Owner of a handful of radio hits and the principal dynamo behind the burgeoning “space” microgenre that splits the difference between ringtone pop-rap and post-crunk shout-rap, Atlanta rapper Future is primed to own the summer of 2012. Future is nobody’s idea of a great rapper, but he has a knack for making hits, mellifluously switching from rhyming to crooning in an autotuned drawl that seems a savvy reduction of Weezy’s star-turn on the hook of “Duffle Bag Boy.” He further benefits from an alliance with some of the hottest producers working right now, like Mike Will and Nard & B, who create glistening soundscapes that would work perfectly at Epcot center or the Light Tunnel at the Detroit Airport.
Future’s major label debut Pluto begins with the trancy, infectious “Parachute,” which features an on-point R. Kelly. The song is a bottled monster of club energy, with robotically harmonized vocals, stark lazer shots of synthesizer, and a low end that manages to be both wobbly and lock-step. Kelly clearly owns the song, but Future comes off as no slouch, either, calmly playing the foil to Kelly’s madman. The next two songs, “Straight Up” and “Astronaut Chick,” are of a piece: ostensibly romantic, midtempo pop-rap marked less by Future’s rapping than by his hooks, bearing more in common with a well-financed pop song produced by Stargate than anything Gucci Mane would want to rap over. These are followed by “Magic,” a head-nodding slice of classic dirty-south trunk rap complete with a snarling T.I. verse. And there you have the ambition and scope of Pluto.
Not content with being another trap rapper, Future is shooting for the heights of pop. Obviously there’s a precedent for this kind of move. Drake himself shows up on “Tony Montana,” as if to induct Future into the club of is-he-a-rapper-or-a-singer thought problems. Future is not as introspective or complex as Drake, but he’s a lot more fun. He can get wasted with Juicy J on “I’m Trippin” or go riding with Trae the Truth on “Long Live the Pimp” and be convincing in each case. But he’s more compelling on vaguely melancholy slow jams like “Neva End,” “Permanent Scar,” and “Turn on the Lights.” On these tracks Future bounces his autotuned pleas off the walls of his immaculately designed productions like a robot who just discovered he’s capable of feeling pain.
What stays in the mind is the rumbling bass lines, the pulsing keyboard arpeggios, Future’s longing melodies — an indication that this is more pop music more than it is lyrically rich hip-hop. Pluto will surely fuel page after page of comment-thread debates and plenty of disavowals by hip-hop classicists, but that shouldn’t really matter. If anything, his Dungeon Family co-sign in addition to the fact that Drake has been here before should minimize the poured-out vitriol. In the end Pluto should be appreciated for what it is, an album of impeccably crafted, energetic, original music that is striving above all else to be popular and universal, even if such goals look less likely of being achieved than ever before.