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Pete L’Official

Pete L’Official teaches in the literature program in the division of languages and literature at Bard College, and writes about art, sports, music, and culture.

“Future’s Lower Frequencies”
“Robotic is the world in which everyone sings perfectly without even knowing it.” Writing about Auto-Tune, these are the words of Dave Tompkins in an appendix to his history of the vocoder, How to Wreck a Nice Beach. Voice manipulation, whether in pitch-corrected or synthesized form, most commonly (to listeners) suggests mechanized landscapes populated by automatons in whose voice may echo, perhaps across that uncanny valley, a faint dream of being human. This is the world that Tompkins describes: a nation of melismatic cyborgs unconsciously desperate to produce an off-note. That is not the world that we live in. Imperfect, we dream in the opposite direction.

The rapper-singer Future knows this, too, and his digitally processed voice seems to yield to and revel in humanity’s imperfection with every coarsened breath. “Robotic” is useful as description only to a point; after all, what could be more human that wanting to be something—someplace, or somebody—else altogether? This paper asks: what is it that we really want or hear when we listen to Future? What possibilities are pregnant within that distinctive, irresistible voice? It suggests: perhaps Future’s is less an extraterrestrial shout from out of time than one from a man in search of a voice that allows for more unfiltered human expression; perhaps it draws us less towards imagined techno-centric futures than within ourselves, vocalizing parts of us that can’t speak—for pain, for want of understanding, or which have no language altogether. Seen this way, our experience is less one of robotic estrangement but rather haunting familiarity—not an altering of the self via technology, but a digital revelation of its fractured nature. Rather than alienation, what Future’s processed gurgling angst offers instead is comfort: the potential catharsis of our own voice’s “correction” or “modulation” should we be compelled by the inevitable agonies of life to grunt and wail and holler as he does.

“Reflections of the Future Present”
Since his 2010 emergence as some extraterrestrial mixtape phenom fortuitously crash-landed in Atlanta, rapper/singer Future has cultivated one of the most unique and prolific voices in popular music, his warbling, Auto-Tuned rap often blurring the boundaries of speech and song, man and machine, real and unreal. In 2015 his career reached new heights: in the first half of the year alone he released the mixtapes Beast Mode and 56 Nights as well as his critically-lauded studio album, DS2, causing Complex to marvel in September that “Future already has three of the most impactful hip-hop releases of 2015.” That same month saw the release of his chart-topping album-length collaboration with Drake, What a Time to Be Alive, a work whose title felt less like a boast than an affirmation. This panel, composed of a diverse array of critics and scholars, offers a variety of responses to what we have deemed “the Future Present.” Our four papers plumb the musical and cultural implications of rap’s greatest Auto-Tune MC, including such topics Future’s position within the African American vernacular blues tradition; Future’s paradoxically confounding-yet-revelatory deployment of alter-egos; the ways Future’s distinctly inhuman voice fosters both humanity and human desire; and the lessons that an Auto-Tune rapper can teach us not simply about the current state of rap, but the future of the voice itself. “The present is histrionics,” Dave Tompkins has written of Auto-Tune. “The moment, all over the place.” Ultimately we seek a better understanding of Future’s now, and precisely what sort of time it is to be alive. 

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