Why do so many people like Future?

Think of the best year of your life.

Maybe it was the year you graduated high school or the year you got a car. Maybe it was the year you finally snagged a girlfriend or the year you finally bought a place of your own.

Now, multiply the positive things from that year by the number of tattoos Young Thug has. That is how good 2015 was to Future.

Future had one of the best years in rap history, thanks to an unprecedented mixtape and album run. On the back of the releases of Beast Mode, 56 Nights, Dirty Sprite 2, and What a Time to be Alive, he went from “popular rapper” to “cultural icon.” As much as any one person can own a period of time, Future owned 2015.

But you knew all that. His achievements have been applauded in article after article, and you would have to be living under a rock with very bad cell reception to be unaware of his exploits, both musically and socially. What you might not know though, is why precisely he has become so successful. Future is truly a musical enigma of sorts, because it is incredibly hard to pin down one reason for his mass acclaim, much more so than with other famous artists. Drake has beautiful dexterity in both singing and rapping, Kendrick Lamar is unmatched lyrically and J. Cole is as earnest and likeable as he is skilled. But what does Future have that makes him so special?

Lyrics are most definitely not the answer. As author of the New York Times bestseller “The Rap Yearbook”, Shea Serrano, puts it, “If you actually listen to what he’s saying, it’s some of the dumbest sh*t in the world.” Future simply can’t hang with many other rappers in this regard, often leaning on basic rhyme schemes and shallow lyrics. As descriptive as it is, lines like “I just took a piss and I seen codeine coming out,” are not going to set you apart.

And that is something even his fans can agree on. Adrian Kombe, a first-year student described Future’s lyricism as “not creative and pretty degenerative.” Ayorinde Ifatunji, a second-year student and Future fan, went with “terrible” when asked to label it.

The thematic content of his songs is nothing special either, unless you are super into lean and/or strippers. He occasionally touches on the poverty of his upbringing and his love life, but for the most part, his subjects of interest are limited to money, drugs and sex, and the way he discusses them is not novel or unique.

So with those ruled out, what is left is “his sound,” that vague term that encapsulates everything from production to the inflections in his voice. Somewhere in this murkiness is the key to figuring out Future’s appeal.

The sheer originality of his production and enunciation of lyrics could explain it partially. He doesn’t rap so much as he lets the words fall out of his mouth in a stream of syllables, and it is all laid over complex and layered beats. “It’s weird and eclectic, and you’re not really sure if you like it at first, but then you get into it and you’re like ‘Oh, this is bomb,’” said Ifatunji, an experience that countless Future fans can undoubtedly relate to. “The way he enunciates things is very different, but it’s consistent and sounds good,” said Kombe.

But that still fails to fully explain the mystery of Future. After all, most of those descriptions could be used for Rich Homie Quan, and he is nowhere near the importance level of Future. Serrano, however, may have deciphered Future’s appeal with one quote: “It just feels like he’s plugged into the universe.”

It sounds silly and vaguely ridiculous, but it hints toward a much greater truth; Future is excellent at relaying the emotions and feelings of the world around him, and he does it without stressing about lyrics. “He’s the first real post-word rapper. What he says doesn’t matter; it’s the emotions behind it,” said Serrano. “He was the first guy to be able to [relay emotions] without worrying about what he was saying.”

So while it may seem ironic for a trap rapper who talks mainly of drugs to be an expert in emotions, it could very well be the case. The reception of each of his individual mixtapes and albums is prime evidence. Heading into the release of Honest, his first studio album, it seemed like Future was set to blow up. Pluto and Pluto 3D set the scene for heightened commercial success, and Honest becoming a hit was the natural progression.

But it flopped, at least in terms of critical reception. It was a stark departure from the more brooding Future of before, and people did not like it. This was most likely because despite the title, the album felt dishonest. It felt overly poppy and seemed like a “play for radio attention,” in the words of Serrano. It was only when he returned to his introspective and darker roots with DS2 that he became an icon. It felt gritty and real, adjectives that definitively cannot be applied to Honest. “[With DS2] he wasn’t worrying about anything but getting his true sound out,” said Serrano. That necessity of honesty is critical to understanding Future’s success. Future can’t effectively display his emotions if he is not truthfully reporting them, and without that emotional layer to his music, he is nowhere.

It’s not just Future’s emotions that make his music so beloved, either. It’s the fact that his songs leave space for the listener’s emotions as well. Most of the population can’t identify with the events or topics in Future’s lyrics, but they can identify with the feel of his sound. It is impossible to listen to “Turn On the Lights” without sympathizing with Future’s loneliness, just as it is impossible to listen to “Where Ya At” without feeling his confident defiance. People don’t listen to him because they want to hear what he is feeling. They listen because they want to rouse those same emotions within themselves, an appeal that extends to tons of people, not just rap fans. “What’s common about everyone who listens to him is that it’s a reflective thing for them,” said Serrano.

