Evolve or die. It is an age-old tenet of life — really, one of the universal natural laws that govern all existence — yet it’s also something that music fans, for some reason, can’t stand artists doing. You see it all the time: An artist finally cracks the code for both critical and commercial appeal and fans lavish them with attention and love and the accompanying sales — only to turn on them the instant they try something even remotely experimental.
It makes sense, in a way. After all, fans become fans because they enjoyed something the artist gave them, a feeling or a moment or memory that endears the artist to them for all time. Of course, they want the artist to continue to deliver that feeling, over and over again, for as long as they can. That the feeling is associated with a certain sound from the artist’s catalog is just a function of how human memory works.
However, fans also hate when an artist stagnates. We grow up, we change, our life circumstances shift and transport us and transplant us to new, unfamiliar spaces, only to bring us back home. It stands to reason we want our favorite musicians to grow and change with us. When they don’t, they get discarded, left behind as a relic of a specific era in our lives, both as fans and as a culture. For reference, see “’90s, the.”
This is the conundrum facing Atlanta trap crooner Future on his upcoming, seventh studio album, The Wizrd. For nearly a decade, the spacey, husky-voice trap music pioneer has served fans his unique brand of pained recollections and stoned revelry over the murky, 808-heavy production he helped popularize with a collection of albums, mixtapes, EPs, and soundtracks that spans 51 individual pieces of music since 2010.
That he’s sustained his popularity for so long with that kind of volume and consistency is an impressive recommendation of how relatable he can be at his best — even when his fans don’t necessarily know how it feels to stay up all night trapping or co-parenting a child with Ciara. However, that relatability comes at a price. How long can he conceivably keep selling essentially the same product before his fans grow out of it? What happens when he wants to grow musically and personally but they won’t accept a remixed version of what he’s been selling them?
In a recent interview with Genius promoting the impending release of The Wizrd, Future admits that he hasn’t used lean in some time, yet feared that revealing that fact would turn his fans against him. He worried that if they could no longer identify with that aspect of his persona, they’d move on to another purveyor of that substance-filled narrative. It’s not a completely unfounded fear; after all, the game is now littered with them, from Lil Xan (who, it’s worth noting, is touting his own recent levels of sobriety) and Lil Skies to Trippie Redd and Future’s own recent collaborative partner Juice Wrld, with whom he released Wrld On Drugs last year.
There’s some genuinely concerning irony there, that Future would feel pressured to continue pushing an image he no longer lives — especially one that many in hip-hop, from Russ to Xan to DJ Mustard and Mozzy to the late Lil Peep’s brother and more agree has been dangerous to the most impressionable among hip-hop’s younger fanbase. Future fears changing his persona and losing fans, while his current persona has very likely already cost him a few due to imitating the drugged-out lifestyle he portrays on records.
You probably won’t remember New Coke (if you do, congratulations, this world hasn’t killed you yet!), but it’s a classic example of how a re-brand can go wrong. Back in 1985, Coca-Cola slightly revised its signature soda pop formula to compete with upstart Pepsi, which turned out to be a disaster. The reaction to it was so negative that the company went back to its original flavor within three months, causing a temporary spike in sales that led some to assume that was the game plan all along.
Future experienced a New Coke moment of his own back when he released what was supposed to be a king-making label album, Honest in 2014. Uneven, overly long, and a far cry from “mixtape Future,” the rapper’s longtime fans weren’t quite as receptive to certain stylistic changes he’d made on the album.
So, just like Coke, he immediately switched back to the original, and found his creative groove with the well-received trio of mixtapes Monster, Beast Mode, and 56 Nights, solidifying himself as a borderline cult figure in hip-hop, complete with his own “Future Hive” (named for the combatively reactionary Beyonce fan group “Beyhive,” which would periodically alight on a pop culture figure with incendiary insults for any perceived slight to Beyonce) and a personal brand that included gallons of lean, mountains of prescription pills, and crushing heartbreak. Since then, he’s seen dips — notably whenever he makes tweaks to the formula as on 2016’s EVOL and Purple Reign, but always returns to the winning recipe.
However, if that’s no longer true to who Future is — and let’s face it, at 35, it really shouldn’t be anymore — the music is going to reflect that lack of enthusiasm. Besides, while his sales seem to have peaked in 2017 with the platinum-selling double effort, Future/Hndrxx, it doesn’t seem like most of his material has connected with fans — or their wallets — since. With 2018 also seeing the overdose death of Mac Miller, just 9 months after Lil Peep died from the same and the drug-related death rolls of hip-hop growing longer by the year, from Pimp C to ASAP Yams, Future may want to respond to the rising calls for him and hip-hop to set a better example as well.
The thing is, Future has secretly been evolving all along. Although the beats and the content remain much the same, the lean references have slowly petered out — as have his sales for the past year. Even Beast Mode 2 with Zaytoven barely got a lasting reaction from fans. The problem he’s facing is: If he goes back to the old formula, where’s the guarantee that the old fans will come running back with open arms? If he tinkers with it further, changing up his beats or his lyrics or his well-worn subject matter, will he have another Coca-Cola-level disaster on his hands that prevents The Wizrd from meeting the lofty expectations set by high-flyers like DS2 and his self-titled album from 2017? And if he lives up to expectations on The Wizrd‘s cycle, how long can he keep performing the same magic trick until fans find the flavor they’re searching for in another rapper’s product?
Of course, he’ll always have the hardcore fans, but the level of broad-ranging mainstream success he’s enjoyed in the past sits on a shaky foundation. Considering the diminishing returns on his last few, samey-sounding projects — all released in the space of around 14 months, including Wlrd On Drugs, Beast Mode 2, Super Slimey with Young Thug, and the Superfly soundtrack — The Wizrd will need to pull one hell of a rabbit out of its hat to break the spiral and keep him on top of the trap game. For a rapper who’s been around since Dungeon Family’s heyday, it’s a tall order, but maybe The Wizrd has just enough magic left to pull it off.
The Wizrd drops this Friday, January 18, via Epic Records. Pre-order it here.