On Pluto, Future proved to be one of the most transformative artists of his generation
Ten years later, it’s clear that Future has delivered on the promise of his studio debut.
The first thing you notice is that the sequencing seems wrong. Pluto, Future’s frequently brilliant and widely influential debut album, which was released ten years ago today (Apr. 17, 2012), is full of audacious leaps in style and the kind of emotional bloodlettings that give both pop and street songs undeniable gravity. It builds and releases tension up and down the tracklist, its enjambment of styles underlining the tension between Future’s deep sincerity and deeper insecurity. Practically any point of entry into the album would be both captivating and representative of the whole.
But at its beginning, all of this is radically undersold. After a brief spoken-word intro by Big Rube, Pluto opens in earnest with “Parachute,” a strange record with modest aims that is actually more like an R. Kelly-featuring-Future song than the inverse. When the headliner finally appears, more than 100 seconds in, it’s with his most minor performance across the entire LP, a clipped suite of two underwritten verses that make him seem more like a complementary element to rote club songs than what this album would ultimately prove him to be: one of the most transformative artists of his generation.
Of course, a certain subset of rap fans was flummoxed by Pluto’s beginning for a different reason: “Wait, Big Rube?” The appearance of that deep-voiced oracle figure, the spiritual spine of so many Dungeon Family records in the 1990s, would be a shock to anyone still sparring over the direction rap should take in the 21st century. Bizarre as it might have seemed to those with little aesthetic imagination, “R. Kelly meets Big Rube” is a near-perfect encapsulation of Future’s songwriting circa 2012. Beginning on the mixtape run that led up to this album, Future found a way to blend life’s highest and basest concerns — he is petty and reaching for self-actualization, a raw ball of id that eventually turns its gaze inward — while making those halves of himself exist in concert. Little of his work is explicitly about this discord, mostly because Future seems to view the lewdest and holiest of his problems as equally urgent.
The germ of this idea, like Future’s connection to Rube, dates back to the rapper’s childhood. Nayvadius Wilburn was born in 1983 and grew up in Kirkwood, on Atlanta’s Eastside. By the time he was 14, Wilburn was dabbling, both in rap and as a small-scale hustler. His grandfather, concerned for Wilburn’s safety, foisted him on a cousin he had never met: Rico Wade, who was already famous as one-third of Organized Noize, the production collective behind the Dungeon Family. Wilburn, who initially used the stage name “Meathead,” recorded one song at Rico’s studio, then disappeared for months. When he ran into his cousin again, at a family member’s funeral, he was surprised to learn that Rico had been playing that song for the famous artists he worked with—and that those artists were responding positively.
Wilburn practically moved into his cousin’s studio, recording his own music and writing for Dungeon Family and adjacent acts. (He has a credit on Ludacris’ 2004 single “Blueberry Yum Yum.”) But this did not make him famous; more crucially, it did not make him enough money to be pried away from the streets. Ironically, a connection he made doing illegal business would launch him as a solo artist. Wilburn, now dubbed “Future” by older Dungeon Family members who saw him as the standard-bearer for the movement’s next generation, teamed up with Rocko, a rapper and budding executive who had molded some young talent during Atlanta’s 2000s pop-rap explosion and secured a major-label deal for himself. He signed Future, who was rapidly refining his vocal style, to his independent imprint. The arrangement yielded Rocko a hit — their duet “Racks” — and made Future a known quantity in Atlanta. By the middle of 2011, the younger MC had a deal with Epic and was plotting out a formal debut.
The rap ecosystem Future entered at the beginning of the 2010s was one in deep flux. The decade prior had seen a proliferation of Autotune songs — many of them naked pop plays indebted to T-Pain and his immediate descendants, though experiments like Lil Wayne’s “Prostitute Flange” hinted at the effect’s capacity to accentuate the pain in someone’s vocals, either by expanding it to unnatural dimensions or burying it under a layer of conspicuously digital artifice. Yet the dominant strain of street rap production, especially in Atlanta, was Lex Luger’s skull-crushing maximalism. For the first several years of this style’s dominance, the voices that effectively cut through that wall of sound were consistently guttural ones: see especially Waka Flocka Flame’s Flockaveli, the purest distillation of that moment and an album that relies on its headliner’s muscular, unrelentingly intense approach in the booth.
Pluto defies this conventional wisdom, including some of the boldest, most gothic songs of its era, but injecting them with moments of harmony and vulnerability that are unexpected and often exhilarating. “Same Damn Time” flits back and forth from its thunderous hook to those hypnotic verses, the cadence of which acts as a metronome, even a lullaby. “Tony Montana” is constructed around a joke of a sub-SNL vocal impression yet is somehow, improbably, still sinister. And “Astronaut Chick” takes what would otherwise be an unexceptional ode and mutates it into something that gnaws at your gut.
Not all of Pluto’s signature songs are so punishing. Its breakout single, “Turn on the Lights,” has less in common with “Hard in da Paint” than with “U.O.E.N.O.,” the Rocko song that would come out a year later and spawn its own subgenre of 2010s rap production. (It is a testament to Future’s inventiveness that he can nudge the genre on its axis by mere afterthought.) Mike WiLL Made-It’s woozy but assiduous beat is in concert with Future’s dogged pursuit of a love-at-first-sight encounter. It’s a classic structure for 1950s bubblegum pop, not a song on an album that also features a tribute to the late Pimp C.
While Future’s arrangement of disparate parts is impressive, the album’s real high points are its moments of true synthesis. Closer “You Deserve It” makes verses that are strikingly confessional — you feel nearly voyeuristic listening to some of their passages — sound precisely as anthemic as its soaring beat. When he raps about tearing up at the sound of his voice on Atlanta radio waves, he’s earned as much catharsis as there is to be had over 56 minutes.
Future — whose stage name now pops up first on Google’s search database, ahead of “time which as not yet occurred” — has more than capitalized on Pluto’s commercial and critical promise. He bent the sound of both radio and street rap into his orbit, yet was not surpassed by his imitators; he has at press time, released six consecutive No. 1 albums and pushed himself into new sonic and thematic territory, recording some of the most wrenching rap songs in the genre’s history all while floating some of its most shimmering pop singles. But the specific template of Pluto was largely abandoned.
In 2014, he followed the album with Honest, which was met with mixed reviews. In interviews, Future has alluded to the frustration this caused him: In his mind, the audience rejected the newfound happiness that colored that album. So he doubled down on the darker, more psychologically tortured parts of his work. This proved shrewd — he became a true A-list star with 2015’s DS2, one of the bleakest major-label rap albums in history. But aside from some cuts on 2017’s HNDRXX, much of the unqualified brightness from his debut album (“Straight Up” springs to mind) has been stamped out. (There are some even more foreboding changes: At one point on “Straight Up,” he raps “I'm on that Molly, don't fuck around with them Xans;” he would soon rap about a spiraling Xanax habit.) Pluto is not the definitive Future record, nor is it his best. In fact, that’s the point: It is downright staggering to consider that a record that tentacled this deep into several corners of popular music would not be its creator’s masterpiece.