You want to be on Drake’s side. As Meek Mill learned this summer after firing ghostwriting allegations Drake’s way, the view of Drizzy as a “softy” is (at least partly) an illusion. Both “Charged Up” and “Back to Back” were diss songs colder than Meek’s “Wanna Know”, and Drake’s consensus win in the feud confirmed what the muscular songs of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late suggested. His years at the top of the rap world have made him fearless, a temperament that comes through in blunt flows and hard beats. There’s no definitive proof that Drizzy has even reached the apex of his career, but he makes sure everyone knows he hasn’t fallen off an inch, making rap his own grand spectacle in the process.
Future is on Drake’s side, but to be fair, Drizzy is reaping rewards from this partnership, too. Future is Atlanta’s most fascinating rap star since Gucci Mane, largely due to his run as a mixtape messiah on the recent Monster, Beast Mode, and 56 Nights, which collectively marked the start of a new era for the now 31-year-old. He followed up that trio with July’s hugely popular DS2 album, officially transcending the street-level fame of Atlanta peers like Young Scooter and Peewee Longway. Forget making it rain at Magic City. He now causes cash to precipitate all over Europe, probably to the soundtrack of his own recent, charting singles (“Fuck Up Some Commas”, “Blow a Bag”, and the Drake-featuring “Where Ya At”).
So, as temporary rap duos go, this is roughly as exciting as Jay Z and Kanye West on Watch the Throne — plus, What a Time to Be Alive, recorded in Atlanta in six days, is thoroughly now, whereas Jay and Yeezy’s album pulled from everything from ’60s soul to dubstep. It also happens that, after collaborations like “Tony Montana”, “Never Satisfied”, and “Where Ya At”, Drake and Future are a complementary pair. Drake’s clarity brings Future’s darkness into focus, while Future cosigns Drake’s stabs at ATL rap traditions. By the numbers, What a Time to Be Alive is more of a Future project featuring Drake than vice versa, but every verse and hook still flows into the next. These guys sound good together, even if they don’t exactly have Mobb Deep levels of chemistry.
Of course, these being two of rap’s premier vocal stylists, there are plenty of Drake and Future signatures scattered across the mixtape’s runtime. There’s always Drake’s ability to sell lines that could be unforgivable in the wrong hands. “Me and my friends, we got money to spend,” he chants on “Change Locations”. Then there’s this, the chorus on “Big Rings”: “I got a really big team! And they need some really big rings! They need some really nice things! Better be coming with no strings!” Later, the Michael Jordan tribute “Jumpman” is so entrancing that it took me a few listens before I realized the chorus is actually a bit of wordplay: “Jumpman, Jumpman, Jumpman, them boys up to something!” Elsewhere, the chorus on “Diamonds Dancing” is like nothing you’ve heard from either Drake or Future, their voices intertwining like a twisted double helix.
Aside from hooks, we also get plenty of craftsmanship. Simply put, nobody does what Drake does when he jumps on “I’m the Plug”, going from fast and unflinching to smooth and melodic before you can even notice the shift. He has new brags, too: “I just found my tempo like I’m DJ Mustard, woo!” Meanwhile, Future gets mileage out of his own druggy rap/R&B hybrid, seamlessly fusing rapping and singing. He lives like a young Jordan Belfort, but his seriousness remains; he’s always at least peripherally aware of the misfortunes plaguing the Atlanta kids trying to come up like he did.
With beats from Metro Boomin, Southside, and 40, the tape is encased in immaculate production. If What a Time to Be Alive doesn’t age well, at least it sounds like perfection now, shifting from chilly, gothic boom (“Digital Dash”, “I’m the Plug”, “Jumpman”) to sparkling R&B (the close of “Diamonds Dancing”, “Plastic Bag”). The closer, “30 for 30 Freestyle”, a piano-shimmer of a Drake solo song similar to his “Paris Morton Music 2” and “6PM in New York”, seals What a Time as a carefully constructed project despite its quick recording process. The tape might be rap’s best-produced full-length since Dr. Dre’s Compton, despite having none of that album’s maximalism.
Though they both say plenty of Drake and Future-esque things, neither artist’s lyrical vision is fully present here. For one thing, the typically troubled Future sounds more content than usual. “A fiend for that lean, I ain’t even started drinking beer yet,” he raps on “Live from the Gutter”, which only begins to illustrate the drug habit he usually laments. Arguably, though, that’s just evidence that Drake has something more comprehensive on deck in Views from the 6, and ditto for Future’s next solo project. For now, What a Time is the sound of two of our biggest current pop figures using each other’s strengths to bring out their own.
Essential Tracks: “Digital Dash”, “Diamonds Dancing”, and “Jumpman”