“Bugatti,” “March Madness,” “Fuck Up Some Commas” — Future has had his share of fan-favorite bangers, but he didn’t have a bona fide crossover megahit until this year with “Mask Off.” The track has been massive, peaking at number six on the Billboard Hot 100 and giving the rapper, who uses AutoTune as an artistic tool more skillfully than any hip-hop artist since T-Pain, a career-best chart performance. It’s such a hit that when the actual greatest rapper alive, Kendrick Lamar, quickly made a remix, many fans didn’t think he added much.
It’s fair to say Future’s commercial success now matches his critical and fan acclaim. But a question remains: Why did he make “Mask Off"?
The short answer: Like a lot of things in 2017, it comes down to memes. Shortly after the song dropped on Future’s latest, self-titled album, the internet was flooded with fan-made videos riffing on the song’s signature flute melody. In what became known as the “Mask Off Challenge,” posters played the tune on any instrument they could get their hands on: recorders, violins, pianos, even trombones. Eventually, people just started using their voices, screeching along, trying to match their pitch with that of the sample.
Of course, the long answer demands a closer look at the appeal of the song, and just like in the meme, it really comes down to that infectious flute sample. All-star producer Metro Boomin looped the snippet — taken from “Prison Song,” a show tune by Tommy Butler from the musical Selma — over some trap drums. That's about it. This isn’t Beethoven (or even Zaytoven). Even in the fast-paced world of rap production, where producers usually spend less than a half-hour on a single beat, “Mask Off” is a pretty simple concoction. And Young Metro is a skillful-enough beatsmith to know when to add to a tune and when to just let the sample shine.
That sense of simplicity extends to Future’s lyrics, in which he, uh, raps about drugs. Anyone who knows anything about the times and trials of Future Hendrix knows lines about substance abuse make up much of his oeuvre. He depicts himself as a man stretched between the violence of gangsta life and the sedate refuge of drugs.
Not so much on "Mask Off." Future does away with the complex triplet flows of songs like “Covered in Money,” as well as the melodic, AutoTuned approach he takes on tracks such as “Used to This” with Drake. He states his lines plainly: “Percocets, molly, Percocets/Rep the set, gotta rep the set.” You know the rest.
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Eventually, he mentions “cruisin’ Biscayne.” It’s not the intense fetishizing of drug culture we’ve seen in his work before, nor is it a harrowing confessional from an addict. It’s pretty vanilla, which makes it work for radio.
And that’s what’s most surprising about this track’s hit status: “Mask Off” wasn’t even planned as a single. Technically, it’s a deep cut from Future, the first of two albums he released in February. It was the fans who identified “Mask Off,” amid a huge dump of tracks, as the one they enjoyed most, and it was they who memed it to the top of the charts.
This isn’t the first time a deep cut has broken through in this way. Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO Tour Llif3” was first released as a bonus track on a four-song SoundCloud-only EP. It wasn’t expected to be a hit, yet when fans began streaming it vociferously and posting about it on Twitter and other social networks, the artist’s label fast-tracked a YouTube visual and put the song on Spotify so it could chart higher. It’s since peaked at seven on the Hot 100. Similarly, Playboi Carti’s “Magnolia” was released as a single only after it became the clear fan favorite from his self-titled debut mixtape.
In 2017, where streaming is king, it seems rappers are beginning to learn that their future lies in the fans.
Future. With Wizkid. 7:30 p.m. Sunday, August 13, at Coral Sky Amphitheatre (formerly Perfect Vodka Amphitheatre), 601-7 Sansburys Way, West Palm Beach; 561-795-8883. Tickets cost $18 to $91.50 via livenation.com.