In 2011, Ebonie Ward was preparing for the grand opening of her boutique, Fly Kix ATL, a men’s clothing store in Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill district that would soon become a stomping ground for high-fashion sneaker heads and up-and-coming rappers such as Kendrick Lamar and Nipsey Hussle. She knew she needed the perfect artist for the launch, so she reached out to a close friend of a rapper she had recently seen at a local showcase. The burgeoning artist, Future, had no Billboard Hot 100 hits to his name — just a commanding, charismatic presence that pierced her core the first time she saw him onstage.
Future accepted the offer and performed at the grand opening, where he also met Ward for the first time and was immediately intrigued by her determination. “She had a different kind of drive,” says Future, who hired her to be his assistant shortly after. “[She] had a will just to get everything done by any means necessary. She always sees ahead of the curve.”
“I think he is the most talented individual on the planet,” says Ward, who began managing Future alongside his longtime manager, Anthony Saleh, in 2017. “When you see somebody who’s so passionate, diligent and hardworking, it just ignites something inside of you that you don’t even understand that you possess. You meet somebody who’s constantly able to help you evolve on every level of your life, just with his level of dedication. It’s really a beautiful thing.”
Today, Future, 38, and Ward are true partners. Having started as his assistant over 10 years ago, her elevation to manager (Saleh stepped down from his role last year) is a beacon of hope for Black women across the music industry striving upward. Not only has she helped fortify Future’s legacy as one of the genre’s most beloved acts, but under her tutelage, another client of hers, Gunna, scored his second Billboard 200 No. 1 album with DS4Ever in January and continues to notch musical successes.
At Future’s Billboard cover shoot, his and Ward’s playful rapport is on full display. Ward exudes the command of a sports coach, directing her team as they help pick her star player’s outfits, giving him tips on perfecting his next pose.
“She don’t just manage my music; she manages me,” says Future, as Ward nods alongside him. “I might call her for some small sh-t, the biggest sh-t [or] some crazy sh-t. My whole life is in her hands. So it’s different, but I trust her that much. I’m like, ‘Damn. I have somebody in my life I could trust [and] I feel safe with. I always wanted that.”
Adds Ward: “When you work with somebody who’s such a workhorse, it gives you a different drive and level of passion with what you do because if he’s in the studio all night, how can I not be up at 5 o’clock [in the morning]? One of us has to pick up where the other person left off. I think that’s what makes our connection so amazing.”
Ward’s passion and dedication are tethered to an artist who has become one of music’s most in-demand superstars. But Future’s mainstream success wasn’t always a foregone conclusion. After receiving mixed reviews for his second album, 2014’s Honest, Future returned to his underground roots. Determined to prove his doubters wrong, he released three mixtapes in five months (2014’s Monster and 2015’s Beast Mode and 56 Nights), for one of the most storied runs in hip-hop — one that rejuvenated his career and set up the release of his magnum opus, DS2, in July 2015.
Those projects also catalyzed Future’s unprecedented run on the Billboard charts, which has placed him on historic ground. Though his lecherous lyrics and lovelorn ballads have made some label him rap’s “Toxic King,” Future has amassed eight No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200, 153 Hot 100 hits (fifth all-time and third among rappers, after Drake and Lil Wayne) and close to 100 million RIAA-certified units since he signed a joint-venture deal between his label, Freebandz, and Epic Records in 2012. In April, Future became the fifth artist to debut simultaneously at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and Hot 100 after releasing his ninth studio album, I Never Liked You; with 222,000 equivalent album units, according to Luminate, it marked the biggest solo opening week of his career. All 16 songs from the set charted on the Hot 100, and project standout “Wait for U,” featuring frequent collaborator Drake and rising Afrobeats star Tems, rocketed to No. 1. The love-drunk anthem, on which Future flexes his muscles as a smooth operator, remained in the Hot 100’s top 10 for nearly six months after its release. And those high-profile chart successes only paint part of his career picture: After factoring in collaborative albums and mixtapes, Future has released 20 full-length projects in the last decade, a figure unparalleled among his peers.
The most elite corners of the music business have taken notice. When the Recording Academy announced nominations for the 2023 Grammys on Tuesday, Future raked in seven nods — more than the rest of his career combined — including his first for best rap album and two apiece for “Wait for U” (best rap song, best melodic rap performance) and his Gunna and Young Thug collaboration “Pushin’ P” (best rap song, best rap performance).
“He’s really a force of nature,” says Epic Records CEO Sylvia Rhone, who has worked with Future at the label since his 2012 debut, Pluto. “He works harder than anyone that I have worked with in the past. It’s his 10th year in the business, and each year he just gets better and better. He hasn’t aged out like some before him. After 10 years of incomparable influence on culture, he hasn’t even scratched the surface of his creative impact. He still has such a career ahead of him. He’s a special guy. And when you find those kinds of genius artists, you just have to let them do their thing.”
