Entry #5 Future: Mask Off

Phew, that last entry was a bit of a mess, wasn’t it? Barely mentioned the (excellent) song and just flew off into TMI land. It won’t be the last time that happens, I’ll often have something to get off my chest that I feel can’t wait until December, but I always feel that there has to be some overarching ‘point’ to each entry and this series is literally the only outlet I have for that. At least until I get around to starting ‘Sing of the Thrill’ [TITLE TO BE CONFIRMED], my long promised/threatened King of the Hill episode by episode retrospective that’s currently the second most eagerly anticipated literary operation behind George RRRRRR Martin’s ‘No, No, No, This is What Was Supposed to Happen!’. To make up for Entry #4, this time around I’m actually just going to talk about one of the greatest songs ever for a thousand words or so, all tangents and flights of fancy will be kept to an absolute minimum, and if anything I’ll be undersharing, yeah? We cool? We cool.

This post contains a lot of information cribbed from Simon Reynolds’s fantastic Pitchfork article from last year. I might call him a ‘contributor’, but the fact is that he’s very likely to sue me for royalties once the money starts rolling in.

There are few complaints about music that I find more boorish or pompous than those against autotune. If a man (and it’s almost always a man) wants to show how authentic and mature he is- and by extension how much awe you should be in and why you should at least give him a quick handjob- he will complain about the use of autotune in ‘modern’* music. He will say how ‘fake’ autotune is, how it always sounds so unnatural and inauthentic, how it shows that singers don’t need to be talented anymore, how you’d never expect such frivolities in the real music he likes (Clearance Clearwater Revival; Eric Clapton; Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, “the band Oasis could have been”), how soon this fad will make ‘modern’* music sound ridiculous and date it terribly, etc, etc, et-fucking-cetera. He will then also somehow claim that he’s not allowed to say things like this because of political correctness and eventually get on to how he’s “sceptical” about immigration “for purely economical reasons”. When he starts claiming that he “deals in facts, not feelings” you’ll know it’s time to make your excuses and leave.

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(*the first popular song to use autotune as an instrumental and distorting device was Cher’s Believe in 1998, so this ‘scourge of modern music’ has been widely used for more than 20 years now. The guy who decries autotune for ruining modern music will have masturbated recently to online videos of women younger than autotune. Which, for reasons I don’t have time to explain, proves every point I make in this article. And when I say ‘recently’ I mean in the last twenty minutes or so. Remember thinking Paul was taking longer than usual last time he went out for a cigarette? Yeah, that’s what he was doing. Sigh, and yes, I hated Believe as well, but that’s honestly not relevant to the wider point here)

But let’s look at this oft-spewed points. There is absolutely an argument that autotuning an artist’s voice renders it ‘fake’ or ‘inauthentic’. But I should warn you that to use this argument may open you up to criticisms of hypocrisy if you listen to any music that doesn’t exist exclusively of somebody singing to you in person without a microphone. We don’t need to go into deep philosophical shit about any recorded voice being artificial and removed from reality to poke holes in this reasoning. Pretty much every recorded music of the past 7’876 years [CITATION NEEDED] has had studio wizardry sparkled over the vocals to make them sound better, more palatable and to increase what musical theorist Maury Yeston referred to as ‘the slap effect’. In the studio, vocals are treated and distorted to make them sound more crisp, more floaty, more silky and to remove that awkward ad-lib when Art Garfunkel screamed ‘NUKE THE GOOKS!’ after the second chorus of Bridge Over Troubled Water.  Elvis Presley had his voice layered in ridiculous levels of echo and distortion, The Beatles (a band so fucking authentic that they shit legitimacy, yeah?!) had vocals overlaid and thickened, Thom Yorke hasn’t sung a song with his voice untreated since his band covered Captain Sensible’s Happy Talk at his school’s talent show, Phil Spector used to [REMOVED ON LEGAL ADVICE] to ensure The Ronettes had the correct level of baritone, Led Zeppelin used to underlay all of Robert Plant’s vocals with the screams of imprisoned underage girls. Every song ever, every singer ever. Vocals have always and will always be coated in the audio equivalent of Instagram filters.  Have you ever heard of music having what’s known as a ‘producer’? Yeah, that’s pretty much what they do. People love tales like Martin Hannett sellotaping cigarette butts to the microphone* to get the ideal recording of Ian Curtis, but autotune? Nah, that’s fake.

