Future's Reign

How fatherhood, family, and fame have shaped the rap superstar

How fatherhood, family, and fame have shaped the rap superstar
Written by: Meaghan Garvey
Video editing by: CJ Smith

On the surface, Future gleams. Rushing from Toronto's February chill into the lobby of One King West Hotel, he ducks under his fur-lined hood but can't help but catch the light: diamond rings, layers of delicate diamond chains, mirrored gold aviators, the high wattage smile. The sunglasses are impenetrable; all they reveal is my own awestruck reflection. Future admits that's the point. "Batman kept his outfit on. It's Future Hendrix, so I got my shades on." The only place we ever get a glimpse of Future's eyes is in the occasional photo with his four kids on his Instagram, or on his album covers.

It's NBA All-Star Weekend in Toronto, and the hottest non-Canadian rapper alive is set to perform at the Maison Mercer nightclub later that night. Just the week before, Future landed his third No. 1 album in seven months with EVOL. He'll kick off his Purple Reign tour the following week, alongside constant collaborator and longtime friend DJ Esco. The duo will play 22 American cities in a month, which sounds exhausting until you consider what the 32-year-old Atlanta native has accomplished in the last 18 months: four mixtapes, two solo albums, four U.S. tours, and a joint album with Drake. There's a lot on his plate, but right now what he's most preoccupied with is fatherhood.

photo: MTV

Future is notoriously private, but as soon as he starts talking about his kids, he's beaming, earnestly sharing even their most minor developments. "My son, he learning to use the restroom right now. He walk in my room the other day and I'm sitting on the bed. And he was using the restroom — he like, ‘Come wipe me up!'" He's laughing at the memory. "It's a reality check. It don't matter what's going on: I have a No. 1 album, and my son comes and leaves his drawers in the bathroom, talking 'bout wipe him up! My other son, Prince, he'll be there and use a whole roll of tissue," he goes on, cracking himself up. "He be in there just rolling the tissue, use everything and still don't get the job done. I'm like, man, let me help you. Man, I love being a dad. It's SUPER fun." The day after this interview, Future posts pictures on his Instagram of his only daughter, Londyn, on his lap, captioned "Happy Valentines my love." She's wearing his gold shades. Future's eyes are uncovered; he looks happy.

Born Nayvadius Wilburn — a princely name bestowed by his Haitian mother — in East Atlanta's Kirkwood neighborhood, Future is still most at home in the city where he was raised. He revisits his childhood often, flashing back to cycling in and out of his aunt's and grandmother's homes once his mother had enough. After dropping out of high school, Future's teenage years were an endless cat-and-mouse game with local police. He soon found a place and purpose in the recording studio, having been ushered into Atlanta's legendary Dungeon Family by his cousin Rico Wade, a member of the Organized Noize production crew. Future absorbed the early brilliance of Outkast, Goodie Mob, Killer Mike, and the rest of the Family from close proximity. They were vanguards of rap's current capital, making an impact a decade before the music industry realized the South had something to say. Back then, the studio was the only thing keeping Future from self-destructing. In a holistic sense, it still is.

"I've been going to the studio every day for five years," Future says matter-of-factly. His taxing tour schedule has somewhat tempered his prolificacy this year, but "slowing down" in Future terms means releasing EVOL and his Purple Reign tape in the span of three weeks. Project E.T., a collaborative tape billed to DJ Esco but featuring Future on nearly every track, would arrive by June. But numbers alone fail to capture what's made this era of Future feel so important. Plenty of rappers pump out mixtapes at a mechanical clip; it's debatable whether any of Future's contemporaries can compete with his level of quality. During his dazzling run from Monster to DS2, he dropped three album-quality mixtapes and capped it off with the best album of his career, all in less than a year's time. As far as hot streaks go, he's in the pantheon with mid-2000s Wayne and Gucci. Frankly, beholding it was fucking magical. And in spite of a growing league of imitators and a fickle audience of bandwagon-hoppers itching to see the reigning king of Atlanta dethroned, this much has become clear: The only one capable of taking Future out of the paint, at this point, is Future himself.

