There are prolific artists, and then there’s Future, the Atlanta rapper whose tireless approach to recording has made the 33-year-old a star and one of the genre’s most indelible voices working today.
Beyond the volume of material — six studio albums and nearly 20 authorized mixtapes since the start of the decade — most impressive is the output’s consistent quality, and its author’s seeming refusal to make pop concessions in the name of mainstream popularity.
Dressed in a yellow Gucci T-shirt tucked into fitted camouflaged pants, Future reminded the Royal Farms Arena crowd on Monday of this repeatedly, running through nearly 30 songs and snippets at an unrelenting pace.
It was whiplash as a rap concert; in an hour he and his DJ were gone.
He stuck to his strengths — namely, the unrelenting, adrenaline-filled tracks that never failed to garner huge reactions from the audience. Far from a sell-out, the crowd’s outsized energy and approval compensated for empty seats.
Early highlights included the stuttering “Karate Chop (Remix)” and a one-word single with an unprintable name that punctuated each word of Future’s delirious hook with tall pyro-flames.
The tour’s minimal production (no live band or much of a stage design except for a few inconsequential video screens) showed there’s room for growth, but the bare-bones looseness also allowed for a charming, off-the-cuff approach to Future’s catalog. It was refreshing to hear deeper mixtape tracks like “Layup” and “My Savages” over an arena’s booming speakers. They are minor Future songs, but they are worthy of a big stage.
There were moments, though, that revealed the limitations of a Future show. His gift for melody is obvious, but Future often collaborates with more gifted singers, and on Monday, he sang along with their verses (Drake on “Jumpman,” Ty Dolla $ign on “Blasé” and The Weeknd a couple times) in order to get to his featured part on the song. Future is a generous collaborator, but he’s also aware the appeal of these songs goes beyond him, too.
Smartly, he avoided a previous misstep, 2013’s “Real and True,” a spacey ballad he made with the pop star Miley Cyrus. Future has distanced himself from that song and that time, when he was more obvious with his Top 40 ambitions. Not long after, he returned to his rawer mixtape roots with much more effective results.
Monday’s setlist stuck closely to those songs, eschewing Future’s occasional forays into R&B. Instead, the crowd received bruising songs produced by modern rap architects like Metro Boomin and Southside. While the beats provide plenty of the heavy lifting, Future brought them to life in a whirlwind of ways — blunt threats, boasts of lust and luxury, free association and vivid storytelling.
The results are often exhilarating (“Draco,” “Itchin’”), and at times, concerning, if the recreational habits Future raps about are to be believed.
He namedrops drugs like a pharmacist, shouting out promethazine, codeine, Adderall and Xanax with an alarming regularity. (Another Atlanta rapper, OG Maco, once wrote on Twitter, “I love Future but I also understand Future has destroyed countless lives by making it cool to be a drug addict.”) The final song of the night was “Mask Off,” whose chorus is mostly Future chanting “Percocet, Molly, Percocet.” It’s one of his biggest hits to date.
While there’s an argument to be made Future — and plenty of artists before him — glorifies drug use, it would be dishonest to ignore the element of self-medication. Future’s music offers glimpses into his upbringing in Atlanta, and the harsh realities of street life he saw growing up there (“Lil woadie loading up that yopper before he brush his teeth,” he rapped mid-set).
So even though “March Madness” — a highlight from Monday — opens with “Dirty soda in a Styrofoam,” it quickly becomes a gorgeous, swirling song of defiance and perseverance. Released in March 2015, weeks before the death of Freddie Gray, “March Madness” became something of a B-side to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” timely and malleable protest songs that energized and comforted people in Baltimore and across the country who felt targeted and marginalized in their own communities.
On Monday, Future seemed to acknowledge the song’s resonance here. “Every time I come here, I gotta do this,” he said as the crowd became a sea of illuminated cell phones.
It was impossible not to notice the palpable, visceral reaction from the crowd when Future rapped, “These bogus police can’t touch me.” It was one more reminder he doesn’t need to watch what he says in the name of his career. On the contrary, that’s exactly what has ascended Future to arena-level heights.