A version of this review has been published by the blog Pretty Much Amazing, which you can read here.
In case you missed it, here’s the news from this month: The immigration crisis in Europe intensifies, Donald Trump’s presidency bid included a misogynistic attack on Carly Fiorina, Pope Francis travels to the richest country in the world to debate issues of inequality and poverty, Rikers Island guards cover up assaults on inmates, multiple wildfires rage in California, frat bros charged with murder in a hazing death, and retired tennis player James Blake gets tackled by the NYPD while minding his business in Midtown. And through all of this madness, Drake and Future were still able to put on their superhero capes when they released their highly-anticipated collaborative project, What a Time to Be Alive after recording in Atlanta for just six days.
But less than two years ago, Drake and Future’s relationship was anything but sweet. It soured after it was reported that the Atlanta rapper had made a disparaging comment to Billboard about Drake’s Nothing Was the Same. What followed was a mess: Drake reportedly told his agent that either “Future gets fired, or he’ll fire him,” Future getting the boot from Drake’s nationwide Would You Like a Tour? and subsequently threatening to take legal action after citing lost wages. The comment? Nothing Was the Same is an album “full of hits but it doesn’t grab you.” Not entirely inaccurate. They eventually made up—collaborated on “Never Satisfied” off of Future’s sophomore album, Honest, a conspicuously incomplete song bookended by a mid-chorus fade out from Drake—teasing at something potentially greater was the works between two rap superstars. Enter What a Time to Be Alive, a collection of songs recorded after Drake’s impromptu retreat to Atlanta’s Tree Sound Studios, the creative breeding ground that conceived Future’s DS2 over the summer, turned into a temporary home for unbridled creativity.
Although What a Time has quickly garnered unfair comparisons to Watch the Throne, way before it was even released to the general public, unlike Jay Z and Kanye West neither Drake nor Future sounds like they’re trying to jump over each other to get to the microphone. Instead, each rapper here gives the other plenty of room to think clearly, breathe easy, lay down crisp verses, deliver hooks for mantras, which ultimately outlines a final product with enough structural variety to keep the listener engaged despite being recorded in less than week. Jay Z and Kanye? Well, they almost couldn’t complete Watch the Throne, having been at each others throats during the year-long recording sessions. And at forty minutes, What a Time offers just enough time for both Drake and Future to get some things off of their chest: “When I was sleepin’ on the floor you should’a seen how they treat me,” Future laminates on “Digital Dash”; “Back in the city, shit is getting brutal,” Drake reflects on his hometown on “30 for 30 Freestyle”. “This shit shouldn’t’a never happened,” Future proclaims in a video previewing What a Time, and it’s summer’s end with Mercury apparently being in retrograde, too. That’s an awful lot to deal with, so it makes all the more sense for these artists to expunge their internal conflicts together in order to move forward as men.
Indeed, What a Time to Be Alive works best when wunderkind producer Metro Boomin stirs the pot by his lonesome. The first sounds you hear on the project—trademark “Metro Boomin want some more” tag notwithstanding—are icy synth raindrops on “Digital Dash,” which suddenly connected with low-end bass rumbles, acerbic hi-hats, and slicing screeches from God-knows-where. It’s easy to see why Future has kept Metro in his pocket: His spacious production is equally playful as much as it is acrimonious. His early beats were heavily indebted to Lex Luger, but Metro has since graduated with honors from his school of baroque trap. The Wagner-esque horns have been replaced by monolithic key slabs; ranging from serrated pixels to a string of smooth welterweight punches. Although tracks like “Big Rings” won’t change the definition of a “banger” anytime soon, it does leave many beats currently in the Top 40 charts’ rotation in the dust, and both Future and Drake know this as they exchange a bevy of menacing verses over Metro’s battle hymns. And there’s very few rappers out who could sound as convincing as Future does rapping lines like “I run with kidnappers, I’m talkin’ ’bout kidnappers/ I’m talkin’ ’bout murderin’ niggas, I’m talkin’ ’bout carjackers” atop a mountain of Metro rumbles.
There’s also surprisingly a handful of nuance on What a Time to Be Alive, mostly in Future’s lyrics. Since he rejuvenated his career late last October, he’s been carefully tinkering with his entire approach to getting inside the booth, let alone with how he delivers words. The booth has always felt like something of a pulpit for Future, and he’s delivering words to those who’re willing to actually listen, because frankly they’re worth hearing. Future’s lyrics also not only bring to light his internal struggles, but those that plague his community (“Cuban links hanging on my wrist, I was on welfare”; “I see hell everywhere” on “Live from the Gutter”). Drake mostly plays second fiddle and that’s totally fine. In fact, somewhat commendable from the culturally relevant rapper. His solo track, “30 for 30 Freestyle” while nice, arrives late to the party. He employs his trademark rap-talk and musings of making the most of himself in a crazy world (“I just got me the Mercedes Pullman/ You niggas never heard of it, you gotta hit up Google”). Although certainly a nice end to What a Time, it ultimately feels like a Kumbaya moment.
But the moment Drake pressed play on Apple Music’s Beats 1 radio show on Sunday, and What a Time a Time to Be Alivespilled out over every live listener’s sound system, the world—even if for under an hour—came together. Twitter in particular exploded, memes poured out, fans discussed it on message boards, and somehow the diamond emoji all of a sudden became synonymous with the rap project. In the end, What a Time reminds us that music is best when it’s enjoyed when you’re in the company of others. It’s a project that demands that the listener live vicariously through it (“Me and my friends we got money to spend” x5) and looks to give hope through music to those willing to listen. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s been a rough September, remind yourself what a time it is to be alive with Drake and Future.