In this day and age, both socially and culturally, there’s an emphasis on transcending labels and outdated designations. In a word, boundaries. Boundaries that have limited past generations – confining them to completely imaginary cages in which they willfully sat. We, millennials, have declared war on the tyranny of labels. Confidently, I can say that this is the most progressive age in the history of mankind. We’ve pissed off our elders by redefining gender, mental health, and racial equality. 7-foot centers are shooting three-pointers now for crying out loud. Mirroring the social trend, today’s artists are transcending labels as well. Rebelling against conventions as the best always have. They are pushing back against the status quo and blending genres and styles to produce unique, unconventional music. Summed up with a phrase, we are the generation that has continued to blur the lines.
“I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. I need love and affection, and I hope I’m not sounding too desperate. I need love and affection.”
If I presented these lyrics to you in the absence of the artist responsible for them, there is a good chance you’d guess they came from Chris Brown, Frank Ocean, Miguel, or any number of artists in R&B today. But no, these words were sung by Future on Rihanna’s ballad, “Love.” His nickname isn’t Future Vandross for nothing, although in this case, the “R” in R&B may stand for ratchet instead of rhythm. How many rappers currently, or ever for that matter, could co-write a lovey-dovey song and hold their own on the said score with the likes of Rihanna?
Future attends the Grammys 2019 – Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images
In the last two decades, the demarcation between rapper and singer has slipped out of focus. Art reflects society. So, it’s only right that the flagbearers for this era in hip-hop refuse to be defined by your labels. Categories inadvertently reinforce boundaries – limits – and this breed of artists won’t be limited by mere rhetoric. Rolling Stone listed Future & Jacquees’ song “What They Gonna Do Without Me” as one of the top 10 best R&B songs of 2019. Adding to a growing list of hit Future tracks that have R&B traits. The Atlanta-born songwriter is arguably the 21st century’s king of hit-making; alongside Drake. Despite his pillars in rap, Future can genuinely be thought of as a contemporary R&B artist. It’s even not far-fetched to moniker him a pop act. As the star said on Dirty Sprite 2, “[They] tried to make me a pop star, but they made a monster.”
His aim has and will always be, not falling into one category or another but making timeless music. In the middle of a bustling lounge, Future addressed a crowd after being asked a question during a PowTV interview. The question was about the genre of music he makes. His reply, “I’m a street cat writing R&B songs – I’m making timeless music. It’s more melodic. It’s making astronaut music, timeless music. Music you can listen to 10 years from now and it’s going to sound like it’s fresh. It doesn’t even have a face. Right now I’m saying Pluto because music is going to have a color. My sound in one word would just be Pluto. It doesn’t have a boundary. I always call myself the astronaut kid because I’m making music… You can’t be inside a box. You can’t listen to this music and be inside one box. You got to be able to broaden your horizons and step out the box.”
Some of the best artists of all-time have transcended genres. As a result, they were able to connect with a wide-ranging audience. Creators like Peter Gabriel, the Sex Pistols, Jay-Z, Kanye, Prince. There are a few exemplary case studies for musical genre transcendence. First, Run DMC. The group incorporated punk rock into rap, driving it into the mainstream on a whole new level. Run DMC’s remix of “Walk This Way” is a testimony of this innovation. A second example would be Damian Marley and his fusion of reggae and hip-hop. Genre-blending is nothing new. However, challenging a genre’s theoretical parameters does not mean ignoring what makes it great. Rather, some artists have so much respect for the core principals of the style they feel obligated to push it forward. Stagnation is the enemy of progress. One has to know where the borders are to cross them deliberately. While genres act as a general guide point, each artist within that genre provides a unique experience. There may be no better example of this than Future.
In the case of Future, we find him blending core elements of rap with R&B. His offerings are usually consistent with the features we associate with R&B. A sometimes pitch-corrected, smooth, lush vocal arrangement style. Further, contemporary R&B artists are known for their use of vocal runs or melisma. In layman’s terms, each word in the lyrics are matched to a single note. Singing in a single syllable – singers move between several different notes. The syllabic style is an R&B staple. Another component Future uses, which is consistent with R&B, is key selection.
Chords that are natural to use for vocal riffs like the ones we recognize in R&B are Db/Gb/Ab/Eb/Cb/E/B/F# or the black keys. R&B tends to be written using these keys to allow the singer room to perform the aforementioned “runs,” or improvisations. Future often deploys this technique. For example, his song “Codeine Crazy” is written in F# minor. So is one of his breakthrough singles, “Turn On The Lights” along with “Honest.” In “Honest,” Future begins the song with a soft falsetto married with a swift piano solo. That’s as R&B as anything you’d hear from Usher.
The biggest misconception about Future is that we’ve been conditioned to associate certain lyrical content with one genre. This is, in 2019, an antiquated way of thinking. Yes, Future sings of drug dealing and street life. However, his story is presenting more often than not in the form of R&B rather than rap. What makes him so incredible is that he CAN, in fact, rap aggressively when the song calls for it — a rare combination of talent.
