Trapital is a newsletter about the business side of hip-hop. Each week, Dan Runcie breaks down the strategic moves that shape the culture. Dan’s writing has been published in WIRED, Pigeons & Plane, Medium, and other publications. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan – Ross School of Business and Quinnipiac University.
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The trap king’s business model relies on his workaholic habits, depression, and substance abuse: a perilous combination that can lead to burnout, or worse.
When Future ended his set on the Summer Sixteen Tour in Oakland, Drake gave props to his co-headliner. “That’s the hardest working man in hip-hop.” The statement was said casually—Drake bigs everybody up—but it was the truth. Since that concert in 2016, Future has released two studio albums, three mixtapes, executive produced a movie soundtrack, and headlined two worldwide tours. The FutureHive, his rabid fanbase, appreciates the Atlanta rapper’s round-the-clock dedication. Future has built a foundation on constantly releasing music, but there’s tremendous risk in its viability.
“Future Hendrix” is the nickname the rapper gave himself to pay homage to legendary rockstar Jimi Hendrix. Like Jimi, Future’s rise to stardom has coincided with personal struggles. In 2014, Future and Ciara called off their engagement, leaving the 34-year old rapper in a custody battle over “baby Future” (the second such case he’s faced). Themes of depression, suicide, and addiction consume his lyrics. He claims his “therapy” is staying in the studio, drinking lean (soda mixed with cough syrup, and sometimes Xanax), and making music. Future has inconsistently acknowledged his substance abuse, which is common for someone who needs more help than he lets on.
The FutureHive hears about the rapper’s personal demons early and often. For some fans, his lyrics are a gateway to mental health awareness. Black men—especially those who grew up poor like Future—are less likely to seek therapy. Future knows his fans appreciate his raw emotions, but where does that leave Future himself?
The “March Madness” rapper’s business model is predicated on escapism. His nonstop work ethic is hard to shake, especially when it has elevated him to the Forbes Hip-Hop Cash Kings list. These issues—overworking, addiction, and depression—are interlaced and have fatal consequences. It’s scary, but there’s still time to help Future alter his approach.
His career still has rising star potential, but he’s treating it like a cash cow.
The business of Future Hendrix
Today’s artists earn most of their money on tour, but Future is still caking off the old strategy. According to Forbes, nearly half of the $23 million he earned in 2017 came from music revenues, while only 30% came from concerts. The only hip-hop artist that bested Future’s 2.8 billion on-demand streams was Drake with 6.8 billion. Future was also the most watched rapper online with 1.2 billion video streams. Most of that stems from the nonstop content he releases (Since I began writing this piece he dropped another single “Scammalot”).
Despite his strong performance, others have earned similar with less output. Kendrick Lamar earned $30 million from his album DAMN. and a 36-city tour (compared to Future’s 70+ tour stops that same year). J. Cole earned $19 million from the 4 Your Eyez Only album and one tour in that same time frame as well.
The other 20% of Future’s money came from other business deals, including endorsements. His partnership with Reebok is almost two years old. He also did a bizarre Gap commercial with Cher and a StubHub spot.
His career still has rising star potential, but he’s treating it like a cash cow. It’s partially because of personal battles and depression, but also hubris. Fans buy each project he releases, even if they are just four months apart. The business model gets validated, even if there’s room to improve.
Because of his success, Nayvadius Wilburn (his given name) has become risk-averse. He’s afraid to tweak his style—and by extension, his business model—because of past missteps. His sophomore album Honest (2014) was criticized for being too commercial. “It’s gonna be superhard to make [a] transition. People look at what I did as one of the greatest comebacks of all time. But to do it a third time?” he told Rolling Stone in an interview in 2016. Since dropping the widely successful and influential DS2 album in 2015, Future has stayed true to the current formula.
This formula has paved way for several imitators, which Future has complained about time, and time, and time again. Since he’s this protective about defending the mumble rap throne, he should focus on monetizing opportunities that he can attain but his competitors can’t. In turn, these opportunities can bring in more money with less work, giving Future more time to get the help he needs.
A more viable approach
Nayvadius can optimize his business model by getting more longevity out of his hit records. “Mask Off” was one of the biggest songs of 2017. It launched the viral #MaskOffChallenge where fans dusted off their violins and flutes to cover the Metro Boomin’ beat.
Instead of capitalizing the moment, like Drake has with the Shiggy Challenge in the “In My Feelings” music video, Future missed the boat. The “Mask Off” music video was released three months after the viral challenge started (an eternity in today’s world). When the video finally dropped, we saw him and Amber Rose driving a Bentley around an apocalyptic, dystopian neighborhood. It’s an expensive, well-directed video, but there’s no reference to the social media phenomenon.
“Mask Off” is Future’s biggest hit to date by far, but it’s only his second most-watched music video (“Low Life” with The Weeknd was #1). A more-timely video that incorporated the viral challenge could have yielded hundreds of millions more video streams and extended the airplay and streaming of both Future and Hndrxx albums. According to Nielsen, viral music videos can increase music sales up to 64%. Each studio album Future releases always has at least one hit record, so he should keep this in mind if he gets another viral hit.
The other place to optimize is touring. In 2017, he headlined two separate tours in a three-month span to promote the Future and Hndrxx albums separately. The back-to-back tours were on brand for Future, but duplicative. He visited some of the same regions with each tour, and since both albums were released before either tour began, fans didn’t necessarily distinguish the separate album, separate tour model.
Next month he starts the NICKIHNDRXX tour with Nicki Minaj. She isn’t as topical as she was three years ago, but she has a wider fanbase than Future and is using an increasingly popular sales tactic with this tour. For every concert ticket purchased, Nicki will include a copy of her upcoming album, Queen for fans. Pop artist Pink used this same bundled approach in 2017 and had two-thirds of her first-week album sales come from concert ticket purchases—giving her the fourth-best album sales week of 2017. This should increase touring and album revenue for both Future and Nicki as well. Once his next album is ready, Future should consider bundling ticket and album sales too.
Ironically, Jimi Hendrix struggled with substance abuse as well, often mixing both drugs and alcohol. The days before Jimi Hendrix died in 1970, he was overworked, persistently exhausted, and suffered from a lack of sleep. Jimi’s cause of death has been widely disputed for decades. The similarities between him and Future are troubling. Despite the heightened awareness today around mental health, recording artists are still subject to the same ills.
After rapper Lil’ Peep died of a drug overdose last year, a number of rappers vowed to quit Xanax and other substances they relied on. Future is not there yet. In Beast Mode 2, the mixtape Future released last month, he concludes with the song “Hate The Real Me”:
Pouring up in public, damn I hate the real me
My mama stressing out, she say these drugs got to me
And I ain’t been the same since that n— shot me
Loading up the cartridge right now, damn I hate the real me
Voices in my head, “you the enemy”
These demons have affected the trap king for years. The end goal is not for him to go cold and never discuss these topics again. Depression can be a life-long struggle. The goal is to find proper outlets to seek help and manage his illness.
The FutureHive is ride or die. They will still back Future if he slows down his nonstop work ethic, if he strives to become the smartest, not hardest, working man in hip-hop. Let’s hope that Future Hendrix can get there before its too late.