Track by track: Drake & Future’s What a Time to Be Alive

Okay, let’s do this.

It’s 2015, the year of our Lord, and we are about to collectively be a part of something huge. Two superstars, together at last, sharing the main stage. Two superstars, teaming up to release a joint mixtape that was inevitable, yet seemingly arrived out of nowhere.

If you are a fan of hip hop, and I mean a true fan of hip hop, then you will surely understand that 2015 has been an absolute stunner of a year for the genre. I’m certainly not the first to think this. And I’m sure that as the year passes, I won’t be the last (awaiting: Kanye West, Drake, Frank Ocean, Future, Young Thug, Fetty Wap, Pusha T, Q-Tip, Jay Electronica, Run the Jewels, Lil Wayne, the list goes on…).

Yep, it sure is a good time to be alive. If we look at the year so far, enormous and critically heralded releases from Kendrick Lamar, Vince Staples, Dr. Dre, Young Thug, Future, Drake, Earl Sweatshirt, Lupe Fiasco and countless others have made rap one of the main critical focuses of 2015. Most of this, really, is from the hype and reaction to To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar’s sensational follow-up to his seminal debut album good kid, m.A.A.d city. This release surprised critics and fans with its sheer audacity, scope, relevance (politically and sonically), and its overall confidence. It is now the highest rated hip hop album on Metacritic, with a near-perfect score of 96. The effect this alone will have on the rap game over the next 12 months will be huge and no doubt exciting to watch.

But that’s not exactly what we’re here to talk about. If we observe closely the nexus of rappers surrounding Lamar on the critical hype of 2015, Drake and Future would have to be pretty near to the center. Few other rappers have been as relevant and consistent over the last year as this pair. Drake and Future have maintained a constant and increasing quality stream of music with unbelievable prolificacy since at least late 2013, and both seem to be peaking in 2015.

First, Drake released the hot, surprise mixtape If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, baffling fans with bangers “thrown out” from his much-hyped studio record View From the 6. Drizzy has also consistently garnered headlines with his very public and still ongoing beef with Meek Mill, which in itself produced some spectacular music from the 6 God.

As for Future? Well, he’s been in another universe completely. Following his break up from Ciara the trap king has had a creative streak unlike anything else, delivering two stunning mixtapes and the internet-breaking, straight up wonderful Dirty Sprite 2. Of course, DS2’s lead single “Where Ya At?” (featuring Drake) could be seen as a precursor to this project. The quality and quantity of output from Future and Drake has made them the two most fascinating figures in hip hop in 2015, and their names are near impossible to ignore.

So, naturally, when rumors started circling that the pair would be united for an entire album, the internet lost its collective mind. We were finally informed by the 6 God himself, that the album will be in fact be out on September 20, just in time for the Emmys! The collective gasp of excitement from music fans the world over could almost be heard from space.

But hey, we’re here now, and the album has been out for a while, and I’ve been trying manically to document this epic happening. This is a pretty big moment, in my life at least. Drake and Future are two of the most played artists on my iPod and their input into the 2015 pop culture cannon has made my life just a little bit more exciting. Also, I’ve no doubt that collectively they’ll have three or four albums in my top 20 by the end of the year. So yeah, I’m obsessed, and both artists resonate with me few other have over the last year or so.

So with its shiny and gorgeous diamond Shutterstock album art loaded on my iPod and ready to go and with hype bursting at the seams, let us break down the spontaneous Future and Drake mixtape What a Time to Be Alive.

Upon first listen, What a Time to be Alive boasts predictable fare from both rappers. Neither channels this record as their opus but both bring enough enthusiasm and energy to not make this project a complete throwaway. Throughout the record Drake seems to be trying to mimic Future and rarely the other way around. It is pretty obvious that the majority of these songs were probably written for Future but Drake almost always brings enough energy to shift the attention fairly evenly between the pair.

“Digital Dash” is a pretty fire opener and a great way to get the “Celebrating the Rap Game of 2015” party started. Boasting bold sirens that whirl and circulate the brain, both rappers deliver great verses and Metro Boomin makes his presence known, as it should be. Most of the album plays out like this track does: back and forth freestyle verses that are repetitive but also rather catchy and never boring.

 “’Cause 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.” – Drake.

On the second track, “Big Rings”, Drake seemingly explains the entire purpose of this record and for his and Future’s prolificacy throughout the last 48 months: he and his squad love expensive shit. Throughout this short club-style banger, Drake reiterates the importance of dollars in all of his pursuits, thrusting himself higher on the rap pedestal with yet another impressive ego-rap akin to tracks 2-6 on If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late.

Like the best cuts from that aforementioned mixtape, Drake sounds hungriest when he’s talking about himself and particularly his stardom. It’s what makes both him and Future such interesting and relevant rappers today. In these social media times it’s easy for these guys to be so blatantly self-referential and honest. Their online presence enables fans the closest glimpse of celebrity we’ve ever experienced and these two play up their roles on their various social media platforms perfectly.

“Big Rings” is probably one of Drake’s best moments on What a Time to Be Alive. However, like most tracks on the record, his input pales in comparison to that of Future. By now it should be obvious to most that Future is just a far better working rapper; he has dropped more hit singles in the last 18 months than most rappers manage in an entire career. Apparently the dude can smash out several songs a night, which explains why they all kind of sound the same. However, what ultimately works about Future and his ethos is that there is more than enough emotive breadth to his personality and performance to keep the music reeling and entertaining throughout this unbelievable creative streak.

