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