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“Hmmm, needs more cellulose acetate…”
(*That was a story, wasn’t it?? I can find no evidence of it online. It’s such a weird thing for me to make up…)

Singers in the autotune era don’t necessarily need to be talented, but the practice of making singers sound better through studio trickery has existed as long as studios have. Bands like CCR might not have waggled the pitch on that second verse of Bad Moon Rising, but there would have been careful distortion on the vocals of Clearance Cassidy (that was probably the singer’s name) to enhance the quality and edit out the sounds of him snorting cocaine off the microphone stand every couple of seconds (Clearance Cassidy would demand “a line after every line” on his rider). As for it ‘dating’ music, I mean, for fuck’s sake- everything dates music. You can hear a song from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and know it’s from the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, but it doesn’t mean the music is then inherently worthless. If you’re scared of music somehow being ‘dated’ you wouldn’t make any music at all. When Bartolomeo Cristofori invented the piano I doubt many people were complaining that any music that now used it would sound so obviously dated as being post 1708. Drum and bass music now sounds so decidedly dated as a sound of the late 90s, but does that mean Dragonfly can no longer be considered an amazing piece of music? Have. A. Word.

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(that aforementioned Simon Reynolds article makes a great point involving Steve Albini that I couldn’t better or bring myself to steal)

People seem to forget that autotune isn’t a philosophy or a doctrine or an aggressive Magna Carta hammered on the wall of Abbey Road studios denouncing all those shit bands you like from the 70s and asserting that all music now must contain warped vocals and constantly remind you how old you are. It’s a tool. An instrument. Some people use it because they think it sounds good. That’s it. Complaining about autotune is shouting ‘Judas’ as Bob Dylan plugs in an electric guitar (That crowd member at the Manchester Free Trade Hall would have hated how electric guitars are ‘inauthentic’). And that’s cool, you do you. You don’t have to like it, studies have shown that human beings have different tastes and may occasionally like different things, but you don’t need to invent a philosophy to explain your gut feelings. I honestly absolutely despise saxophones, and they’re the reason that, even though I consider myself a big fan, I consider much of Bruce Springsteen’s back catalogue unlistenable. A saxophone solo? Give me death. I’ve long been Lil Yachty‘s (someone who I don’t believe has sung a single line not autotuned) biggest fan and most staunch defender, but that fucking saxophone solo at the end of Bring it Back is the only thing he’s ever done that I can’t support. But I only have to justify my opinion with anything more than ‘it sounds shite’, I don’t need to explain that the saxophone is a dangerous perversion of brass instruments and a disgusting threat to more authentic instruments like the flugelhorn. Demonising autotune because you hate Believe or I Gotta Feeling (both entirely justified opinions) is like stating how much you hate guitars because you just heard Pick a Part That’s New. Autotune, like a guitar, is an instrument. It can sound like trash if used badly, but to dismiss it completely would be to miss out on how brilliantly it can sound when in the hands of true genius.

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“OK, try Googling ‘future rapper’…”
Future (see? I got around to him eventually) is absolutely a genius. He’s a genius in dire need of stricter editing, granted. He releases a record roughly every 17 minutes, and obviously has a bad habit of releasing every single thing he records thus spreading himself a little too thin. His 2018 album ‘Beast Mode 2‘ was the latest example of what his talents could produce if he were a little more concise, but the fact that he’s released three records since then suggests that he’s unlikely to consider editing his creativity any time soon. Future justifies putting the work in though, as even these seemingly thrown out releases still contain the odd gem.

