On his second mixtape release this year, Drake teams up with Future for What a Time to Be Alive. Of course, Drake is basically a hip-hop demigod whereas Future is better known for his features on songs like “Love Me” and “PNF,” both of which happen to feature Drake as well. So why hook up with Future? The dude has hits but does he really have bars?
While What a Time took just seven days to complete with most of the production supervised by from Atlanta producer Metro Boomin (Honest, Skyfall, Tuesday) it’s a polished, cohesive body of work. But even though Metro and Future – also from Atlanta – have a long history of working together, this is still through and through a Drake album; he dominates every song with superior lyricism, style, and overall prowess.
Many of the enjoyable songs on What a Time to Be Alive tap the same vein that made songs like “Hotline Bling” and “Legend” radio hits. Drake’s rhyming is subdued; he appears less interested in rhymes and wordplay than he is in vocally evoking his emotions. On “Diamonds Dancing,” Drake takes the spotlight with a two-minute long outro. With synths swirling in the background, he croons: “How can you live with yourself / Ungrateful, ungrateful / Your momma be ashamed of you / I haven’t even heard from you, not a single word from you.” It’s an instant jam. I’m brought back to 11th grade, standing out in the pouring rain waiting for the love of my life to come outside. She never came.
A far cry from “Best I Ever Had,” Drake is no longer the lovey-dovey romantic he was back in 2008; he’s raw, unforgiving, and uninterested in love or women who want to take advantage of his money and fame. On the already-party-favorite “Jumpman,” Drake raps the refrain: “Jumpman, Jumpman, Jumpman, them boys up to something / Uh, uh, uh I think I need some Robitussin.” Future adds: “Nobu Nobu Nobu Nobu Nobu Nobu / I just throwed a private dinner in LA.” And who doesn’t love sushi??
Like so many today’s hip-hop artists, Drake and Future seem most comfortable when celebrating their superficiality: throwing money at the strip club, boarding private jets with an entourage, and, of course, sleeping with lots and lots of women. This celebration comes to a head on “Change Locations” where Drake’s hook is literally: “But tonight, me and my friends we got money to spend / Me and my friends we got money to spend.” It seems ludicrous that that could work as a song hook, but it actually does; Drake’s changing intonations and Metro Boomin’s muted, pulsing keyboard imbue Drake’s words with meaning. His confidence is unmatchable and undeterred.
But purposeful superficiality and well-executed beats don’t carry an entire album. At least not one of Drake’s. The guy has become notorious for being able to tout his accomplishments while also showing vulnerability and self-reflection in his lyrics. But on “Big Rings” Drake attempts to employ the same strategy he uses on “Change Locations” with very simple refrain: “Cause I got a really big team / And they need some really big rings / They need some really nice things.” This time, it doesn’t work. Whereas on “Change Locations” Drake contrasts the content of his lyrics – the spending of money – with a lilting and soft-spoken tone for an impassioned plea of sorts, the refrain on “Big Rings” is simply self-assertive without the dramatic changes in vocal intonation that draws the listener in to “Change Locations.”
Drake’s one saving grace is the last track on the album, “30 for 30 Freestyle” which forgoes Future and the Metro Boomin treatment for a beat created by Drake’s in-house producer and long time friend, Noah ‘40’ Shebib. The song sounds notably different than the rest of What a Time and is reminiscent of “Jungle” on If You’re Still Reading This. As a reversed vocal sample rewinds in the background – a classic ‘40’ sounds – Drake softly addresses the listener. Here, his confidence is more subtle, his tone more mellow. Addressing both a specific incident in which two young adults were shot and killed at an after-party he was sponsoring, as well as a national debate about gun-violence in America, Drake raps: “Kids are losin’ lives, got me scared of losing mine / And if I hold my tongue about it, I get crucified.” Drake continues to let the listener in on the particulars of his personal life: “Paternity testing for women that I never slept with / I’m legally obligated if they request it.” Finally opening up in the last minutes of the album’s runtime, “30 for 30” is the much needed breath of fresh air the album needs. It’s chockfull of deliciously worded self-reflection, perhaps most poignantly: “Wide eyed and uneducated at 19 / I can’t rap like that, all young and naïve.” As if speaking to the brashness that makes up the core components of What a Time, Drake explains to us why his music sounds the way it does. The effect of Drake’s intimacy is undeniable; all at once, Drake grounds his lyrics in the specific while still allowing us to relate to the universal feeling of change and human growth. “30 for 30” acts as a counter-weight to the rest of the songs, making it the most powerful track album.
While What a Time to Be Alive makes the most of its fast-tempo, southern-swangin’ music, it fails to excite either of its MCs. Future’s dirty-sprite (codeine) influenced accounts of wealth and power are fun but that’s all they are. His words trade substance and depth for dynamism and contemplation. And while some Drake’ lyrics employ passion and aggression where Future’s don’t, Drake mostly fails to create multi-layered and thought provoking music. Perhaps though, that’s part of the point. In a year of accomplishment after accomplishment for Drake, What a Time feels like a chance for the rapper to let off steam and polish his trophies. But while Drake and Future’s arrogance will play well with the weekly Coliseum goers, those of us that like our Drake with a side of heartache will be left wanting for more.
Stream the album below.