Future is at his best when he’s experimental and unpredictable

Future’s ‘I Never Liked You’ is an uneven installment in a steady catalog.

Culture

In the way that every fashion model is 22 until proven otherwise — or every international shortstop prospect is 16 — record labels have grown almost comically determined to control the shape of their artists’ allegedly nascent catalogs. Fans used to joke about the Best New Artist Grammy winner on his third album; now it would be difficult to pin that number down as “three,” with streaming platforms flattening music’s commercial presentation and many artists leaning into that obfuscation. I could comb through my email inbox and find several instances of consecutive records by the same musicians marketed as their debuts, a series of trial balloons waiting to pop.

Future nas never been coy in this way. In fact, fans and critics have received the prolific Atlanta rapper’s work with a vaguely meritocratic spirit, elevating his stronger records into the canon and letting lesser ones linger as Wikipedia footnotes. (Though that latter, less essential pile of albums — think 2016’s EVOL or 2020’s High Off Life — is similar to the one that includes DS2 and Hndrxx in an important way: They all go No. 1. Future’s last six records have topped Billboard in their first week of release.) But I Never Liked You, his first album after an uncharacteristic two-year gap, is caught somewhere in between his major works and all the others, in both appearance and execution. It arrives an even decade after his monumental debut, 2012’s Pluto, and is tied to a GQ cover story dubbing him the “Best Rapper Alive”; its cover art is lazily lifted from that story’s photo shoot.

With a small handful of exceptions — a couple of ballads, and the preening Drake-lite of “Back to the Basics” and “Wait for U” — I Never Liked You is relentlessly uptempo, the trap of Future’s earlier albums fully realized as dance music. The overall effect is more compelling than most of the beats taken in isolation. Too much of the album is ceded to ATL Jacob, whose batting average remains frustratingly low, dragged down by cheap drums and cluttered mixes. But two of his tracks here typify the album at its sharpest: the careening “Holy Ghost,” which warps gothic choral chants into camp, and “Massaging Me,” a song so frenetic as to be disorienting — a worthy complement to the album’s best beat, DMC Global’s “Gold Stacks.”

The worst Future songs catch him on autopilot, sinking into his own tropes and circling a drain of Patek and Actavis. There are exhilarating moments on I Never Liked You that hear Future leaping, lurching out of this comfortable pocket. “Gold Stacks” is one of them: its breakneck beat forces him to rap balletically about extortive fees for Saudi Arabian walkthroughs and women with omnivorous opioid habits. Future makes the shrewd decision to let some lines dangle without tying up their rhyme schemes; this makes the song play like a runaway train, id that cannot be resolved.

Not all of I Never Liked You’s vocals are so well considered. Kodak Black’s unnervingly naked hook on “Voodoo” (“I danced with the devil so long/She pulling me closer”) gives way to verses that are suffocated by the stiff concentric circles that Future raps in. Nearly every one of his LPs includes a passage or two where a completely unorthodox flow is bent into a memorable hook; here that comes right at the top, with the off-kilter opening to “712PM.” But the album proper capitalizes only rarely on Future’s Gumbyish ability to make the strange seem obvious, inevitable.

The album has been sequenced with some care, its small arcs clearly traced, its 48 minutes playing even shorter. The oddest part of this construction — the placement of the contemplative “Puffin on Zootiez” as the fifth song — is also the most compelling, a brief look behind an imported silk veil. That song follows almost exactly the blueprint laid out by 2014’s “Codeine Crazy,” never quite reaching the same emotional pique but yearning for it all the same.

The counterpart to “Zootiez,” the brief, conspicuously tender “Love You Better,” is far less effective, both on its own and in the context of the album. It leans on cliche in a way Future’s better songs never do; “Better,” along with the truly atrocious Drake feature that precedes it, derails what should be a furious suite of “Gold Stacks,” “Massaging Me,” and “Chickens,” his irresistibly sinister collaboration with the Louisville rapper EST Gee. Future has spoken before about feeling pressured into playing the villain on his records, but here the introspective is made to sound obligatory.

Monday morning, Future expanded I Never Liked You to 22 songs, which now clock in around 65 minutes. Some of these are scraps: “Worst Day” did not merit release, and aside from an evocative comparison of diamonds to roller skates, the Lil Durk duet “Affiliated” could have been kept on a hard drive. But a trio of these new songs hints at the looser, more eccentric Future who is often obscured on the original 16. “Stayed Down,” an entrancingly spare collaboration with longtime Freebandz affiliate Young Scooter, continues Future’s long track record of working best with those artists closer to his stylistic roots than to his Billboard slotting; this is similarly true of the kinetic “Like Me,” which he shares with Lil Baby and 42 Dugg, and “No Security,” which features the Detroit rapper BabyFace Ray, and where Future scrunches his vocals into the nearly nasal voice he lapses into at his most playful.

This instant reissue, an increasingly common trick to game the charts, is brazen, and cynical, and makes no attempt to justify itself as a creative choice. But at times Future works best in this data-dump mode, emptying his vaults of every experiment and collaboration that he’s toyed with in the months between releases. What’s more: The added songs accentuate the way I Never Liked You’s gestures toward prestige can be restrictive, its Drake verses albatrosses, its very title a concession to shtick. They remind that a return to the vacuum, away from the spotlight, can be all it takes to coax out of Future his most interesting ideas.