Drake and Future’s collaborative effort, What A Time to Be Alive, is both a sign of the music-industry times and a rejection of them. Most high-profile rap team-ups remain fan pipe dreams (Kendrick and J. Cole; Ghostface Killah and MF DOOM’s DOOMStarks) or emerge as overblown exercises of excess (R. Kelly and Jay-Z’s Best of Both Worlds installments; YMCMB’s Rich Gang: Tha Tour Pt. 1). But What A Time — recorded in real-time studio sessions, as opposed to transferred files — has actually manifested, and it’s a perfectly timed victory lap for two artists at the top of both their game and the game at this exact moment.
They’re both fresh off influential and acclaimed No. 1 albums (Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and Future’s DS2); they both traffic in moody styles that seem to make little difference between Auto-Tuned crooning and rapping. But undeniably, What A Time to Be Alive feels more like a Future album featuring Drake. It’s produced largely by trusted Future associate Metro Boomin and is thick with the confidently aggressive oozed trap aesthetic that Future’s been cultivating for the past year. It’s creepy and effective, but Drake’s pop sensibilities show on songs like “Plastic Bags” and “Diamonds Dancing,” which feel like soundtracks for drunk sex in public locations.
The chemistry works as expected, even if it never exceeds, or even reaches, the sum of its artists. There’s no transcendent moment here, because the project is essentially a meeting of opposites who mostly stay in their lanes. Both artists broadcast internal monologues of tangled self-loathing and mammoth boasts via meme-worthy exultations, but Future is about confession as therapy where Drake uses emotion as performance art. Future deals with personal demons that he tries, and fails, to drown in drugs; Drake is mostly about insecurities and feels of lesser gravity. To Future, women and luxury items are a trap that he can’t seem to get out of; to Drake they’re a well-deserved goal he’s constantly chasing.
On “Big Rings,” the album’s de facto title track, Drake brings self-congratulatory shit-talking and empty toasts: “I got a really big team/ And they need some really big rings/ They need some really nice things.” Meanwhile, Future is full of such pathos that he almost reads as a subliminal threat to his co-star: “I run with kidnappers/I’m talking’ about kidnappers/ I’m talking about murderin’ niggas/I’m talking’ about carjackers/ You just a battle rapper/ I’m an official trapper.” On “Live From the Gutter” Future is a tour guide expressing survivor’s remorse (”I see scales everywhere/ I see heroin everywhere… Just imagine you were livin’ lavish and they still there”), while Drake is a tourist, picking up girls to take home and basically inviting Chris Brown to jump in his Instagram comments by referencing his ex, Karrueche Tran, with a head-scratching chopsticks reference.
Ideologically, the two rappers finally meet on “Plastic Bag,” where the pair speak to strippers with condescending tones masked as respect: “Get a plastic bag/ Go ahead and pick up all the cash…/ You danced all night, girl/ You deserve it.” The inference is clear: Women will be lauded for excelling and exercising a limited amount of agency, as long as they accept their status as submissives. On “Change Locations, ” the two are back in strip club with “Sixty naked bitches, no exaggeration/ We bought all the bottles, had to change locations/Smashing all the models, now we hit the waitress.” The hook, delivered by Future, is forlorn, speaking to the emptiness of such a lifestyle. Drake, however sparkles with melodic glee: “Me and my friends, we got money to spend.” It’s the perfect song for an night of inebriated, conflicted ballin’ — full of the disconnective rush fueled by the dichotomy of power and loneliness.
The album closes out with a pair of sports-referencing solo tracks, which may be the strongest moments here. Future’s “Jersey” feels like a leftover from his excellent DS2; Drake’s Noah “40” Shebib-produced “30 for 30” is in the genealogy of his conversational, sneak-dis laden State of the Union-like freestyles. “What happened to the things you niggas said were supposed to happen?” he asks. “Are we just supposed to ignore the fact that it never happened?” He seems to be talking to rap adversaries like Meek Mill and lots of local haters, but he might as well be referring to all of the hyped joint projects that never came to fruition. What A Time To Be Alive is not what it could have been, but it’s here. And in many ways, that’s enough.