When asked if he ever feels uninspired, Future looks as though he's never actually considered the prospect. "It's hard to get burned out or uninspired, man," he says in his velvety rasp, a voice that simulates Auto-Tune modulation completely on its own. "I'm afraid of what that is. I feel like God made me this way, and I'm taking advantage of it. But also, you gotta understand: I have kids. That's what I work hard for," he explains. "I got the three No. 1 albums for my kids, man, to set a solid foundation for them. And even my nephews and nieces, my sisters, my brothers. I do everything for my family."

Longtime fans know his brother Casino, a mainstay of Future's Freebandz label whose lovably deafening verses have popped up on some of his greatest hits, from 2013 fan fave "Keep on Shinin" to a song-stealing performance on 2014's "Move That Dope." But Future's other brothers and sisters are regulars in the studio whenever he's home, too. He's committed to recognizing every family member's birthday, even if his presence has been known to complicate things. "My niece, she just had her birthday. We have private little gatherings," he says. "That's the time that I enjoy: away from the cameras, away from the audience, the scenery of going out to eat and everybody's staring at me. I'm trying to enjoy my niece's day, but she recognizing it. Say it's your birthday, and all the attention on me. I don't want them to get to the point where they feel like, ‘Man, that's supposed to be my day — don't you even come.' So I know when they should have their own moments. I'll be there."

By now, Future's older children are becoming aware of what their father represents to the rest of the world. And to a significant portion of his audience, what Future represents is pure nihilistic hedonism. "I think I lost my heartbeat for a second and a half," he sing-songed on the title track of Dirty Sprite, the 2011 mixtape that put him on the map and extolled the morbid pleasures of his codeine-laced beverage of choice. On "Codeine Crazy" — the devastating conclusion of 2014's Monster and probably his most emotionally transparent song to date — addiction and heartbreak tangle into an inseparable knot. "I'm taking everything that come with these millions," he sings toward the end, sounding despondent. "I'm taking everything that come with my children." On paper, it almost reads like a rap boast; on record, it sounds like a cry for help.

"That's pain nobody would know about. And my music — that's pain. That's where it come from. I come from pain, so you gonna hear it in my music."

"They know my music, but they don't understand it," Future explains when I ask how much his kids know of rap's most notorious rock star. "My daughter don't understand what's ‘dirty Sprite.' My oldest son, I sense that he has an idea of what it is, but he never seen me do it. They hear the stories about me smoking, but they never seen me smoke. People always think that I'm just doing this in front of my kids. But I want them to have a totally different life from me. I want for them to make their own decisions."

The drugs, the liquor, the fuck-the-world recklessness: all of this is inseparable from the mythos Future's been developing throughout his six-year catalogue. But that's a shallow read of what this music, at its essence, is about. Beneath all the talk of double cups and molly, beyond the Percocets and strippers, is a body of work that's ultimately about learning to live with the ghosts of the past. Relics of Future's old life emerge like apparitions throughout his music: family members who sacrificed so he could succeed, friends trapped in the prison system he narrowly escaped, women whose love he once deserved, loved ones long since departed from this earth. "It don't matter where you go, you are who you are," he warbles on the hook of 2012's "Permanent Scar." The temporary escapism of drugs is never a match for the sobering coherence of memory.

As we speak, Future's perched at the high point of his career. Commercially and critically, he's more successful than ever. "Low Life," EVOL's The Weeknd–assisted lead single, is climbing the charts, and the Purple Reign sleeper hit "Wicked" isn't far behind. His shows are packed. He makes a cameo opposite LeBron James in a Nike commercial, one of his many recent endorsement deals. But EVOL is marked by its numbness: the smash-and-run bitterness of "Photo Copied," the catatonic chill of "Xanny Family." In spite of all his recent blessings, I tell him, I don't get the sense he's having much fun at all.