Lizzo got a ton of backlash for a deleted tweet saying that Future and Swae Lee weren’t rappers. “Sometimes I get pissed that there are people who call Future & Swae Lee rappers and still question whether or not I belong in the rap conversation.” Afterward, she did walk her statement back, but Lizzo’s comment represents a widely debated narrative about Future and where he falls on the periodic table of music. I see the discourse on Twitter at least once a month.
The ultimate rapper-singer, could be Drake. The Scorpian architect considers himself the first person to be able to successfully rap and sing. “There were people who incorporated melody before me, but I would deem myself the first person to successfully rap and sing,” he’s been quoted as saying.
However, in January 2019, Future surpassed Drake for the most No. 1’s in the last decade on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop albums chart. According to Forbes, Future earned his ninth No. 1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart with Future Hndrxx Presents…The WIZRD, making him the artist with the most No.1s on the chart in the last decade. Nielsen Music reported the album overall earned 126,000 equivalent album units, and of those units, 15,000 were in album sales in its opening week. Future has since extended his streak of six straight No. 1 albums to seven with Save Me. The article goes on to say before the Atlanta rapper received the prestigious honor, Drake and Future shared the joint victory of having eight No. 1 projects on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart — both being recognized for their collaborative effort, What a Time to Be Alive.
Real art channels authenticity. Artists don’t always attempt to fit into a lane when making music. They make what feels right to them and what expresses where they are mentally and emotionally at that moment to reach a person who may empathize. Art, in its sincerest form, is birthed through pure vulnerability and transparency. That’s why creating art is so taxing, artists give of themselves. They sacrifice a piece of their soul to share with us. Where Rap is often defined by its bravos, vulnerability is the calling-card for R&B artists.
“We don’t wanna neva end
It’s like our life has just began
You walkin’ out, you comin’ back again
Cause we became the best of friends”
Future harmonized poetically with Kelly Rowland on “Never End.” A song featured on his debut album, Pluto, which came out in 2012. The project would go on to become a fundamental framework for rap in the years to proceed. It spawned subversive musical trends that would reverberate across hip-hop. Even then, the album was a deeply satisfying exhibition of his illustrious range. In an exhibit of his duality, it included several components of R&B. The evidence was striking from the start. Future was an instant star. He followed this up by writing and performing several other hit songs with soft melodies, parading the scope of his talent. In 2013, he wrote “Body Part” with Ciara. The track received great fan reception and cracked 25 on the charts. Five years later, he was still it. In 2017, he released FUTURE & HNDRXX just one week apart. FUTURE standing true to the essence of trap, but HNDRXX can be interpreted in many ways as it ventures into Pop or R&B. He wails on “Use Me,” part of HNDRXX, with unrestrained, feverish suffering that fills your ears like smoke does your lungs after a deep inhale. Sometimes groining and wincing in a lullaby of distress. Things we’ve come to love about his signature style.
“These tools are for you to use
These tools are for you to use me
Oooh, use me, what you want me for
Oooh, use me, what you want me for
Yeah, oh, use me, ooh-ooh
Use me what you want me for”
Weighed against his counterparts, Future sells more dimensional narratives in his music (i.e., lyrics in Save Me are consumed with the deep emotionality of romance and the dark waltz with substance use). Through this approach, Future bravely addresses his role in his own failed relationships while confronting personal demons past and present. This form of self-analysis, through music, very few are willing to embark upon.
Prince Williams/Wireimage/Getty Images
He brilliantly balances ferocity and tenderness. With an emotional palette, he taps into a melancholy tortured place – all wrapped in succulent soundwaves. Simply put, Future has the ability to convey heartbreak beautifully. Trauma paints a horrifically picturesque mural of expression. Self-medication of a blackhearted vessel. He exclaims these same sentiments on “Throw Away,” from his 2015 album, Monster.
“Does sexing on the late-night mean that much to you?
My love don’t mean that much to you
Fucking these hoes meant too damn much to you
I just hope when you fucking on that nigga, when you finished
He can say that he love you
Now do you feel better ’bout yourself?
Do you feel better by yourself?
Did you feel better when I left?
Mark my words, I ‘ma ball without you
I came home last night to a ménage
Got my dick sucked and I was thinking about you”
Label him if you must, but Future doesn’t care about your tags. The Grammy winner’s run extends into the next decade with no sign of immediate irrelevancy. Perhaps past his prime but yet in the midst of a historic run which has seen him outlast the very artists he inspired to challenge for his throne. Drake, Future, The Grateful Dead, Radiohead, Myles Davis – all transcended their genres in one way or another. In an industry controlled by those who reside in the crevices of creativity, musicians will always challenge the supposed limits. So is he a rapper, or is he an R&B singer? He’s neither, and he’s both, and he doesn’t fit into your box.
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