Although it seems strange to imagine it now after witnessing his stunning rise over the last year, at one point Nayvadius Cash was an establishment underdog with very little buzz outside of his own city. Brought up in the game and groomed by the legendary Dungeon Family, he first started to gain traction in Atlanta with hit tapes True Story and Free Bricks, a collaboration with street veteran Gucci Mane. By 2012, he seemed poised to be the region’s next superstar; he had two records buzzing nationwide, and although the sales of his first album Pluto were less than expected, his gravelly autotuned sound had already begun to catch on. This momentum only continued through the next year, as the smash singles “Bugatti” and “Love Me” were propelled up the charts by ultra-catchy Future hooks, and the man himself was suddenly the go-to feature artist with a name that became more widely recognizable by the day. It only made sense for all of this success to culminate in a massive sophomore album, a collection of records to solidify the emerging star’s place as a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, things didn’t exactly go the way the label executives had planned. On Honest, Future struggled to find a signature sound; for every face-melting street banger, there were two sappy odes to his wife Ciara, whose influence seemed to be nothing but negative. On a side note, I’m still unsure whether fans will ever forgive Fewtch for going into the studio with Metro Boomin and Kanye West and emerging with “I Won,” the biggest disappointment on an album fans felt was full of them.
Career-wise, the Atlanta rapper was in an interesting position. The poppy persona he had tried to embrace clearly wasn’t working, and his relationship with Ciara was falling apart publicly due to accusations from both sides of unfaithfulness and dishonesty. Future had struggled personally for his entire life, but the emotional impact of these experiences had yet to be shared with listeners as he eschewed vulnerability for braggadocio and designer hooks. When the mixtape Monster dropped later that year, not many were still paying attention. However, critics mooned over the new project, praising Future’s experimentation with a “darker sound” and his intense “characterizations of heartbreak” on songs like “Throw Away” and “Codeine Crazy,” but the only aspect of the tape that seemed to gain traction was the bubbling hit “Fuck Up Some Commas,” which began a slow takeover of urban radio. In January came Beast Mode, a nine-track collaboration with tried and true Atlanta superproducer Zaytoven. Fans had begun to take notice of the new sounds being explored and the consistency with which Future was delivering fresh material. A second song emerged from this mix to become a regional smash: “Real Sisters,” a bouncy reflection on intercourse with women who shared the same family, took southern strip clubs by storm, and all of a sudden the man who many had written off as washed up had two fresh entries on his career-long list of hits.
At this point, most rappers would relax and rest on their laurels, but Future surged ahead, putting out 56 Nights only a few months later. On these new projects, he was still crafting anthems, but at the same time he was exposing us to the less desirable side of his life. Mornings started with codeine and nights capped by large doses of Xanax, sexual exploits fueled by MDMA, and expensive alcohol to keep everything numbed; these were the subjects Future was now comfortable dealing with, and the rawness of the aesthetic he was able to create resonated with a rapidly growing fanbase. By July of 2015, Twitter was buzzing all about the “three peat” that nobody had seemed to notice until it had already spent months marinating. How had a forgotten rapper managed to release three near-flawless mixtapes in less than a calendar year? Soon, an online community sprung up consisting of die hard Future followers, calling themselves the Hive (a parody of the Beyoncé fans who operate under the same name) and flooding the internet with memes and snippets of their favorite songs. A wave had begun to crest, and what separates the rappers who become outdated fads and those who carve out a permanent spot in the game is a knowledge of when to drop. All of the newfound hype and forward energy came together with the release of the album Dirty Sprite 2. The rap internet exploded in collective orgasm, praising the project relentlessly in hastily published reviews and hailing Future as perhaps the second coming of Jimi Hendrix (a tongue-in-cheek comparison in the same vein as Migos and the Beatles.) This had to be it, the defining moment, the big bang that would send the codeine-laced star into the stratosphere; little did we know, the peak had yet to come.
Drake has been, for years, the most culturally important rapper in the game, essentially dominating rap radio and spawning countless hits and even more catchphrases along the way. A collaboration with Future held massive opportunity for both artists, and the joint project What a Time to be Alive was an instant smash. Every time you’ve heard “Jumpman” or “Digital Dash,” blasting out of the windows of a passing car, Future has become just slightly more important. Every time you’ve heard somebody referencing fucking in Gucci flip flops, Future has become just slightly more important. Every time you’ve looked around and realized that suburban America’s obsession with lean has reached fever pitch, Future has become just slightly more important. Last week, he was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, a sure sign of far-reaching relevancy for any rapper. Not only did he perform two of his most well known songs, he was also featured in sketches and referenced on Weekend Update. On top of all this, the audience laughed and clapped along. Your parents know who Future is. Middle-aged white people who have voted Republican since the Carter administration know who Future is. At what point in time did this man become the king of the south? That’s not a title to be taken lightly. In the past, it’s been held by industry heavyweights like T.I., Young Jeezy, Lil Wayne, and Outkast, all of whom became household names during the height of their careers. However, it only seems right to put the crown on the head of the artist who rose from near-obscurity to become one of the biggest stars on the planet. He didn’t do it with a Vine-ready single or a team of publicists stirring up controversy and headlines. He simply dropped quality project after quality project, then sat back and waited for the world to take notice. The underdog aspect of his rise is important to take into consideration here. Nobody was helping Future but Future himself, the Rocky Balboa of the rap game, a man with the deck stacked against him who still found a way to succeed. Not only that, a Future verse is more valuable now than a verse from any other rapper in the south. If that’s not an indication of dominance, then what is? For those still doubting, please load a suitcase full of dollar bills and roll into Magic City on a Monday. Notice whose music is played a dozen times every hour, and then repeated constantly throughout the night. Yeah, I would say it’s time to call it like it is: we have a new king of the south.