Future has also demonstrated savvy instincts when committing to features, favoring the new generation of rappers — particularly those with high energy and strong work ethic, regardless of star power. The admiration runs both ways: Future’s longevity and cultural impact have inspired scores of artists, like rising Louisville, Ky., rookie EST Gee, who recently said, “He’s like our Jay-Z.” And though Future bemoans the “role model” label, he understands his influence on the genre’s youth and has helped to mentor them. His collaborative projects with Juice WRLD (2018’s Future & Juice WRLD Present… WRLD on Drugs) and Lil Uzi Vert (2020’s Pluto x Baby Pluto) both debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, and in recent years, newcomers including Lil Baby, Lil Durk and Roddy Ricch have featured him on their tracks. In January, Future teamed with Gunna and Young Thug on the YSL stars’ “Pushin’ P,” which peaked at No. 7 on the Hot 100 and entered the cultural lexicon at the apex of Gunna’s career, before he and Young Thug were arrested on racketeering charges in May. (The two are in jail awaiting a January trial date.)
Ward and Rhone also cite Future’s talent for molding young producers into heavyweights. In the 2010s, Future was an early booster of Mike WiLL Made-It, and he leaned on the producers Metro Boomin and Southside to help craft DS2 and What a Time To Be Alive, his 2015 collaborative mixtape with Drake. Future enlisted rising Atlanta producer ATL Jacob for six I Never Liked You songs, including “Wait for U.” “He has a very clear instinct with young producers who will grow to be major producers,” says Rhone. “And I can say that easily about Mike WiLL, ATL Jacob, Metro, Zaytoven; the list goes on and on. That gives you an understanding of where his skill set, where his ears are.”
“I don’t feel like nobody needs to be like me… exactly how I am. I only can do this,” says Future. “I’m the only one that can do this sh-t, you know what I’m saying? That’s from my personal life to musically. I’m really one of none. I can live like this. People accept that because it’s just me.”
Future’s business moves have set him apart from his peers, too. Last September, Billboard reported that Future sold his publishing catalog for somewhere between $65 million and $75 million to music and entertainment company Influence Media Partners, an entity backed by BlackRock and Warner Music Group to invest in publishing high-profile songs that acquired Blake Shelton’s catalog in October. IMP’s Future deal includes over 600 songs dating from 2004 to 2020, including the massive 2017 Hot 100 hit “Mask Off” and several Drake collaborations, most notably What a Time To Be Alive’s “Jumpman” and 2020’s RIAA diamond-certified “Life Is Good.”
“Future is a cultural icon,” IMP partner/founding adviser Rene McLean said in a statement when the deal was announced. “He continues to be a blueprint for impact and success in the music industry and has reinvented music in ways that no one has ever expected.” (Both Ward and Future declined to comment on the deal.)
Now, Future has another goal in mind: to become one of the few hip-hop billionaires — and to use that status to empower himself and those around him. He has already turned his focus to Freebandz, signing Tallahassee, Fla., standout Boston Richey in August and Memphis upstart Lil Double O last year, boosting both with guest spots on their tracks. Outside of music, Future has entered the real estate market, where he’s a partner in a development group based out of Austin, Los Angeles and Atlanta and buying properties in those areas.
“When you think of just the name ‘Future,’ it’s prophetic,” Ward says. “It’s pure, genuine and ahead of the curve. He creates trends, he creates sound and synergy. He’s a real leader. And I think musically, people often try to compare other people to him, but I think he has created a league of his own.”
Your last solo album, High Off Life, came out in May 2020. Typically, you don’t take breaks longer than a year. What did the extra time do for you?
Those two years, I was doing a lot. I was moving around, traveling. [The album process] probably started over four times — things happened, like me changing the title, me changing the direction of the album, or certain things happening in my life. That’s why I never thought about [the gap] as two years. I still didn’t have the I Never Liked You title. I still didn’t have certain songs that were on that [album].
It geared me up to be able to go for another 10 years, where I don’t have to take [time] off. Because during [the making of I Never Liked You], I still was recording a lot of music, a different kind of music. I was trying to find my hop, trying to find different melodies, different [everything]. I changed the title up so many times within those years that the music always switched up. I still have the music and I still have those titles, but I feel like that body of music might be connected to that title. That’s why I say I’m prepared for whatever happens next. [Whether I] drop new music or write songs for different artists, musically, man, I have it.
Those two years, it sounds like you were very critical of yourself. Is that accurate?
Yeah, I probably was hard on myself because when you’re at that 10th year, you want to be able to still deliver at the high level because I know the music I could make. Songs like “Wait for U,” I make those in my sleep. But I had to make a certain kind of music to go along with my career and everything that was going on at the time. I was capitalizing off different moments and creating from whatever was going on at the time in the world and my personal life. I was taking the energy from that and making music. But those melodic songs, I make those easy — easier than I can make a rap song, I feel.
You have eight No. 1 albums and 153 Hot 100 hits. Considering where you started back in 2012, how do you view your wins?
