“Ride on, King Jesus. No man can a-hinder me.” &c.
“I was but young when I begun. No man can a-hinder me.” &c.
– “Ride on, King Jesus,” trad. spiritual
“[The] elements which participate in the naming of the genre say nothing about the musical features, but maybe say everything about the pragmatics of the music.”
– Gabriele Marino
“Shit gettin’ too specific / 10 black whips, I’m too consistent.”
– Nayvadius DeMun Wilburn, “POA”
EVOL didn’t have to hurt, but it did anyway. As I wrote in 2016’s year-end round-up, the project came from a place of supreme negative affect, a homo-glossic hymn for the heartless. But it was brilliant: both kissing and dissing Baudrillard’s perpetually pimped system — one foot in, one foot out, in the words of one Carlton Ridenhour — it glorified and elevated the democratizing electronic reproduction technologies (i.e., DAWs) that made the trap an object of ironic reverse-salvation: more than just a locus in situ, but rather a space that has come to extend beyond temporal-spatial peripheries. EVOL eschewed mimesis, aesthetic integration, and other methods of commentary or dissent, refusing new textual structures while embracing capital and media. And yet it was pervaded and charmed by a unique, cthonic dissonance, an unflappable verbal acuity, and a flair for dramatic dialogue that, among other things, lent the project a necessary anti-message, non alternative facts. EVOL currently maintains a 6/10 user score on Metacritic.
So if the medium makes the event, what claims the residual? The (pre-)produced, not the deconstructed. This crucial question-comment, an antiphonal lingerer, introduces both FUTURE and HNDRXX, twins separated at birth and equal parts of Nayvadius Wilburn’s latest project and eponymous annual feature. Both releases are less conservative, more consonant and conceptual than their year-old cousin, yet they are similarly anachronistic — without immediate precedent and avoiding emerging modalities — and, likewise, willfully ignorant of ethnic memory, along with any sincere corporal politics. The albums are rich with recuperative ideas and textures, but — unlike the heart of darkness that EVOL exposed or the heights scaled by the similarly expansive DS2 — both neglect to introduce new forms of subjectivity, instead sticking to the recognizable and shunning the reconfigured or re-encoded.
As such, FUTURE and HNDRXX represent two fraternal, distinct channels of multiple identity and contradictory spirit. And while Wilburn has never been known for his consistency so much as his prolificacy, both releases, in their own ways, bathe in a lack of precision and concision, making them two of his most irregular releases yet.
A Glorious Mess
Presenting a nonlinear narrative expressed within the bounds of Wilburn’s typical, peculiar brand of promethazine-laced, earnestly-apolitical guerrilla semiotics, FUTURE, this 17-track oral odyssey, is simultaneously expansive and atomized. It is a glorious mess, inchoate and incohesive in form and objective, though always regal in pretension. Exhaustive in premise, the sheer length of the thing is demanding and results in one of his most verbose standard releases yet. It is advertised with no frills and no features, though it is, ironically, maximalist in intention. It is host to only a relatively small number of core en-bando regulars — the predictable lot of collaborators, Metro Boomin, Zaytoven, et al. — and tracks jump from interaction to action in a jarring, forced manner, shifting participatory onus onto the willing participant, demanding, again and again, critical analyses and interpretations of sequencing, companion art, etc. Despite these troublesome functions, these typical auto-histories are almost entirely logocentric, their reproductive illustration hardly pushing the sound barrier nor bolstering the appeal or nature of Wilburn’s codeine-choked, vocoded vocabulary.
And for partly justifiable pretense: as What a Time to be Alive made abundantly clear, Wilburn — Astronaut, a fully-fleshed alter ego conceived and introduced in the narrows of EVOL: a reticent subject to the object Pluto and outer-spacial anti-griot active in the seeking and seizure of any negative space — is at his sharpest and most readily receptive when not stymied by the whims and wiles of those of an outer orbit. As a result, FUTURE seems to inhabit a more comfortable, self-affirming, bon vivant milieu, one that echoes the free-form, bleeding structural nature of DS2, though one counter to the asphyxiatic restraint of EVOL. The latter and FUTURE are equal-opposites, as are FUTURE and HNDRXX together, in their own, more nuanced ways.
