Rap isn't always comfortable with melancholy: most emcees, given the line "they treat you like God / when you beat the odds", would deliver it in a spirit of celebration. But from Future—Nayvadius Wilburn, age 32, scion of Atlanta's Dungeon Family collective—it's a hollow cry, infused through-and-through with thorough melancholy. Though 2015 saw him score his first #1 album with DS2, and his current mixtape run—2013's Monster, 2014's Beast Mode and 56 Nights, and 2015's What a Time to Be Alive—already ranks among the most fruitful in the history of the medium, he evinces no joy in his creative zenith. No rapper is more buzzed-about right now, and none is less impressed by his own spectacle.
With Purple Reign, Future and DJ Esco draw more on the dark sonic excesses of Monster than the playfulness of Beast Mode or the futurism of 56 Nights. But whereas Monster was propelled by its own drunken anger, Reign paints a portrait of Future after that anger has faded: Future as paranoid king, anhedonic at best and improding at worst, exhausted by his street ubiquity, critical cachet, and consistent commercial success. He obsesses over the past—over selling his aunt drugs, visiting his uncle in prison, his descent into his averred addiction, and, most dramatically, over women. His voice is an instrument all of its own: low, rumbling, like Auto-Tuned gravel knocking around inside a car's muffler. He uses it wonderfully: bellowing, shrieking, mumbling, pulling up to falsetto for emphasis.
Unlike the previous entries in the post-Monster run, no one producer helms the majority of Reign's production. The usual suspects—Metro Boomin', Southside, Zaytoven, Nard & B—are present, along with new collaborators K Major and Jon Boii; some careful track selection on the part of Future's team provides a sense of sonic unity and keeps it short (just a hair over 40 minutes). Metro's "All Night" sounds like a trap take on a Jodorowsky score. "Inside the Mattress" will no doubt be a hit; its glossy synths piled atop chirping chiptune squawks allow Future to do what he does best—float from one melody to another. The only clunker is Zaytoven's overly-repetitive "Bye Bye".
Underneath Future's always-freestyled lyrics and mumbled delivery, there is an observant, sensitive poet. He'll hone in on a series of off-the-wall rhymes ("Spanish", "panoramic", "asparagus", and "embarrassing") and then swerve wildly into the maudlin ("I know you still check your DMs from time to time", he mumbles to some unnamed paramour—how more modern can crooning get?). Future's dissects the subject of his own drug addiction—though by his own admission, it is not as profound as he portrays it on record, his work hinges on drugs as muse. He chronicles a life spent torn between competing excesses, the chronicle of a war conducted with oneself: as always, rap is about believability, not authenticity. And anyone who has spent any time at the wrong end of a drug habit will instantly understand Future's dispatches from the trenches.
If Reign has any particular faults, it is slightly too sedate. There is nothing here quite as astonishing as "March Madness", as menacing as "Shit", as catchy as "Itchin". His greatest heights, in the spirit of Monster's glorious "Codeine Crazy", come in the album closers, two morose yet blissed-out ballads—"Perkys Calling" and "Future Purple Reign". The first—"Perkys Calling"—finds Future grappling with his chief demon, opiates: "I can hear them Perkys calling," he sings hoarsely over three ghostly piano chords, "and when I push up in that Rolls, I'm still drankin'." And on "Future Purple Reign", he grapples with the other primary demon: love. The beat slurs backwards and forwards, writhing beneath a skittering hi-hat and intermittent bass, as he warbles, in a moving yet sure-to-be-memed hook, "I just need my giiiirlfriend". (The fact that Purple Reign comes with its own emoji was not lost on said ex-girlfriend, as her Instagram comments got flooded with purple ☔️ raining ☔️ umbrellas ☔️).
Purple Reign will no doubt sate the hunger of the #FutureHive, at least for a while. Very little music this good is still given away for free, especially in this age of blurry distinctions between mixtape and album. It's not earth-shattering, but it is a worthy entry in the Great Future Mixtape Streak. What's indisputable is that melancholy, or at least Future's brand thereof, now has a place in rap.