Here in the luxe suite of One King West, all of downtown Toronto is lit in the winter twilight, but behind his gold shades, Future is flashing back to Atlanta, another time and place that lingers. "Imagine sleeping on this floor right here," he nods, indicating the ground between us. "This hard floor. You got a pillow, you got a blanket, and it's no heat in the house, but you got a space heater, and you comfortable with that. You love that. That's pain. That's pain nobody would know about. And my music — that's pain. That's where it come from. I come from pain, so you gonna hear it in my music. No matter how far I go, I still can never forget when I used to sleep on the floor at my grandma's house."

photo: MTV

The first time most people heard Future was on "Racks," an out-of-nowhere 2011 hit that saddled him alongside another local newcomer, YC. As catchy as it was unremarkable, the song marked a transitional moment for Atlanta hip-hop, caught between Travis Porter swag-rap sing-alongs and the heavier, Mike Will–driven trap that would soon dominate pop radio. One month later, Future's first solo single arrived: "Tony Montana," whose hook Future delivered in an endearingly terrible Pacino impression. Meanwhile in Atlanta, a grassroots fanbase had latched onto his mixtapes — Dirty Sprite, rough but with moments of brilliance; and the grimy, triumphant True Story. A deal with Epic followed, resulting in Future's biggest look yet: an official "Tony Montana" remix featuring none other than Drake, fellow explorer of the expanding gray area between rapping and singing.

Despite his growing buzz, no one really expected Future's first album to be what it was — namely, one of the best major-label rap debuts this side of the 2010s. Pluto balanced staccato trap bangers like "Same Damn Time" with syrupy android love songs like "Turn on the Lights." The singing was better than the rapping and the hooks were better than the verses, but the vast majority of the tracks still hold up. "You Deserve It" is an ecstatic Nard & B and DJ Spinz production on which Future uses a congratulatory phone call from his cousin as a benchmark for his success. "My cousin called me from Savannah State on the day I made the song," he tells me, instantly inhabiting the memory. "She was like, ‘Everybody down here talking 'bout you, cuz! You deserve it!' And it just touched me, 'cause she saw all my hard work. She knew how my grandma used to be mad at me for the police showing up at our house. She knew people used to be like, ‘Your cousin's walking dead.' So she was just like, finally — some good talk about you."

During the period that followed — from 2013 to his second album, Honest — Future released a constant stream of singles, collaborative mixtapes, and dozens of features, buried among which are some of the best songs of his career. His collaborators spanned from chart-toppers (Drake, Miley) to day-ones like Young Scooter and Casino. He experimented wildly with new flows and melodies: pummeling vocal contortions like "Sh!t" one day, poignant ballads like "Honest" the next. There were new alter egos, creating distinction between his fluctuating moods and approaches: Future Hendrix, the muse-driven rock star; Super Future, the tunnel-visioned hitmaker whose world revolved around the studio; Fire Marshal Future, the unruly party-starter who booked concert venues well over capacity. He was moving in 10 directions at once, and mastering all of them.

In the midst of it all, Future had met Ciara, the Juliet to his Romeo. He moved with her to Los Angeles, replaced his studded leather jackets with designer peacoats, and cowrote 2013's "Body Party," her sexiest single to date. Soon they were engaged, and Ciara was pregnant with their child, known these days as "baby Future." But three months after baby Future was born in 2014, Future and Ciara had reportedly split.

As Future tells it, during his time living in Los Angeles, he had a moment of stark clarity. "Who is this person? I don't know this person. This the person they told me to be," he remembers thinking to himself in the mirror. Then, one day, driving through L.A., he reached his breaking point. "It's a dream, to come from where I come from and say you have a house in Beverly Hills," he admits. "But I'm not happy. This is not who I am. I don't like jogging. I still have people coming over, playing loud music in a quiet neighborhood. I still have my family coming around, going through my refrigerator, eating up all my food — but that's what I love. That's what keeps me grounded. Being around my friends that love me, they see things that I can't see, because when you up, they can still see the bottom. And I just had a talk with myself, like, I'm not happy doing this. I'm not happy in this expensive car, riding around, lonely. Having nobody to really talk to. I need to go back home. If it was a time like this, and I was riding around lonely, I could just pull up to my grandma's house and have her fix me something to eat."

During that same time, Future's grandmother had a heart attack. She survived, but the incident shook him deeply. "I wasn't there. I got both of my grandmas, by the grace of God, still alive. There's people that don't have their grandmothers, and I thought about those people. Like, what would you do if you could have your grandma back? Man, I'll take whatever just to be around her and have a conversation with her. We come from the generation where our grandmothers was like our moms. So I just can't let that go and not be there when it happened, you know?"

"Who is this person? I don't know this person. This the person they told me to be."