Future deals in a unique brand of rap music. While rap has always been a genre heavily centred around its lyrics (y’know, the ‘raps’), with Future the importance of the songs often don’t lie solely within what he actually says and more how his voice sounds and how it combines and often juxtaposes the music. His music often isn’t about what is said (which is often a stream of conscious cascade of desolate drug taking and empty consumption) but more about how it feels. He has crafted his own distinct take on hip-hop, and one that wouldn’t be possible without autotune. With autotune, Future can distort his voice to ensure that his vocals always match the sound of the song and the mood that he’s attempting to evoke, with the actual lyrics often being inconsequential. Future is often aiming for that same gut feeling that makes you hate autotune or saxophones, he wants a song to inspire feelings in you that you’re not able to logically explain. He knows how to compose music as a complete form and he knows that his voice is just another instrument that can be shaped to perfection. It might sound like a laughably empty statement to some, but he is by far and away the greatest user of autotune in the world.

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Mask Off though, fucking Mask Off. I’ve already said a lot about this modern masterpiece when I (correctly) stated it was the best song of 2017, but it really is impossible to overstate what an incredible piece of music it is. It’s perhaps the ultimate example of how the meaning of Future’s songs can so rarely be read on the surface level and what a reduced part his lyrics have in outlining a song’s message. On paper, Mask Off might at times seem like pretty standard hip-hop braggadocio (‘Two cups/Toast up with the gang/From food stamps/To a whole nother domain/Out the bottom/I’m a living proof/They compromising/Half a million on the coupe’) about how much money the singer has, how he’s an inspirational self-made man, has bitches coming out of his Benjamins, and that, yes, he has a significantly larger penis than average. Even the famous chorus of ‘Percocets/Molly, Percocets’ can’t help but come across as a boast- we get it, Mr Future, you take loads of drugs, we’re all very impressed.

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But Future knows that this isn’t a written poem, it isn’t something that strictly needs to be judged on the words used. It’s a piece of music, and that extra instrument of audio can shape how a song feels, no matter the words. The lyrics are backed with a sample from a 1978 song by Tommy Butler*, which automatically adds melancholy and remorse with an absolutely devastating flute sample. Future’s voice is distorted and flattened, using effects ordinarily utilised to automate and barbarise the human voice to strangely humanise the nihilistic boasts and make the pain of the person saying them somehow far more realistic. Through the carefully curated feel of the song, the lyrics’ meanings are flipped completely. The song isn’t boastful or self-aggrandising. It’s clear (simply through the choice of music and the effects on the voice!) that Future sees nothing worth celebrating in this lifestyle. You realise that the chorus isn’t a rebellious boast of the protagonist’s chemical consumption, but a solemn list of the things that he needs just to keep going (‘My guillotine/Drank promethazine/TEC and beams/Go to those extremes’). Journalist Richard Cooke recently wrote of the American opoid crisis, saying that ‘crisis’ wasn’t too strong a word but wondered why it didn’t seem like it was truly seen as such by most. “The epidemic has done little to impress itself onto the wider American culture. So far, OxyContin has produced no Hogarth, no Coleridge, no De Quincey, no Easy Rider or Drugstore Cowboy, no Junkie or The Long Weekend. There is no country music equivalent of Bowie’s Berlin period, or not one with any wattage.”

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(*from a musical called ‘Selma’ about Martin Luther King’s 1965 march. I mean, there’s another article entirely I could write about that link, isn’t there?)

No offence, mate, but what the fuck are you talking about? Alright, sure, so ‘Euphoria’ hadn’t been released when he wrote that, but isn’t he forgetting somebody? Future’s entire career has been basically one long anguished wail at how dependant he is on prescription pills, and Mask Off is his masterpiece. And what’s so masterful about is that, on the surface, it doesn’t actually say anything. But autotune makes sure it feels right.

Seriously though, how good a tune is Bring it Back?

One thought on “Entry #5 Future: Mask Off

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