Atlanta rapper Future released four substantial mixtapes last year, but his 2011 was ultimately defined by two singles: YC’s thickly Auto-Tuned, maddeningly catchy “Racks,” and his own “Tony Montana,” a Lex Luger-produced lark in which Future raps in an intoxicated impression of Al Pacino’s already mangled Cuban accent from Scarface. “Racks” was the hit, but “Tony Montana” was the career-maker, the song that secured him a record deal with Epic and consecrated him as the latest rapper of the moment. With its titanic Luger beat and blunt, two-word hook, the track copies Maybach Music Group’s street-rap template so exactly that it also works as a parody of the form, though Future’s bizarre performance makes it impossible to tell whether any satire is intentional. His demented, syrup-addled singing gives the song an air of outsider art.
Continuing the trend of his recent mixtapes, Future sings more than he raps on his commercial debut Pluto, mostly in an Auto-Tune-curdled croon so flat it makes 808s And Heartbreak feel like a Jeff Buckley record. Like Lil Wayne at the Carter III-era peak of his absurdity, Future creates his own reality, rhyming about spotting UFOs, jetting from planet to planet, and sexing astronauts. But where Wayne barreled through his gonzo fantasies with winking self-amusement, Future delivers his in a blunt, plainspoken stupor, showing none of Wayne’s double-fist-bump enthusiasm for the art of rhyming. Future chronicles his space travels with such lifeless lyricism that they begin to feel less like exclusive feats than lonely obligations. There’s a melancholic current in his delivery that has invited some readings of him as a forlorn romantic, but that’s probably an overly generous interpretation. It’s just as likely that Future lacks the basic depth and dynamism to make his rhymes convey what he means them to.
Unlike T-Pain and Kanye West, who use Auto-Tune to juxtapose robotic sounds with human emotion, Future uses it to supplant emotion entirely. On “Permanent Scar” he reflects on an uncle’s suicide attempt with no particular sadness in his voice—he never expands on his relationship with his uncle or mentions his name, giving no indication that they are even particularly close—then lumbers through one of the most dispassionate “miss my homies” reminisces in recent memory: “I got some homies that gone, they mean the world to me,” he mumbles, “and they ain’t coming back home, they in the cemetery.” Groaners like that run amok on Pluto. “I got your attitude in Venus,” he rhymes on the R. Kelly-assisted come-on “Parachute,” “I got you beggin’ to catch my semen.” Even by street-rap standards, Future is a remarkably uncomplicated creature, and he pushes his simplicity to its greatest extremes on “Straight Up,” channeling his inner 13-year-old for a half-chortled refrain: “She a big booty freak, and she fart.”
Yet Pluto is a more compelling listen than an album with so many atrocious lyrical turns has any right to be. Future’s producers turn out evocative beats that convey moods and sentiments that Future can’t, and his hooks are consistently catchy. (He is the guy behind the “Racks” chorus, after all.) Best of all are the rare moments when Future snaps out of his intergalactic daze to spit honest-to-goodness raps. Without leaning on shtick, the massive multitasking ode “Same Damn Time” and the fierce Pimp C tribute “Long Live The Pimp” rampage as fiercely and effectively as “Tony Montana.” A few more bangers like them would have gone a long way to help balance out this sporadically engrossing, frequently frustrating curiosity.