Since Future's career has gone stratospheric, being away from his family has taken an almost unbearable toll. "I done been on the road when my auntie died. My auntie who used to take me to school." His voice lowers to a hush. "When I was rebelling, my mom was like, ‘I'm not putting up with this,' but my auntie was always ride or die with me. And to not make her funeral and be on the road …" He'd tried to cancel the show he was scheduled to play, but the venue threatened to sue. Future was already going through some lawsuits; his manager warned him he didn't need any more bad press. "I couldn't go to my auntie's funeral that was always there for me. And to this day, it still …" He trails off for a moment. "I never really talk about it, but when I talk about it, just like … I know she knew I was working for my dreams, and that's the only way I felt like she understood." I flash back to "Never Forget," a bitterly nostalgic cut off Purple Reign: "I ain't make my auntie's funeral, I ain't never forget it / I know she know I love her and I hope she forgive me."

Across the hotel suite, Future's head is bowed under his hood, the air heavy with his silence. He suddenly continues: "I see her for how she was when she dropped me off at the house. That's how I remember her, when I was riding with her and she dropped me off. I don't see her when she was laying in the casket. I don't know how she looked. That shit would've probably been still planted in my memory right now, playing back in my head. So I remember her how I remember her."

"Maybe it's better that way," I offer.

"It's totally better that way," he replies quietly.

On Future's Monster tape, there's a song, "Hardly," and within it lies the key to sorrow in his music: It's not drugs, not heartbreak, but rather Future's razor-sharp memory. He opens the track with a spoken anecdote about his uncle, a man known as OG Double D who's since passed away, and to whom the song's somber video is dedicated. "Hardly, hardly, hardly, hardly forget anything," he wails on the hook. I ask if that quality is more of a gift or a curse. Future doesn't reply, and we sit in silence for what feels like a full minute until he suddenly remembers where he is.

"What'd you say?" he asks apologetically, laughing softly. "I'm still thinking about my auntie Tia."

"Oh, well, yeah, it had to do with memory," I stammer. "You say you can hardly forget anything, and for some people, that might be a good thing. But with you —"

"— some things you want to forget," he finishes.

Four months later, it's a late July night at a packed but cavernous United Center at the Chicago stop of Drake and Future's Summer Sixteen tour. The audience is restless and enduring the local DJ as he stalls for time. No one came here to listen to some dude play "We Dem Boyz" on decks propped on a folding table — they came to hear a 50-song power hour of the biggest rap hits of the last five years. Summer Sixteen has been billed as a co-headlining tour, but the set list reflects that this is Drake's crowd. All hell breaks loose when Drake finally appears onstage, snarling the opening bars to "Summer Sixteen." Twenty-thousand iPhones rise to salute him. The giddy pair of moms in front of me, who almost certainly brought their young teenage sons here and not vice versa, flip their mid-selfie Snapchat cameras in the opposite direction. Drake tells the crowd that Chicago is his favorite city to play in, and everyone screams accordingly.

After joining his cohost for "Grammys," Future rips through a medley of his most recognizable hits until Drake reappears for a handful of cuts from What a Time to Be Alive: "Big Rings," the ubiquitous "Jumpman." Drake closes out the show solo, but not before dropping a final bomb. It's Kanye fucking West, live in his hometown, joining Drake for "Pop Style," launching into "Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1," bellowing "I'm so glad my wife has Snapchat!" over the opening swells of "Famous." Drake, ever the ringmaster, proudly oversees it all. The show has officially been stolen. Future is long gone by the end of Drake's encore.

The alliance between the two most vital rappers in the game has been fascinating to watch, if slightly less fascinating to listen to. What a Time arrived at the absolute peak of Future's hype, just two months after DS2, the album that dominated clubs, cars, and headphones all summer '15. But as much as the album harnessed the zeitgeist, its reception marked the first time since Take Care that a Drake performance wasn't showered with near-unanimous praise. Fans and critics began to suggest what would have been unfathomable a year before: Future was carrying this project, Drake in his wake. "Jumpman" quickly became Future's highest charting single to date. As much as the rappers' fellowship served as a study in contrasts, it couldn't have been more symbiotic. The Six God had the King of Atlanta in his corner, and Future was more powerful than ever.

photo: MTV

Two days after the Summer Sixteen show, Future headlines Lollapalooza. The four-day festival draws young music fans by the hundreds of thousands to Chicago's lakefront Grant Park. That day, it rains sideways, and 100,000 phones buzz with flash flood warnings, but the clouds part before Future's early evening set. The stage is packed in every direction, an infinity pool of sweating, bouncing flesh; it feels like half of the festival is here for Future. And when he takes the stage in a simple denim jacket and single chain, Esco beside him like always, the park fucking explodes. Every hand is in the air. Every body is in motion.

