem so cool,” Future says, sadly. “I made it seem so fucking cool.”

He’s talking about lean. The drug is what lent Dirty Sprite its title (along with its blockbuster 2015 successor, DS2), and it has long functioned as both a muse and preoccupation for Future. Lean is so imbued in his music and image that, according to a recent interview with Genius, he was worried to let fans know he’d quit, for fear it would be too big a shock. Today, he can’t believe how far and wide the influence of his codeine-laced creative streak carried. Last year, he joined up with the then-teenaged Chicago rapper Juice WRLD for a mixtape called WRLD on Drugs. While working on it, Juice revealed that listening to Future’s music inspired him to try lean as a child. That cut Future deep.

“When he told me that, I was like ‘Oh shit. What the fuck have I done?’” he says. “It really bothered me. It bothered me a lot. More than that I thought it would bother me when he told me that. I didn’t think I’d care about that stuff. Four years ago, I probably wouldn’t have cared if he told me: ‘Oh, that was good you was drinking.’ Now it’s like, ‘Oh shit.’ How many other sixth-graders did I influence to drink lean?”

He continues: “I wasn’t aware of that influence, but now I’m aware of how much it influenced. It’s like, this shit really fucked me up for a minute. It’s all I could think about. Like, ‘Damn, what have I done? What have I done to other people? What I did to myself?’”

With each sentence, you can hear Future grappling with how much responsibility he should bear for lives that aren’t his. He bargains with himself in real time, measuring out the guilt he should or shouldn’t feel.

“But that was me being honest. So, do I be mad about me being honest about me and being honest on what’s going on in the world and creating from it? And I thought about it. I can’t apologize for something that” — he takes a long pause — “I can’t apologize for being myself, but I do apologize if being myself caused you to act out of character.”

“What have I done? What have I done to other people? What I did to myself?’”

So: Future is complicated. He has enough artistic personas to create his own bass- and AutoTune-fueled superhero team. When I begin to list the aliases he’s amassed over the past eight years, he steps in to finish the sentence. “Astronaut Kid, Pluto, Future Hendrix,” he says, as if forgetting any of them would cause him pain. Each name served a purpose to Future, and each was deployed with an overarching goal: to translate Future’s pain, heartbreak and trauma into a new form of pop music. They collectively narcotized the Top 40, made Future one of the most popular rappers on Earth, and bulldozed a path for a generation of rappers and producers (including Juice WRLD, Lil Baby and Gunna, and many more) to reign at the top of today’s charts. As OutKast’s André 3000 puts it, “Future make the most negative inspirational music ever.”

On Friday, January 18th, Future will release The Wizrd, which he tells me is the last of seven albums he owes to his label, Epic Records. He says it with glee: “This is the final fucking chapter of me.” Accordingly, he’s using the album to debut his latest alter ego. “The Wizrd always ahead, know what to do,” he says. “It’s a long road, heading down this road I know how to maneuver down. I know how to detour off this road, also. That’s the Wizrd.” It’s an esoteric description, but it’s the kind of thing Future has been playing with for nearly a decade now.

For rap fans, the man formerly known as Meathead came from blessed lineage — as a kid, he spent time in the studio with his cousin Rico Wade, a Dungeon Family member and OutKast collaborator. But he’s long described the beginning of his career in blunter terms. In his latest documentary, available on Apple Music, journalist Elliot Wilson asks how he got here. Future’s response is direct: “Selling crack,” he said there, and laughed maniacally.

He tells me he’s still nostalgic for Atlanta’s Kirkwood neighborhood, where he grew up — and is taken with the mythic appeal he’s taken on for the generations still living there. “Sometimes it’s like a fairy tale,” he says. “It’s a myth. You dream this shit — it’s a dream, that’s why you’re supposed to dream it. It’s not really going to happen in your life. You’re just supposed to dream it.”

“But now kids can be able to see this can be my reality,” he adds. “Like, I can actually do this. I can actually live my dreams that I was thinking about last night. The car I was dreaming about, the lifestyle I was dreaming about, I can actually live this life. I see this person. I see my home. I see my cousin doing this. This was a dream of his and he actually living everything he dreamed about, even more. It gives you a sense of hope. It gives hope. A lot of entertainers give hope to Atlanta.”

Currently, Future seems like he’s coming out of an incredibly productive, but emotionally taxing haze. According to him, he took 2018 off. It’s not clear why he believes that: Last year he dropped Beast Mode 2, executive produced a two-disc Superfly soundtrack, and released his collaboration with Juice WRLD. To Future, apparently, that’s an off year.

“My mind wasn’t there,” he says simply. “I was creating music, but my mind just wasn’t there. It wasn’t just clicking for me mentally.”

Now, Future is preparing for some sort of an ending. He remains coy about what comes next. He’s not quitting rap, but he does have post-rap dreams that involve a “little store.” He describes this dream in humble terms that are almost antithetical to the life he’s spent years detailing in his music: “I wake up, go to my store every day. People come in and shop and I help put they outfits together — and it cost me nothing. They don’t pay me to do it. It’s just a passion of mine. I just want to see people put they style and put they outfits together.”

“I can actually do this. I can actually live my dreams”

If he’s serious about this being the end of a chapter, though, what happens when the personas are gone and the record deals are satisfied? He waits like he’s pondering the question, then stares out from behind his sunglasses. Finally, after a long moment of silence, he laughs, and starts roasting me. I look too much like the Weeknd for him to catch what I’m saying (“While you’re asking the question, I’m like, ‘I don’t even know what he’s saying right now’”).

He didn’t hear a word of the question. I ask instead what’s changed — if this is the end of a chapter, what’s the biggest difference between 2011 Future, and 2019 Future?

He smiles. “$80 million richer.”

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