It’s like I became a different person. I don’t even think about it no more. Like, that’s who I am. It’s just all a part of the story. It’s all a part of just being that artist. I can’t think about the number, because I’m still doing it the best. I think I’m going to pass [my Hot 100 stat] faster than I did 155, [or] whatever it is. I think I can get to that number [in] less years. If it took me six years to do that, I can do that in two years now just because of the time [and] the streams on songs.
When I was doing those songs, it [was before Billboard changed its Hot 100 methodology for the streaming era]. So to get on the [Hot] 100 was way harder. I haven’t put out nothing but one or two albums since [the methodology changed]. Before then, it was just all sales, so I had to really get on the charts. Now, it’s so easy to get on the charts. I don’t even look at them numbers the same, because now a new artist can pass that number quicker because it’s so easy. Your whole album can chart now. [Back] then, you’d only have two songs make the [Hot] 100. Or three songs on the [Hot] 100 out of a whole album. To be on the [Hot] 100 with your whole entire album, it’s a different time now. I feel like I’m going to be able to achieve everything that I’ve done so far [again] in less time.
So what does that say about how you’ve dominated hip-hop?
I wouldn’t change this sh-t for nothing in the world. I been thinking about that. Talking about it in the interview is one thing, but living this sh-t is different. I love this sh-t, man.
This year, “Pushin’ P” with Gunna and Young Thug was such a force. Have you spoken with them lately?
With everything that it takes to make hits, to be able to share those moments with other artists is just beautiful. Just being able to get there in the studio, gel with other artists well and be able to come up with songs is special. And not to share those moments now, it takes something away from you, because that’s how you build. It’s like, the level of competition between us, we always want to outdo ourselves. You can just imagine us, just the intensity or how we approach a studio session, it’s like magic. We got a bunch of songs — major records that haven’t even touched the surface yet. I feel like just taking it one day at a time. Everything is going to be alright.
Lots of young rappers cling to everything you say. Do you see yourself as a role model?
That sh-t’s tough, bro. I think I need to be a vessel of what not to do. In some things, I need to be a lesson on what to do. So, I think you live and learn through me and if I have to be that sacrifice, I guess so. [I want] for somebody to live better than me. I want another artist to come behind me to do [what I’m doing] even better than I’m doing it. [I would want to] change the bad things they might see in me and make it better for them. That’s what I want more than anything.
If I was a role model, I wouldn’t want them to do the same exact thing that I’m doing, because the sh-t that I do is one of none. You can take certain things about me, and you can use it to help you to maneuver in life, to help progress and elevate. But using everything that I do — or just following every step — is going to be hard because I think I’m one of none.
Does your own power scare you?
I need more power.
Because when you have more power, that means you can put other people in positions [of power]. If you have a little power, then the people around you, what kind of power do they have? So you want people around you that are super powerful. You are your company. Progressing and elevating is the key.
You have several children with different mothers, but have yet to get married. What would fatherhood look like if you did get married?
If I was married, at home with my kids, man, it’d be way different. That’s a life I never lived. It’s something you dream about. That’s one of my dreams. It’s easy for other people, but for me, it’s just like, man, this rock star lifestyle, it don’t gel well. For even creating music, I just feel like I’m missing out on something if I don’t make the music a certain kind of way. I really dedicated my entire life to my fans. I dedicated my entire life to my music. Everything that I love, everything that I got, I put it in music. And the outcome is yet to be determined, still to this day.
Do you think you can have fame and a successful marriage?
I feel like I can have both. When the time’s right, it’ll happen. It ain’t nothing that I’m really chasing. But I do dream of it, and I do want it. I swear I’d probably pick the wrong girl or something, if I was just chasing it. You never know how certain things happen with relationships and with love and getting married and being under the same roof as your kids and you got other kids that are not living with you. That’s just a whole ’nother lifestyle that I haven’t even got a chance to live. But I understand that it’s something I would love, and when the time presents itself, then I know I’m going to be prepared. I want to make sure I just live that to the fullest. But I don’t really think about that sh-t, like having a wife and sh-t. But I want a wife. Everybody around me wants me to have a wife more than I want a wife.
Album 10 is on the horizon next. What does that look like for you?
A lot of money. That’s a lot of damn money. My main focus right now is just to do something I never done. One thing I never done is make a billion dollars. I ain’t done that, so I’m focused on that.
Do you seek advice on how to reach that billion?
Sometimes I ask questions, if I meet a billionaire, like, “How’d you get to where you got?” Or, “How’d you accomplish everything that you have?” I have those conversations with different people, successful people. But the way I get mines might be different. It just helps me to understand that I’m on the right path when I talk to people that have billions. When I hear them talk, I be like, “OK, I’m on the right path.” They reassure me that I’m doing the right thing. No matter what my music career is, I want to just be able to have that friend, somebody that always has my back, [and] just priceless individuals getting me wherever I need to go. Even when it’s going crazy for me, I know I have priceless people around me. I got unconditional love.
This story will appear in the Nov. 19, 2022, issue of Billboard.