After one of rap's great runs, Future slows down by returning to the formula of the mixtape that started it all, minus the intangibles.
After less than a day in existence, former Grantland writer Shea Serrano astutely pointed out on Twitter Future's tape is already gone the internet is crazy ruthless. Though immediately met with requisite raving from the Internet music collective, Future's latest endeavor, the Purple Reign mixtape has, indeed, seemed to have removed itself from the consciousness as fast as it appeared. This, however, needn't be a critical halt; the 2014 mixtape Monster took months to be recognized as his definitive release, the catalyst from which his four 2015 releases would take cues.
Like Rick Ross' December release Black Market, the spectre of a previous peak looms heavily on this mixtape. It's telling that, unlike the snippet-loaded introduction of Monster, Purple Reign's opening track contains no laudatory words, despite Future having the single best year of his career in 2015. On the former work, he was an artist desperate to prove his status as a full-fledged rap star dealing with myriad issues ranging from his break-up with Ciara to the themes of drug addiction; on the latter, understandable after the year he's had, that attitude of having something to prove has evaporated. Purple Reign seeks to recapture the magic of Monster, but the intangibles that made the release so special have essentially disappeared.
The heartbreak that characterized his impeccable year-long run seems to have healed enough to prevent his further lashing out. Though, it should be noted, as the Daily Beast pointed out, that Purple Reign dropped the day of the Panthers-Seahawks divisional round match-up, where a noted Future devotee (Cam Newton) was facing off against the man whom Ciara is now with. This motivation alone accounts for the intensity he shows early, but #FutureHive members will recognize the droning repetition of "Wicked" as a call-back to Monster stand-out "Radical", minus the apocalyptic beat of the earlier track. Further, "Never Forget's" "I had to take a loss so I could cherish this shit" is delivered with less urgency than Beast Mode's "Took a few losses and ran with it"; when you're at the top, it's often hard to truly capture what it's like.
This is why the mixtape's highlights come when Future's showing himself capable of continually reinventing his sound. "Drippin' (How U Luv That)" is completely drenched in the Auto-Tune that brought him early fame, but without the cheap trap twinkles of his Pluto era. Instead, he warps his voice not unlike fellow Atlantan Young Thug to haunting effect. As with What a Time to Be Alive, Metro Boomin proves himself an indispensable star, delivering what could be his greatest beat ever on the hypnotizing, melancholy "Purple Reign". While lyrically it's a complete sequel to Future's submission for track of the decade, "Codeine Crazy", the production allows this fact to be overlooked in favor of another worthy addition to his canon. "I just need my girlfriend," he pleads, partially revealing the wounds that drew critics and consumers alike to his music.
In Meaghan Garvey's piece on Monster for Pitchfork, she places Future within the Kubler-Ross model at the stage of anger. Progressively, he worked his way through, culminating in the acceptance of his drug-fueled hedonism of DS2. When Kanye West went through a similar transformation from 808s to the absolute perfection of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he laid a roadmap for what artists could do once they've hit that "acceptance" stage. Purple Reign hasn't followed this template well, and the music comes across as flat because of it. But based on the plethora of quality releases and classic songs ("Codeine Crazy" and "March Madness" to name but two), it would be unsurprising if he found his footing once more and released his own post-recovery masterpiece.