Admitting you’re an imperfect music listener isn’t easy, but that’s exactly what I am: an imperfect music listener. We all are, on some level. Just as we’re introduced to certain artists and genres in ways that only we can conceptualize, our habits as listeners—good or bad—are just as individualized. I can't pretend to be a hip-hop fan who has always opened his mind to every conceivable version of the art form imaginable, nor can I act as though I haven’t used every justification imaginable to explain away who or what I like or dislike.
We have all intentionally overlooked certain artists, either due to ego, circumstance, or a combination of the two. For me, that artist is Future.
Earlier this month, I pressed play on Future’s iconic mixtape, Monster, for the very first time. I know what you’re thinking and, yes, I should feel ashamed for denying myself the treat of such a truly significant and mesmerizing body of work. On some level, though, I do feel ashamed. As much as I’ve tried to explain away my reasoning for never before pressing play on Monster, especially as a music writer, my justification feels lacking.
I was convinced I knew enough about Future’s music to conceptualize what he was attempting to do on Monster, without ever having more than a casual and shallow relationship with the actual music. Without even flinching, I broke one of the sacred laws of criticism by assuming the meaning behind the art without fully understanding the artist behind it.
When I was first introduced to Future, upon the release of his 2012 debut, Pluto, I made the determination he simply didn’t “fit” into the hip-hop I was listening to at the time. I was such a backpack rap fan back then, I probably had bruises from the straps. Misguided, I operated under the assumption that lyricism came in limited forms; that the hip-hop aesthetic needed to be or feel a certain way in order to connect with me. Rather than letting the music itself expand my own understanding of what rap could be, I constricted the scope with a narrow lens. Why invest in a sweeping, melodic love song like “Turn On The Lights” when there are Bishop Lamont mixtapes to download and Crooked I freestyles to find, right?
Even as Future began to release music that I genuinely enjoyed, from “Fuck Up Some Commas” to “Honest,” to “Mask Off,” I was still plagued by an imaginary idea about what hip-hop SHOULD sound like and how I SHOULD connect with art. Even as Future rapidly grew into one of the most influential hip-hop artists of the past two decades, I stubbornly clung to my faulty assumptions, bad listening habits, and even worse reasoning.
One of the most priceless aspects of listening to music is the way a particular song or artist might hit you years after the fact or at just the right moment when, as a listener, you’re the most vulnerable. For me, once previous platitudes about “real hip-hop” were washed away by life experiences and personal growth, I finally experienced that moment with Future.
Throughout the past two years, I have dealt with depression and self-isolation from friends and family, battling every possible combination of conflicting emotions known to man. I was bitter about my place and purpose in life and angry with those around me unencumbered with feelings of anxiety, guilt, anger, and fear. Even with a supportive family and a wonderful girlfriend who, just recently, became my fiance, I was clouded by a nagging feeling of being alone to fight my own demons. Here I was, a conflicted twentysomething trying to grow within a fog of emotions, with an artist at the ready who working through the same exact pain. But I wasn’t paying attention.
A large swath of Future’s music and mythos are wrapped up in his conflicting emotions. He flips between an introspective wizard and an emotional infant at a moment’s notice. He’s bitter, emotionally scarred, pompous, jealous, and heartfelt all at once; an isolated genius who mines through his own sporadic emotions while the world around him is filled with emptiness. Except for the genius part, I can relate.
The allure of Future’s music is in how he manages to simultaneously bridge both energy and pain, and hopefulness and hopelessness, and it wasn’t until that brand of conflict surfaced in myself that I realized how understandable and prevalent emotional contradictions like those can be. The way Future’s music feels at times isolating wasn’t far removed from the same emotional isolation I had caused. The jarring emotional swings that ebb and flow throughout his albums felt relatable, especially for someone trying to navigate their own mind. Though Future’s presence was stylistically unorthodox for my then narrow-minded listenership, he was the imperfect soul of a man that I already was.
During more recent bouts of depression, I found triumphant optimism in “Look Ahead” and “Seven Rings.” Moments of toxic self-reflection were scored by “Hate The Real Me.” I even found the numbing agents of pure energy and confidence when my anxiety would take over in tracks like “I Serve The Base” and “Groupies.” All this time, my life's soundtrack had been sitting within arm’s reach.
This revelation may sound silly in retrospect, but our egos are not so easily thwarted. Open-mindedness is hard to master when it comes to music preferences because a lot of us presume that our relationship to art can never change or evolve, therefore our connection to it is constant. To assume this, though, is to assume that life, too, is constant and that our relationships to most things never change or evolve.
It shouldn’t take an ego check or a reflection of one’s own life within the music of slept-on or overlooked artists to admit that we both enjoy believing that we’re right, as well as conflating the subjectivity of art and our feelings about it with objective truths, but it often does take those grounding moments.
On some level, this is an ego thing; a reluctance to either open our minds to other sounds and artists, or to at least believe that artists are capable of just as many wide-ranging ideas and abilities are we believe ourselves to possess. It’s also about comfortability and the emotions and experiences that are required for us to realize that much of our favorite music is somewhere beyond the fence of the little world we create to tell ourselves how we, and everything around us, should be. Traveling beyond that point is where I found my biggest insecurities, my most discomforting emotions, and ultimately my connection to Future and his music.
Just as we are all imperfect listeners, the artists in front of us remain just as imperfect. It’s only when we start to realize the former, that we stop pretending like the latter is proof of what music is or isn’t for us. Life isn’t simple and neither are we. Assuming otherwise only leads to playing catch-up. Take it from me.