“Live from the Gutter” is the album’s hottest track and features one of Future’s most emotive verses of the year. This song has a real post-Yeezus vibe to it, with both Future and Drake testing out violent screams over the minimal and bass-heavy beat. Future’s entire verse runs unabridged for nearly two-minutes; the rapper mixing up his flow with the kind of experimental dexterity typically heard during Lil Wayne’s freakiest moments. Future paints the scene of the trap house, waking up and seeing scales, naked women and drugs everywhere. In a particularly emotive twist, he describes the scene as “hell” furthering the fascinating push/pull that seems to be keeping Future and his characters equally hungry and melancholy for the high life.

Following the fire triplet that opens the album, “Diamonds Dancing” is a giant step backward and the album’s only major failure. It’s a messy, disproportionate and rather cheesy ballad that is somehow worse than the Drake stinker “Preach” (sorry, not sorry). Also, frustratingly, it’s the longest song on the album (by over a minute) and the pair is seemingly attempting to reach for some kind of epic-ballad status that is missed by quite a margin. (Pitchfork apparently really like the track. Am I missing something here?)

Thankfully, after that hiccup, the rest of the album sails by smoothly. Unfortunately, nothing on the last half is as quite as good as the first three tracks on What a Time to Be Alive (except the final song); however, there’s certainly enough quality to get a hyped listener through to Drake’s stunning album closer.

“Scholarships” has gorgeous sound design and some pretty solid verses from both but feels too short compared to some of the other tracks on here that feel really overblown.

“Plastic Bag” is typical 2015 Drizzy and Future fare and is probably one of the most evenly matched, as far as quality bars are concerned. It’s a Drake ballad all the way – somber ruminations about life in the fast lane. Future steals the show on the second verse, delivering a totally unique take on Drake’s opening bars. These stylistically different verses prove how totally unique the two performers are.

Drake always turns it up on What a Time to Be Alive but his verse on “I’m the Plug” is one of the few times he seems to be matching Future with his flow and lyrical skill. This is mostly because Future sounds like he is still sleeping, likely dozing away in the corner of the recording booth, Styrofoam cup still in hand. Unfortunately, Drizzy isn’t given the time to develop and deliver a lengthy verse and again the freestyle-like flow feels cut short. It’s a shame, but is totally understandable given the amount of time spent on the project and its throwaway nature (at least compared to other hyped forthcoming releases from both artists).

 “Change Locations” sounds heaps like “Furtherst Thing” from Nothing Was the Same. It’s a cool beat and Drake’s “me and my friends we got money to spend” hook is distinct enough for “Change Locations” to not sound like a direct copy. Future’s again steals the show with his verses here, taking this song so far away from any world Drake has previously occupied that it doesn’t really matter.

“Jumpan” is the last of the songs featuring both rappers. A really good thinkpiece by Grantland has already been written about the song so instead of delving into it too much further here, just read that. I will say, however, that “Jumpman” is the only other track outside of the opening three that’ll suit single release. The eerie beat (complete with a crow caw) is reminiscent of Three-6 Mafia and both rappers play scary and violent to match.

The final two tracks on What a Time to Be Alive are reserved for solo efforts from both Future and Drake, respectively. Future’s track “Jersey” is up first and is probably one of the most throwaway songs of the rapper’s recent career. Despite a mildly catchy chorus, the barely three-minute runtime disallows the rapper the ability to experiment on his lyrical ideas and flow. It’s rather disappointing compared with much else we’ve heard from the rapper recently but it is still a pretty bloody good track, considering.

Finally, for the last track on the album “30 for 30 Freestyle”, Drake’s up on some personal shit again. Man, if this song is actually a freestyle I am thoroughly impressed. Drake’s just laying it all down, spitting about his life and celebrity with perfect diction and timing and I’m hooked on every single fucking word. I highly doubt that this is a freestlyle, given its sheer quality both in terms of flow and lyricism, but maybe I’m just not giving Papi enough credit. Regardless, “30 for 30 Freestyle” is Drake at his finest and is the best way to round off this extremely decent record.

I was never really expecting What a Time to Be Alive to be huge or anything. I was excited to see what it was going to be, but given the throwaway nature of the release and the swiftness of its execution, my expectations were pretty low. (I definitely spent way too much time writing this.)

But hey, I’m certainly going to enjoy listening to this record again and again, even though I’ve already heard it at least a dozen times. The consistent, quality beats, bars and presence of these two figures (who’s voices I’ve likely heard more than any other human on this planet this year!) is more than enough to bring me back for at least a dozen extra listens.

Beast Mode took about three or four listens for me to fully absorb and to admire the nuances of Zaytoven’s textures and Future’s flow. Nothing Was the Same took even longer. So I guess as time passes we will see just how throwaway this project actually is.

Enough people are definitely going to hate on this, anyway. Plenty probably already have. Personally, I’m presently on the fence: slightly underwhelmed but still kind of into it. Regardless, I’m thankful for the Drake and Future 2015 victory lap: What a Time to Be Alive.

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