‘What A Time To Be Alive’ Wasn’t a Collaboration, It Was a Battle for 2015—and Future Won

 
Give these niggas the look, the verse and even the hook/That’s why every song sound like Drake-featuring
— Drake

Here at Cypher Magazine, we’re proud to bring you three distinct takes on What A Time To Be Alive which evaluate the project both as an album and as a statement on the current state of hip hop culture. Scope the other two here

Remember when Drake rapped that line in 2013, on “5AM in Toronto”? Remember afterwards, when it came true?

Like him or hate him, you can’t deny that over the last couple of years Drake’s been on a run of insane features. He’s turned songs by the likes of weird-rap sad boy ILoveMakonnen (“Tuesday”), goofy machine-gun spitters Migos (“Versace”), and west-coast straight-shooter YG (“Who Do You Love”) into radio hits and frat party staples across the country. In the process, the self-proclaimed 6 God has inspired countless thinkpieces about the “Drake effect” across the internet.

But the truth of Drake-featuring-Drake didn’t just come from the weight that his cosign carries. It came from a repeated pattern of turning other rappers’ songs into his own. He would outshine you on your own track, and artists were willing to put up with that for the exposure. That’s been the status quo, life in the rap game during the reign of Drake.

That’s not to say that the reign of Drake is over. If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late was a commercial and critical success, and we’re still eagerly awaiting Views from the Six. But when you listen to his new collaboration with Future—What A Time to Be Alive—you might, like me, stop for a second and think: what happened to Drake-featuring-Drake?

Despite its lack of promotion, the album had internet-rap weirdos like yours truly salivating at the smallest of rumors. Drake is obviously a megastar, the darling of everyone whose musical tastes fall somewhere between Taylor Swift and Joey Badass on the vast spectrum of pop sweetness. Future, on the other hand, is an Atlanta mumble-rap weirdo on the run of his life following his disappointing sophomore album Honest, with three acclaimed mixtapes followed by Dirty Sprite 2 (an unprecedented success for 18 tracks of trap music that are mostly free of the poppy hooks and attention-grabbing features that marked his previous albums). If Drake is the man of the hour, then Future is the man of the moment. The idea of a collaborative album between the two had rap fans with hearts in their eyes—and studio execs with dollar signs in theirs, considering Future’s reach into the codeine-lined belly of (t)rap and Drake’s out into the fresh air of the pop market.

Even when Drake makes a tape with the other hottest rapper of the year, you still expect him to shine. But—as everyone’s noticed—What A Time To Be Alive sounds more like Future-featuring-Drake than Drake-featuring-Drake. Sometimes it even sounds like Future-featuring-Future.

Future gets more total rapping time on the tape, and controls most of the best songs. More importantly, Future maintains his reputation for consistency, delivering verses of about the same quality as he has all year. On the other hand, when Drake shares the track with Future, with two exceptions—”Scholarships” and “I’m The Plug”—his verses are disappointing. If anything, Hendrix is dragged down by Drake’s presence, which makes the tape less cohesive than the Atlanta rapper’s recent projects. Meanwhile Drake coasts, riding the wave of Super Future’s aesthetic and charisma.

A lot of that has to do with the album’s production. Most of the beats are by Metro Boomin, an Atlanta producer and long-time Future collaborator. The only track on the album that sounds like the Drake we know is “30 for 30 Freestyle,” the album’s closer and Drizzy’s only solo effort, produced by Noah “40” Shebib, OVO’s in-house producer and Drake’s sonic muse.

But during Drake’s remix run, he was notorious for being able to hop onto tracks and take them over. ILoveMakonnen and Migos, two of the acts previously mentioned, are from Atlanta, like Future, and work with the same set of producers as Future does. So what happened?

Future’s dominance of Drake on the tape arises from a disparity in charisma between the two. Future is in his comfort zone, rapping about his usual topics: lean, women, Atlanta, his team. Drake, talking about the same stuff—mentioning Magic City, DJ Esco, Metro Boomin, even Young Scooter—sounds less like the rap juggernaut that we know he is, and more like a high school student flattering the cool kids. He even drops a line about drinking lean—“Uh-uh-uh I think I need some Robitussin”—that rings about as true as Steve Carell’s classic line about “bags of sand” in The 40 Year Old Virgin.

In fairness to Drake, some of these misfires might be attributed to the recording process, a rushed six days in Dog Tree studio. Future is part of a generation of relentlessly productive workhorses, centered in Atlanta—Young Thug, Gucci Mane, Migos—who work improvisationally, recording hundreds of songs and skimming the cream off the top for their tapes. Most of them also proudly declare that they don’t write down their lyrics. In “30 for 30 Freestyle,” Drake’s strongest effort on the tape, he raps that he “wrote this shit on a bumpy flight on a summer night.” Not only did he work in Atlanta, with producers from Atlanta, but he also worked within the characteristic artistic process of the Atlanta rappers. That’s an admirable show of confidence on Drake’s part. He gave Future homefield advantage for the battle for 2015, assuming that Goliath would beat David regardless, and he was wrong.

Drake’s weakness on the tape might just be a fluke, an accident of circumstances. Or it could be something else—the end of Chameleon Drake, who can be a paranoid king and a simpering R&B romantic and, in his latest incarnation, a hard-trapping Atlanta lean-sipper, flitting about from this niche to that niche with no one questioning his authenticity. It was his dominance—his catchiness, his rapping skill, his ability to turn tracks into Drake-featuring-Drake—that gave him that untouchability in the first place, and his undisputed ethering of Meek Mill this summer cemented it. As Future Hendrix says on “Jersey,” You do what you want when you poppin’. Maybe Drake’s losing that invincibility. Or maybe Super Future is just starting to reach it.

 
Alex Oka