The hour-long set is unique from any solo Future show of recent document — crowd-pleasing megahits, deeper cuts for Future Hive, and completely retooled versions of fan favorites. He opens with an unplugged version of "No Basic," and later plays a gorgeous mash-up of Monster deep cut "My Savages" with a brand-new version of "Honest" that swaps out Future's hook for a soulful female vocalist. "R.I.P. my granddad Quick, he shoulda seen this shit," he interrupts a verse to announce. "If you got somebody you lost, put your lighters up. We gonna represent for them at Lollapalooza." Atlanta dance phenom Meechie and his crew appear in all-white to accompany the DS2 and Purple Reign–heavy second half; Future playfully joins their dancing here and there. He dedicates "March Madness" in honor of those lost to police brutality, making explicit the anthem's frequently ignored political bent.

Rumors had swirled that Drake or Kanye might make a cameo, but instead Future does one better, bringing out Chicago's greatest uniter since Mayor Harold Washington: Chance the Rapper. In the moment before he launches into an abbreviated but transcendent "No Problem," every fan ringing the edges of the field runs screaming into the Future thrall, hands up. He brought out the MC that is this city's heart and soul — a guy whose joy is so infectious, it even spread to Future himself on Chance's paterfamilias ode "Smoke Break." The last time Future sounded so sweet was years ago, on "I Be U," the hidden gem of Honest and his greatest love song ever.

"I love the moments nobody know about. Not the moments when we taking pictures that show up on the 'Gram."

I've spent years analyzing how and why Future uses his various alter egos, but there's one that's remained a mystery: the Wizard, a character he's been referencing in ad-libs and spoken interludes for longer than any of the others. "The Wizard is me," Future replies when I ask him to explain it back in Toronto. The title was given to him by OG Double D, the uncle memorialized in "Hardly." "He named me the Wizard 'cause he always say I got the answers for everything. I'm gonna find a way to figure it out — that's what the Wizard do, go back to my crystal ball and come back with these different ideas. Before I thought I could figure it out, Double D was like, ‘You gon' always figure it out. I'll never be worried about you. You the Wizard.' He spoke it into existence."

He pauses, stuck on the memory of his uncle, but before we can move on, he continues: "I have an alter ego that really nobody know about. Caesar Lee."

"Go on …"

"Caesar Lee, that's the ladies' man. The charmer," he explains, laughing mischievously. "When I give you that Caesar Lee, you're never going away. He's rare. You'll fall in love with Caesar Lee. Let me just say that."

"When was the last time you brought out Caesar Lee?" I ask.

Future thinks hard for a moment. "Man, to be honest? The night I wrote ‘Body Party.'" Then he changes the subject.

Dropping an album called EVOL the week before Valentine's Day, I suggest later, gives the impression that Future's anti-love, at least for the time being. He quickly shoots me down; it's not love he's repelled by, just a certain type of it. "Artificial love is like Kool-Aid," he explains. "It's water, and then you pour something in it and it turn different colors. Pure love is authentic, organic. I love you for your soul, I love you for the person that you are, I love you for your conversations and nothing else. I love the moments nobody know about. Not the moments when we taking pictures that show up on the 'Gram. ‘Oh, they look so happy! They look cute! They slayed!' I don't want that love. It's cool to do that, but that's not the love that's gonna stick with me forever. I want the love that I can never forget."

In Toronto, I'd asked him when he thought he'd be satisfied — when he'd finally feel that he'd proven the point he wanted to prove to the world and, more importantly, to himself.

"Man, I was just thinking about that," he replies, shades glinting. "I know that the day gotta come. I know what it's gonna feel like. I know the speech that I wanna say. I know the feeling that I wanna feel. I feel like it's around the corner. But it just hasn't came."

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