Among the many soon-to-be anthems of both success and loathing on Future's new self-titled album, it's "Mask Off" that's grabbed the hive by the collars. It's a Future Hendrix ballad–reflective, astute, poetic–and those are always standouts, but it may just be the Metro Boomin-produced beat that's sealed its place in the realm of Future's classics. While Metro and the rest of Future's producers typically favour FL Studio-created original compositions rather than traditional sampling. "Mask Off" prominently features a sample loop, a much memed-on flute melody, which gives the song an old-school flavour that's similar to other Hendrix ballads like "Married to the Game." This particular sample has a history, though, one that's vaguely tied to America's civil rights history.
The song that "Mask Off" samples is called "Prison Song." It was written and performed by a playwright named Tommy Butler in 1978 as part of his musical Selma. Retelling the 60s civil rights movement and the life of Martin Luther King, Selma featured a basis of funk, soul, and gospel for its music, collected on an eponymous double soundtrack album. While the musical itself opened to disparaging reviews from the New York Times, the soundtrack managed to live on and seems to have become a minor crate-digging classic for beatmakers. Felt (a supergroup of Minneapolis duo Atmosphere and LA's Murs), Kool G Rap, and Method Man have lived in its grooves. Producing for Felt, Ant flipped "Prison Song" in 2005, 12 years before Future did, although he was also beaten to the punch by Swedish rap group Looptroop, who sampled it in 2000.
The fact that these are pristine, funky recordings on an obscure release are most likely why Selma found a second life among producers, but Meth took note of the pro-black sentiments and recontextualized them for "Uh Huh"'s intro. Felt didn't. When Ant sampled "Prison Song" for Felt's "Woman Tonight," he focused on two sung lines from which the later song derives its title. In true Slug fashion (despite his only rapping half the song) "Woman Tonight" concerns girl problems, and the analog warmth of the sample fits Ant's toolkit, so nothing's too out of the ordinary there. Recognizable samples are unusual for Metro, so the use of a traditionally-leaning (the drums are for modern audiences) hip-hop beat for "Mask Off," especially a break that's been around as much as "Prison Song," can be read as a move towards an older style of authenticity. It couches one of Future's vulnerable moments in the kind of beat that people used to be called "backpackers" over, but also one that any rapper can hear and recognize as demanding of emotional investment on their part even when removed from the original song's heavy topics.
"Mask Off" is not nearly as political as "Prison Song," nor does it attempt to be. It's just Future expressing how great and miserable it is to be Future, which always sounds good. But samples bring with them context as well as mood and texture. Using a classic break like "Synthetic Substitution" is a nod in the direction of giants past, it's understanding the history of the culture that is being contributed to. Likewise, the mournful tone of the "Prison Song" intro becomes more so once its original subject is known. There's nothing overtly or intentionally profound about Metro's choice of politically loaded source material for "Mask Off," but it's cool that this extremely subtle, unintentional nod to civil rights came out during Black History Month. And again, the use of a sample is new territory for Future that may point to what could be expected of the upcoming HNDRXX, which the rapper is touting as the album he's truly wanted to make. We'll have to see come Friday.
Phil is a Noisey staff writer. He's on Twitter.