Photo courtesy of Derek Hui for Noisey
On paper, What A Time To Be Alive is one of the best things to happen to rap music in 2015, with two artists who have had great individual years coming together to produce a collaborative effort. Drake’s album from February remains the only release in 2015 to achieve platinum status, and Future has released three excellent projects that have reignited his original fan base with Beast Mode, 56 Nights, and Dirty Sprite 2.
The end result is 11 songs that sound like B-sides from DS2 with a healthy peppering of Drake verses thrown on top. The album leans more toward Future’s safe space, with his go-to producers Metro Boomin and Southside having produced a lion’s share of the tape; in contrast, frequent Drake collaborators 40 and Boi 1da only appear once each. Drake may have one of the most commercially successful releases of the year, but Future has the people’s hearts. For an artist as adaptable and paranoid of failure as Drake, a collaborative album seems like an assured path to being stress-free. Yet while combining his powers with Future may look like another page from Drake’s 48 Laws of Power playbook in his quest to conquer rap (and force Meek Mill into isolation), it fails in its method of having Drake suck the power out of a popular act to use it to his own ends. He was able to do it with Migos, Makonnen, and almost Fetty Wap, but his work with Future may mark the first non-win Drake has received in a long time.
What A Time To Be Alive doesn’t sound like an equal collaboration, but that isn’t to rob it of any of its appeal. Though the beats weren’t made from scratch with input from both parties and there isn’t much back and forth outside of some vocalizing on “Diamonds Dancing” and “Big Rings,” it’s still objectively fun to listen to. Unlike Watch the Throne, which sounded very collaborative—likely due to Kanye and Jay Z recording it together in various hotel rooms—the finished songs on What A Time To Be Alive sound almost like they were recorded separately. This lack of seamless sonic cohesion may come from this album being rushed, as Drake himself admitted when he debuted the record by playing it twice on OVO Sound Radio. "I went to Atlanta for six days a couple weeks ago with the hopes of doing some songs with Future. When you get around Future, it's like a vortex, that guy can outwork anybody right now," Drake said. "It's tough to see someone do four, five songs in one night and not try to match it."
It’s rare that we see the typically calculated Drake have to play catch-up, but Future’s accelerated work ethic and ability to draw from pertinent real-life scenarios may have put the 6 God on uneasy footing. Drake typically takes artists who potentially pose as threats into his own home before suffocating them with his velvet pillow, assuring that he remains constantly in control throughout. This was seen slightly at the start of his career when he would have 40 tweak the beat of his part of the remix, and now more heavily in his current reign where he puts an artist’s remix on his OVO Soundcloud, promising himself a new crop of young fans with each released remix. Every time Drake reached out to another artist it was calculated, especially since more often than not, the scale was lopsided in his favor. But on What A Time To Be Alive, Drake may have miscalculated Future’s abilities: He was outmaneuvered and outperformed on every song they appeared on together, suggesting that maybe Drake was not the dominant force he claimed to be.
The relationship between Future and Drake appears mutual: An album with the biggest rapper in the world can certainly benefit Future as he continues to bounce ever-higher in his rebound from Honest, while Drake is able to latch onto the hottest rapper of the moment as he prepares to release his long-promised breakout project Views From the 6. But Drake had more to lose going into this project than Future did, and he ended up accidentally showcasing his weaknesses as a result.
Drake’s appeal comes partially from the calculated way he approaches ideas and references to make them into something easily appreciated and consumed. It’s the reason that those Quentin Miller reference tracks that Meek Mill released could never be pop songs in the same way they are under Drake’s guidance: He knows how to say the words in a way that makes them stick to the inside of your brain for the rest of the week in a way that not many artists can. On the other side of the spectrum, Future continues to mush-mouth his way through lyrics in a way that feels purposefully inaccessible. Future doesn’t care if you understand every single bar he raps, but he guarantees that you’ll hear the emotion behind the words, even if they sound foreign.
Photo via Instagram
Future communicates feelings of loss, despair, and fatalism in his lyrics, while Drake just knows how to mimic those feelings and replicate them, complete with a glossy and sellable sheen. When Future raps how he’s “Straight up out the gutter, never had shit / Now we got 90210 on our address” you want to celebrate with him, but when Drake starts his verse by announcing that he’s “Reporting live from the gutter, I will buy this motherfucker / It’s not even a discussion” it’s corny and groan-worthy, despite it being the same sentiment. Drake is able to hide undercooked bars (“I be in the club with the bands / Like I got the keyboard and the drums with me”) by burying them between powerful Future offerings. After you finish listening to ten of the 11 songs on the album, you get the feeling that Drake’s limits have been exposed more than his strengths. Drake knows how to share feelings, but Future’s has the benefit of being able to pull from an emotional register that Drake doesn’t have access to. On “Digital Dash” while Future raps about sleeping on the floor and fighting his demons with pharmaceuticals, Drake talks about dating a girl that makes more money than him and how she reminds him of a quarterback because “that shit is all in the past.”
The party-having, good times focused Drake from If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is still in full swing on this project, and, to his credit, the parts where he decides to use his voice and enunciation to full effect are some of the most accessible points on the album. “Jumpman” is full of enough catchy whoops and crow squawks to force you into nodding your head, but it’s tarnished by Drake’s lame request for Robitussin to help with his fake “cough,” especially when juxtaposed with the very-real codeine addiction that Future raps about in the next verse. Similarly, “Big Rings” would be a great song if it were on Drake’s If You're Reading This It's Too Late but it almost feels tone deaf when Future slides in talking about how he almost died from drinking lean. Although Drake is still a skilled craftsman when it comes to producing chart-friendly hip-hop, Future is still more fun to listen to. Who else could make buying out all the bottles at the chain location sound so endearing?
On the parts of the album that don’t sound like Drake is forcibly being made to have fun, the closest he comes to resonating on the same emotional level as Future is on “30 for 30,” the last track on the album, the sole one produced by 40, which starts by Drake detailing the Illuminati-esque meeting that was held to assure his downfall. It’s a poignant song in which Drake talks about listening to his 19-year-old self rapping all “wide-eyed and uneducated” on “Closer to My Dream.” That song from Drake’s Comeback Season talked about how badly Drake wanted to be famous, but it also took a very surface level inspection of fame (I'mma meet a lot of women I'mma do a lot of shoppin') that probably looks foolish now that Drake has seen what being the most successful artist in the world can bring, paranoia and all. If Drake is able to continue down this rabbit hole of discussing what he thought fame would be compared to it’s ugly reality, there may still be hope for Views From the 6. Otherwise, Drake may find himself continuously playing catchup to artists like Future, who makes music that’s possessive and makes you feel something. It’s not a loss for Drake, but with the run that he’s recently been on, anything besides an outright win feels like a step in the wrong direction.
Slava Pastuk is the Editor of Noisey Canada. Follow him on Twitter.