The best way to start a fight among Future fans is to declare one album in particular from his 2014-2015 run to be that era’s definitive work. This two-year stretch, encompassing six full-length projects, represents an apex of creativity and productivity for the singular MC – one that he’s only recently matched, with the release of FUTURE and HNDRXX in back-to-back weeks.
A few records during that period could possibly be eliminated from contention straight away, but to pick a clear standout is next to impossible. However, his three-tape mini-run from October ‘14 to March ‘15 represents a peak-within-a-peak for the rapper, and perhaps the period of his career fans will forever remember most fondly.
That triumphant run began with Monster, a 16-track affair helmed mostly by Metro Boomin and featuring a lone guest verse from Lil Wayne. With its relatively expansive length, Monster is the most tiring set — although far more stellar than weak — of this run. But its follow-up, the Zaytoven collaboration Beast Mode, has begun to quietly push the crowd-pleasing 56 Nights as the most beloved of the bunch.
For Atlanta upstarts, Zaytoven was already a name in the world of production before hopping aboard with Future, but his deadly smooth piano work on Beast Mode introduced his style to an entirely new audience. The majority of Beast Mode scopes out a battle plan and sticks to it, with Zay dancing up and down the keys while Future sing-raps around a few loose themes centered around women, drugs, and loss. The reason why the Zaytoven/Future concoction goes down so smoothly is because Future’s at his best when he’s feigning nonchalance, when he’s actively fighting against and digging into the words as they sour immediately upon leaving his mouth.
“Just Like Bruddas” features the most evocative ivory-tickling from Zaytoven, moving all across his piano with zero hesitation, while Future turns in his most stirring lyrical work on the record. His voice takes on a near-numbness, as the words tumble out: “Chewin’ on bars/ And they call you barbarian.” Zay’s evocative, scarred, and broken beats poke and prod the rapper to an almost uncomfortable degree, somehow extracting a level of introspection and humanity Future can have trouble reaching with other producers — instead presenting himself as an impenetrable, remorseless fortress.
The formula is expertly refined on Beast Mode 2, a sequel in which Zaytoven ups his game significantly, and Future coolly reaches ecstatic peaks, shifting between heartbroken, ruined, and introspective, and joyous, energetic, and charming. It’s the best combination of Future, at once drowning in sorrow and laughing at you for trying to help him up. And the entire thing is masterfully puppeteered by Zaytoven, who dictates Future’s emotional fluidity at will, pushing and pulling his collaborator to varying heights at a moment’s notice. The melodicism and crispness of Zay’s piano work, paired the with the expansive vision of his musical palette, results in a vivid step up from the production on the first Beast Mode. Amidst Future’s unrelenting consistency, Zaytoven’s widened scope is an exciting new facet from one of rap’s best beatmakers.
Beast Mode 2 is at its strongest when Future is hardened by his self-destructive substance abuse, brought upon by fraught relationships, reframing these observations as pieces of advice and declarations of toughness for the future Future. “Racks Blue” features the first stadium-ready chorus of the record, the kind of earworm the rapper’s shown the ability to churn out again and again. “What’m I supposed to do when these racks blue,” he sings, turning excessive cash into a sheepish problem and slurring his words, linked by his untethered emotion and cooing “oohs.” It’s a melody that elicits a bittersweet melancholy, but Zay subtly steals the show, his beat slowed to a near-standstill, with minor-key piano flourishes that punch Future square in the gut.
“Doh Doh” features Young Scooter and lands gently to the right of California-leaning G-funk of eras past, regurgitated with a Southern swing and bouncing with the swagger of early T.I. Here, Future’s tuning into a history he’s never had interest in rehashing — his name is Future, after all — and it’s because of Zay’s unrelenting bounce on the beat that he switches modes with ease, jump-starting the set’s middle section. “When I Think About It” shows off the producer’s entire arsenal, beginning with a lush, full piano riff before a hollow, piercing piece of percussion paired with a growling, buzzy low-end bass synth that inspires Future to his most energetic performance on the record. The way the duo swiftly move from “WIFI LIT,” a vengeful ballad addressing Future’s tabloid drama, to energetic id anthems like “Racks Blue,” to examinations of the impervious spirit of the human will displayed on a track like “31 Days,” shows how quickly the two have developed a near telepathic rapport.
We don’t often think of producers making giant leaps from record to record the way we anoint rappers as evolving artists, but here, Zaytoven’s looking at his piano like a chess board, with Future serving as both the white and black pieces. He pushes the rapper into places uncomfortable, and alternatively, familiar areas where he can thrive. Where Beast Mode found Zaytoven creating a consistent, monochromatic landscape on top of which Future could impose his catchy hooks and personality to establish the course of the record, on Beast Mode 2, the rapper-producer duo work more instinctively, with Zaytoven actively lobbing new ideas and fresh sounds at Future and the rapper, in turn, is more reactive than meditative in his delivery. Zay introduces new stylistic tics, mostly referencing the flashy energy of early-2000s ATL rap into his beats, and Future consumes them effortlessly and adjusts on the fly.
The piano on “Red Light” delicately fills the void Future leaves when he pauses for reflection, filling up a contemplative silence with flourishes that highlight lines like, “Sleepin’ on the floor had made my heart colder.” Meanwhile, album closer “Hate the Real Me” joins the pantheon of all-time sad Future joints based on title alone. The beat sounds like a flattened spin off a Jeezy track, with deadened horns a notch away from being triumphant but as presently constituted highlight the deflated sense of self Future paints. “I'm tryna get high as I can,” he sings over and over.
It turns out that no matter where he’s trying to go — high, low, left, right — Future’s at his best when he follows the path laid out by Zaytoven’s piano and production work, the former bouncing off the latter, which both steadies and emphasizes Future’s strengths. Like any project Future’s involved in, his iconic, drunkenly Auto-Tuned voice takes front and center, but for the first time, this collaboration sounds like Zaytoven’s show. Future’s still the star, but Zay is aiming the spotlight.
The producer has become a go-to voice in the rap world as both a beatmaker and a songwriter. His debut LP, Trap Holizay, came out in late May and firmly established him as one of the leading voices in rap music, whether behind the boards or as a conductor. At this point, Zaytoven is the main draw when working with young rappers, and with an MC like Future or other stars he works with (Lil Uzi Vert, Gucci Mane, Kodak Black), Zay deserves co-billing status.
There may never be an answer for which release from Future’s Hall of Fame run stands alone, or if it even matters to draw a distinction between the separate raindrops of their collective downpour. But with Beast Mode 2, Future’s made it clear which record — and which collaboration — he thinks deserves to be a franchise.