Future will never be a lyrical genius. But he is an auditory one, in the sense that he can contort his words and sentences in ways people never really considered before. Combined with top-notch production from producers like Metro Boomin’ and DJ Esco, Future has authoritatively unlocked a new way to appeal to the masses. His music is less a refined and finished product and more of an open tapestry, one with ample room for listeners to inflect their own feelings and thoughts. Future’s triumphs are your triumphs, and his insecurities are your insecurities. That two-way emotional street is exceptionally rare in music, and it defines his rise to the top.

Originally published in Tastemakers Music Magazine

A Guide to the 5 Stages of Frank Ocean Grief

You were lied to–we all were. Frank Ocean promised an album in July, and as the days of that doomed month ticked by, our anxiety grew. August passed by without even a word from Ocean, and deep worry began to set in. Now, on the verge of winter, more than three months after the slated release date, we are still without the sequel to /Channel Orange/. We are all victims and we are all suffering. We here at Tastemakers understand your anguish. So with that, we present a guide to navigating the five stages of Frank Ocean grief, complete with an album that actually came out this year to get you through each stage.

  1. DENIAL – “It can only be a matter of time, right? It’s dropping any day now, no doubt.”

The number of fans in this stage is dwindling by the day, but they are still out there. Buoyed by a false dream that Frank Ocean is just playing a fun little waiting game, the griever in denial is defined by an inexplicable sense of hope. They wake up every morning and check the “New Releases” section on Spotify to no avail, and begin their day disappointed. But as the day goes on, they deceive themselves and cling to their preferred alternate reality.

Small Talk by rising British pop and R&B singer MNEK is the ideal companion for this stage in the process. Short and sweet at six songs, this EP mixes beautiful vocals with danceable beats, perfect for a listener looking for something to keep them distracted and happy in this dark, empty world. “Suddenly” is the most similar sonically to Ocean, but “More Than A Miracle” is the highlight. And coincidentally, that’s what an album release from Ocean would require.

 

  1. ANGER – “WHAT IS HAPPENING? WHY HAVE I BEEN HURT? HOW CAN I RELEASE ALL THIS DEEP RAGE?”

Once out of denial, the griever is filled with the anger of a jilted lover, and understandably so. Numerous questions fly through the head of the fan, from “Why me?” to “Who can I lash out at to feel better about myself?” The trust has been broken, and the victim spurns the very idea of Ocean’s music. Ocean is dead to them, at least for the time being.

Who better to turn to in this situation than rival and (maybe) mortal enemy Miguel? There is no better way to lash out at Ocean than listening to the R&B artist he has notoriously feuded with, and Miguel’s Wildheart is an easy transition. Raw and crackling with energy, Wildheart is an exercise in passion and emotion. With heavy usage of electric guitars and wailing vocals, this can make you forget all about the Liar-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. “Coffee” is the most popular and catchy song, but “Leaves” and “What’s Normal Anyway” are the ones you don’t want to miss.

 

  1. BARGAINING – “Maybe if I stay in my bed and cry long enough the album will come out.”

This stage is all about figuring out ways to avoid the inevitable. The bargaining griever will search for any way to escape the unavoidable, including finding other artists remotely similar to Ocean and pretending they are him. In some ways, this is the saddest stage because the sheer desperation of the listener is so apparent.

The Ocean fan will definitely want to turn to Elijah Blake’s album Shadows and Diamonds for this stage. The unheralded secret weapon of the R&B world, Blake takes mellow lyrics and lays them over original and incredibly appealing beats to create one of the most slept-on R&B albums of 2015. And when his voice goes high, and if you separate yourself from reality just enough it almost feels like Ocean himself. Who needs Frank when you have someone who sounds like him and doesn’t tear your heart out?

 

  1. DEPRESSION – “I could go outside, but I know the rest of the world is going to disappoint me just like Frank Ocean did.”

If the listener is in this stage, it may take a while for them exit. Characterized by an overwhelming sense of despair and a refusal to stop listening to all of Ocean’s library on shuffle while eating sleeves of Oreos, most in this stage would prefer to sit inside and wallow in their misery.

The best aide for this stage in the grieving process is You Should Be Here by Kehlani. Long enough to last many crying sessions, Kehlani brings a gentle but simultaneously assertive sound to the music world, while maintaining that smooth traditional R&B sound. Plus, Chance the Rapper and BJ the Chicago Kid make some perfectly incorporated guest appearances. The title is also exceptionally appropriate to the griever’s main wish.

 

  1. ACCEPTANCE – “I will be cold and decomposing in my grave before Frank Ocean releases anything.”

 

Look. It’s not happening. No album is coming out, no single is coming out, and Ocean will probably never again say a word to the public. So might as well get used to the idea of finding another artist to fill the void. The listener in this stage can be identified by an eerie sense of content unknown to the rest of Ocean’s fan base.

Bryson Tiller is the answer here. No one can fill Frank Ocean’s shoes, but listening to /T R A P S O U L/ will quickly make anyone forget about Ocean, at least for a while. The album name serves as both a title and the name of a completely different genre of music, where Tiller flips from crooning to rapping multiple times without a hitch. “Don’t” is the star of the album, but almost every song on the work is unique and above average. And once the listener has finished all 14 songs, the process is complete. The grieving is over. Thank us later.

Originally published in Tastemakers Music Magazine