"Man, what a time...to be alive,” Drake reflects on “Big Rings.” Within the song, another ready-made bromance banger for you and the squad to bellow in the club, it’s a boast, indicative of how far he’s come and how well he and his cohorts are playing the game in 2015—the same year that Apple gave him a reported $19 million just to be a DJ every two weeks and premiere his new music exclusively. What a time, indeed.
It’s an understandable title for an album, because...what a time to be a rap fan. Mere weeks after a trollgram from Timbaland made us sit up and admit ego and career narcissism will inevitably always get in the way of event-worthy collaborative efforts between rappers, the Best Rapper in the Game Right Now (that would be Drake, for the clueless and/or stubborn) and the Hottest Rapper of the Year (that would be Future, also re: clueless and stubborn) decide to drop a feature-length album—er mixtape...how about “project”?—on us. Nine collaborative songs, and two solos that definitely were not borne out of these sessions. So, does it live up? Will this project make you feel good about being alive?
I more or less felt pretty good before the tape dropped and remain so now that I’ve listened to it about a dozen times. The momentary team-up is really more sensible and beneficial than it seems at first glance. Future just dropped one of the most enjoyable albums of the year, and yet despite #FutureHive, it hasn’t even cracked 300k in two months. WATTBA, meanwhile, is already expected to go gold. As for Drake, he took Meek’s head off swifter and more effortlessly than Achilles deaded that dude in the opening scene of Troy, blood still pumping, feeling validated. He’s still promising Views, which now ranks as the longest he’s made us wait since formally announcing an album. And yet, post “Back to Back” he’s still in a mood to sneer like a supervillain in a way he knows he can’t on a Proper Drake Album. The solution: fly to Pluto and get lost in Future’s solar system to get it out of his own.
You could never find songs titled “I’m the Plug” much less “Live From the Gutter” on a true-blue Drake album. But much like how Drake always helps his rap friends crossover to the pop charts, standing next to Future is a validated pass through Trap Customs. Drake gets an extension on his break from Views to toast to himself once more, much in the vein of tracks 2-5 of If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late. Of course, post-game shots at Meek are sprinkled all throughout the project even before the victory lap that is “30 for 30,” like when he says, “I let off first then I let off again/You will not hear from them ever again” on "Change Locations." The first time we hear him on the project, he’s reminding us that he doesn’t “forget and forgive” before next-level flexing with “I might take Quentin to Follies.” Yet another direct but indirect reference to the ghostwriting scandal with a bulletproof arrogance.
Despite a corny bar here or there, Drake sounds way more energized with much better flows. But he’s still on Future’s planet down to sourcing an image from Shutterstock for the album art (who wants to bet they just googled "Diamonds Dancing"). It’s fitting that WATTBA was made in Atlanta—Drake is literally living in Hendrix’s house, feet up as Future and regular collaborators Metro Boomin, Southside, and few others prepare the party. At 11 tracks, the sound is cohesive, the songs breezy and fun, if a little too lean, but nary a skip. Sonically, it’s an unofficial sequel to Dirty Sprite 2 co-starring Drake, the same way Dawn of Justice is a sequel to Man of Steel co-starring Batman. The collaborative effort only truly synthesizes on an equal level on the album standout, “Change Locations,” the song that, along with "Diamonds Dancing," sounds like it could aesthetically belong to either of them. Beyond those two (and maybe "Big Rings") Future is the commanding presence, expounding further on the themes of addiction, loneliness, and solace in the trap found on DS 2. Also, his raps are easier to comprehend than ever.
Of course, What a Time to Be Alive is already getting likened to Watch the Throne, because rap fans love nothing more than to compare and contrast everything. (The comparison may have been invited too, but I'm sleep.) But after several listens, Drake’s disclosure that the project was made in six days is less of an impressive stat than it is an accurate summation of what we have here: two rappers who maxed out on their chemistry and made some cool songs. Watch the Throne, initially conceived similarly from two rappers recognizing they were having a moment together (remember, Kanye first said it would be an EP), instead became an undertaking, an acceptance of the true challenge at hand. A challenge so heavy with expectations that it almost didn’t happen. The result was Jay Z pushing himself to excel in musical zones he typically wouldn’t go near, and both rappers making songs that bore little resemblance to their solo work. Not quite the case here: Neither rapper has broken new ground. Drake isn't in strange, new places, just territory he can relax in more comfortably than he could on his own, sometimes territory that's all to familiar to his own work—"Plastic Bag" earns a spot on Drake's Now That's What I Call Stripper Thirst greatest hits compilation dropping in 2020.
If What a Time to Be Alive had been a belabored, pre-announced event album then, yes, it’d be underwhelming. Much better to just admit that a week’s worth of sessions yielded a nice bounty of music and simply give it to the people off the strength of its own organic hype. Apple scores another cool point, Future scores another plaque, and Drake? Well, the first voice we hear is Future’s, but the project ends with four minutes of Aubrey. He scored more tough-guy cred, another Cash Money requirement, and his biggest bid for relevance via other rappers—and he even got the last word in. We should have seen this coming in May.