When the world was first introduced to Future—back in 2011, on the Drake-assisted street single turned Pluto album cut, “Tony Montana”—there was something immediately captivating about him. His voice was unpolished and raw; it cut right through the mix. Hip-hop has historically made legends out of artists like that. Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Busta Rhymes. Lil Jon. T-Pain. There are others. They’re characters, mostly, who become famous more for how they say things than what they’re saying.
With one solid LP under his belt and more guest appearances than any normal person could keep track of, Future is legitimately that dude right now. But there’s only so many times you can make the same exact song and call it something new, and on his sophomore effort, Honest, the Atlanta-bred singer/rapper aims to do something most of the moment stars never get a chance to: grow.
Despite his melodic sensibility, Future is, effectively, a street guy. A sensitive thug, whose music closely mirrors that aesthetic. To that end, “Move That Dope,” with a tongue-twisting verse from Pharrell (of all people), is an ode to dope boys, while he’s stacking dirty money over producer Nard & B’s haunting piano keys on “T-Shirt.” Similarly, “Covered N Money” finds him doing dirt while his hungry lawyer eats the case, and “Karate Chop (Remix)” is, metaphorically speaking, about cutting up bricks.
But we’ve heard all that before from Future, and frankly, we’ve heard it from almost every other hip-hop artist who has cut a record since 1997. Maybe there are no new ideas. Maybe everything’s been done. But whatever. What we haven’t quite heard is someone with Future’s inflections, his capacity for bending blues scales to the tuning and rhythmic pulses of detuned 808 subs, the way he snap his vocals back staccato-like. The vocal gymnastics on a song like “How Can I Not” are admirable in their own right. Who really cares what he’s talking about?
That isn’t to say Honest doesn’t have some serious drawbacks. You can tell while listening to it that Future tasked himself with making what might traditionally be called "big records." Songs that can become hits. There’s the Kanye West-assisted “I Won,” which finds the pair comparing their women—Ciara and Kim Kardashian, respectively—to trophies. But the syrupy R&B ballad never quite finds its emotional engine; rather, it sounds forced and cliché. The anthemic “Blood, Sweat, Tears” goes for the same, and while it’s not a bad song per se, Boi-1da’s overwrought production is ear fatiguing after the first minute.
Luckily, the guests on the LP really do bring a lot to the table. Andre 3000’s appearance on “Benz Friendz” shows how far out of his league Future is—at least by traditional rap standards—but the soulful cut still comes together well. And Drake pops in for “Never Satisfied,” an aspirational bottom-heavy cut that perhaps ends too soon.
To the chagrin of the industry hype machine, fellow critics and most importantly, Future’s fans, Honest is not an amazing album. It’s a good one, with many enjoyable songs that people will predictably continue playing for the next few months. But as an artist, Future hasn’t quite mastered finding new things to write about. In fact, Pluto may have been even more thematically comprehensive. So much for growth. Still, the musicality is there, making Future arguably the most talented non-singing singer in music. But you can only get so many points for style. On Honest, Future has finally used them all up. —Paul Cantor