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Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2022: No. 9 — Future

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For this year’s update of our ongoing Greatest Pop Star by Year project, Billboard is counting down our staff picks for the top 10 pop stars of 2022 all this week. At No. 9, we remember the year in Future — who, after a full decade of rap superstardom, posted the best numbers of his career in 2022.

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Future didn’t really need a year like 2022. After a decade of hip-hop eminence — over which time he released a career’s worth of game-changing albums, mixtapes and singles, shifted (and largely defined) the sound of the 2010s, and helped officially cement Atlanta as rap’s new cultural center — he had nothing left to prove, commercially or artistically. If he’d continued catering to a dwindling but devoted fanbase and just popping up in the mainstream every so often with a one-off single or well-placed guest verse, his place in history would still have been secure. Instead, he crashed the year with both the best-performing album and single of his storied career, thumbing his nose at any assumed later-career journeyman status and shooting himself back into the MVP race.

The soothsayer born Nayvadius Wilburn got off the year to the right start in January with a pair of appearances on ATL acolyte Gunna’s Billboard 200-topping LP DS4Ever — most notably on “Pushin P,” the album’s lead single. The first major rap hit of 2022, the song’s woozy beat, steely calm and instant catchphrase of a title track electrified audiences, debuting in the Billboard Hot 100‘s top 10 and spending three months in the top 40. Though the song belonged to Gunna’s album, its success was owed heavily to Future — both in terms of the song’s sonic DNA and purple prose descending directly from the Wizard’s early-’10s output, and via Future boasting many of the song’s most memorable lyrics, including the particularly indelible “She not a lesbian, but for P, she turn Pesbian.”

But the moment that really set the tone for Future’s 2022 came in April, when the headline for a GQ cover story (penned by venerated longtime hip-hop journalist Elliott Wilson) simply proclaimed him the Best Rapper Alive. It was a conversation-starting title: While he’d scored some hits this decade, few would say Future really entered the year at the top of his game (or at the top of the game), and while his mastery on the mic has never been in question, he wasn’t generally the kind of verbal technician usually discussed for such superlatives. But still, his defenders countered, in terms of overall impact, legend and mystique, who among active and relevant rappers could really contend with Future Hendrix? The debate ultimately served as the perfect jumping-off point for his new album era, which was coming sooner than fans realized.

Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2022:
Introduction & Honorable Mentions | Rookie of the Year: Steve Lacy | Comeback of the Year: Sam Smith | No. 10: Nicki Minaj

In fact, Future used the GQ cover as more than just a hype-builder for his I Never Liked You album, released a week and a half later on April 29 — he even picked one of the story’s photos for the set’s cover, a striking image of the rapper in a purple suit and matching purple visor, presumably passed out in a car’s back seat. The casual opulence and emotional detachment of the photo made for a perfect lead image to I Never Liked You, which leaned into Future’s increasingly trumpeted Toxic King brand, satisfying fans with its coldly unsentimental and unimpressed attitude towards romance (with a couple notable exceptions) and presumed responsible adult behavior in general. The album was a huge success, becoming his eighth No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and moving 222,000 equivalent units in its first week — not only the best debut of his career, but the best of any 2022 album to that point, bringing an extremely slow-starting year for big pop releases to an overdue end.

Much of that success was undoubtedly due to its lead single, “Wait for U.” The presence of Drake as a guest on the melodic track practically guaranteed its blockbuster status, as the superstar duo had previously teamed up on two of the biggest rap hits of the early ’20s (“Life Is Good” in 2020 and the Hot 100-topping “Way 2 Sexy” in 2021), as well as the entirety of the epochal What a Time to Be Alive teamup album in 2015. But it was the sample of a live version of rising Afrobeats star Tems’ 2020 EP cut “Higher” — prominent enough to earn her a feature credit — that gave the single its backbone, its heart, and perhaps most stunningly given its ice-cold parent album, its warmth. “Wait” debuted atop the Hot 100, giving Future his first No. 1 on the chart as a lead artist, and stuck around for the rest of the year, also growing into a monster on radio with its 13-week run besting Billboard‘s Hip-Hop/R&B Airplay chart.

Future could have kept quiet and coasted on the success of his smash album and single from there, but he stayed prolific on the guest front, scoring Hot 100 hits supporting Megan Thee Stallion (“Presurelicious”), DJ Khaled (“Beautiful” and “Big Time”) and Lil Baby (“From Now On”). The rapper ended the year with 27 entries on the chart in 2022, while “Wait for U” finished at No. 13 on the Year-End Hot 100 and I Never Liked You came in at No. 12 on the Year-End Billboard 200. He also stayed visible in the live realm, particularly through his association with the Rolling Loud festival, headlining incarnations of the fest in New York, Miami, Toronto and even Portugal in 2022. And he’s ending the year as he began it — with a star turn on a fellow ATLien’s Billboard 200-topping album in Metro Boomin’s Heroes & Villains, including a scene-stealing appearance on a top 10 Hot 100 hit in “Superhero (Heroes & Villains).”

For many rap fans, Future’s early-to-mid ’10s peak run — where he was simply one of the most impactful and ubiquitous music-makers on the planet — represents a career high to never again be equaled by him, or by nearly any other current artist. But 2022 re-established Future as one of the leading hitmakers and voices in popular music, giving added credence to that GQ honor while dispelling any notion that the rap great was on his way to becoming a catalog artist, mostly around to celebrate past achievements. As he reminded Ciara in the “Body Party” video a decade ago, they don’t call him the Future for no reason.

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