The art herein gestures provocatively toward crowd-pleasing, dominant forms — embracing Wilburn’s prolific artisan-rockstar status as on lead single and self-styled whip-Shiva “Draco” or on HNDRXX’s Mustardian post-hyphy serenade “Incredible” — while at the same time innocently coveting and pretending an alternate, homogenic base, one that, in terms of lexicon, savors only distaste, hedonism, and capital (“Zoom,” “Super Trapper”). Variegated in inspiration and construction, the applied thematics and colors are, to be sure, indebted to precepts and improvisational schemata as diverse as boilerplate G-funk instrumentation (“Mask Off”), biblical-ahistorical Apocrypha (“High Demand”), athletics and English monarchical genealogy (“Lookin Exotic”), Afro-American animation history (“Super Trapper”), and rockism-affirming modalities and discourses (“Outta Time,” “I’m so Groovy,” “Use Me”). In this way, FUTURE presents a near-constant mercuriality in all respects, one unintentionally discursive upon first and even repeated listens. Ostensibly a neo-noir, it is the first Future project, to my knowledge, to feature skits.
The half-sketched, condescending, and ultimately evanescent Andreësque-Snoopean-styled interludes are telling, though, pigs on the wing introducing and highlighting near-constant shifts in mood, mode, and expectation: FUTURE is also wildly uneven and inconsistent, each track transubstantiating a different, liminal amalgam of Wilburn’s stock personae. In contrast to his viscous delivery and presentational subject matter, the identities are entirely fluid, Wilburn often self-fabricating and inhabiting Future Hendrix on the same track. “I do my best to put my ego first/ I need to stop it,” Wilburn croons later on “Lookin Exotic.” And though never lacking in reminiscence, this masked other is, textually, at his least reflexive, wholly re-animating the cold-hearted caricatures EVOL brought to the fore. “I don’t care if you was my daddy/ Bitch I’ma cut off your neck” or “Sold crack to a pregnant lady/ Forgive me for the crack baby.” It’s not only to be expected but rather — in an admittedly inappropriate, spectacular fashion — welcomed: Wilburn has never truly succeeded as the tempted troubadour he aspired to be (e.g. Rihanna’s 2012 co-feature “Loveeeeeee Song”) and Romantic gestures like those making FUTURE’s penultimate track “When I Was Broke” only heighten the delightful awkwardness of transition, compounding the project’s persistent problem areas.
Griots like Wilburn have traditionally held an ambiguous status, both revered and feared for their unique, lyrical ability to praise or critique. Yet Wilburn can’t seem to reconcile his will to authority with his human desire for affection and popularity, resulting in a fractured figuration of love and regret. “It can get scary when you legendary.”
Diffusion of Ego and Selfhood
Decidedly anti-Afrofuture, FUTURE and HNDRXX (the latter perhaps to a greater degree) both ignore ideology, precluding specific self-determinative typologies of diasporic history. They instead recognize and affirm a rather difference-blind urban subjecthood, a vague city-centric memory, one with yet finite reaches and concrete denotations. These stories are totems to the individual rather than the collective body, though they are firmly established in pseudo-geographic imaginations, viz the rival topography of Downtown Atlanta. The “kitchen” itself is revisited in “Scrape” and reminiscence is fond and tender, longing for a visually recognizable, though personally uninhabited, pre-Clintonian era of unfettered self-medication and exchange. It is one of FUTURE’s few political moments. Meanwhile, “I Thank U” characterizes a grotesque recognition of socioeconomic aspiration and a personal will, one insincerely personified in the nameless, disregarded, and ultimately discarded female form: “Girl, I thank you, I thank you/ I thank you/ ‘Cause you made me hustle.” Astonishingly, though, pro forma fables of interpellation, hailing by way of repressive state apparatuses (i.e., the 12, the five-o), are limited in narrative and scope, practically absent on FUTURE. The glorious absence of the political, de rigeuer for Wilburn, is notable only for its allowance of other, multicolored elements to shine to the fore.
The body is also a topic of discussion, but it is a similarly fractured and elusive discourse. Here, the body reveals itself as a typical tool for extraction and gain, a figurative and literal “money machine,” a position of popped tags, a seat of sexual subjugation — “Ya baby mama fuck me better when the rent’s due” or, more pointedly and comically, “I’m ‘bout to push me some weight/ You won’t catch me in the gym.” Pucci may be different from Gucci, but, here, the song remains the same, immediately present in form and function: “I do good dope/ I got a good hoe.” This mortal corpus is furthermore a domain of abuse and disintegration: self-elision in pursuit of dissociation, mind-body dislocation (“Percocet,” Wilburn hymns delightedly on “Mask Off’s” infectious hook, “Molly, Percocet”). And to sometimes devastating effect, namely vis-à-vis “My Collection,” in which he briefly reflects, “No this codeine ain’t got nothin’ to do with my lil’ child/ I used to sell dope at my grandma’s house, as a rude child.” Or on “Might as Well,” to which age is of some concern: “I was selling crack when Snoop dropped ‘Juice and Gin’” (Wilburn was 10 years old in 1994). These are just a handful of shimmering moments that seem sincerely and meaningfully autobiographical, transcending self-imposed myth and averting any obstacle of mischaracterization. These functions of absence are yet more examples of Wilburn’s discursive methods.
He, too, briefly pays to cum (“I’m so Groovy”), later summoning and entertaining the cursed ghost of Breezy in earnest burlesque (“High Demand”). As reflected earlier, the female body is subject to an entirely predictable, lingering gaze, one characterized and personalized by the behavior of agents of fortune populating Wilburn’s star-studded universe: “She told me she was an angel/ She fucked two rappers and three singers/ She got a few athletes on speed dial.” HNDRXX is a total rock record. Sequitur, Wilburn prefers caricatures to characters and the result is, unsurprisingly, literally objectifying. As is the case on, again, “My Collection”: “Anytime I got you, girl you my possession/ Even if I hit you once, you part of my collection.” Revisiting his tenuous relationship with ex-fiancée Ciara, this particular track makes something of a sequel to 2014’s misguided love-song “Trophy,” Wilburn only harboring an adolescent resentment for his former keepsake. “I’m so Groovy” presents a coarser analog: “Oh, that’s your bitch?/ I just bought her.” Even the aptly-titled Rihanna-feature “Selfish” is rife with interpersonal confusion and coercive tactics, interactive in its bold duplicity: the cardinal refrain “Let’s be selfish, selfish, baby/ Tonight” is an inherent evasion in its circumstance, ultimately clouding both identity and intention by way of first-person action and vernacular. (Where is the us in I?)
Given the good health hip-hop is in, none of these tableaux should necessarily come as a surprise — especially coming from a man who operates prohibitively “on ratchet time,” like some Actavis-charmed white rabbit, a towering figure who once proclaimed the codeine-stained essence of his urine. Both releases neither offer, stake, nor explore any new worlds in themselves, returning only the diminished residual and the habitual. But, taken in conjunction with FUTURE’s renewed dedication to rapid-fire textual and illustrative inconsistency along with HNDRXX’s poetical, ad hoc treatment of the body and truncation of history, the project makes a token no less: reflecting a diffusion of ego and selfhood that alternately frustrates and stimulates.
HNDRXX’s final track, the seven-and-a-half minute elegiac “Sorry,” is a simulation of abject contrition regarding past and future alter-egos’ behavior. Though a seemingly insufficient conclusion, the text scans like a letter penned to family, friends, and fans. Wilburn has never totally shied away from sympathetic histrionics, despite the machismo posturing, and “Sorry” embarks on yet another circuitous confession, recounting all of Wilburn’s sins, laid bare in earnest compunction. “Ain’t really tryin’ / I ain’t really tryin’,” he repeats, stammering over his auto-tuned utterances. It is an incomplete identification, neglecting the shifting autonomies that populate his character.