With a title as hype-inducing as “What a Time to Be Alive,” Drake and Future’s mixtape was set to fan the flames of an already scorching year for hip-hop. With three months still to go, 2015 has already seen releases from the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Big Sean and A$AP Rocky, not to mention Drake and Future’s own solo projects.
Unfortunately, the end result is 11 songs that fail to live up to Drake’s past work or Future’s potential.
The project falls flat, likely a symptom of the six-day window in which the duo recorded the songs. The production is stellar on each song individually, but as a compilation, the simple synth melodies become unimaginative. Future’s mumbling delivery has had success throughout 2015, but its polarizing style might be off-putting to many listeners who came primarily for Drake.
“Big Rings,” the project’s second track, exemplifies the mixtape’s shortcomings. Drake shouts over a barrage of plucked strings and heavy 808s produced by Metro Boomin: “I got a really big team / And they need some really big rings / They need some really nice things / Better be comin’ with no strings.” His tone recalls the bravado of “6 God” from his last mixtape, but without its substance.
Future joins in with a verse that overdoses on Auto-Tune, symptomatic of the rest of the mixtape. Hip-hop has seen the resurgence of Auto-Tune over the past few years, with pitch correction serving as a stylistic add-on rather than a crutch. The issue with Future’s use of it, however, is that it is often disturbingly off-key and used habitually rather than for its artistic merits.
Executive producer Metro Boomin does a skillful job of putting together a cohesive project, but the cohesion comes at a price of repetition that makes it difficult to listen to the project as a whole — something that shouldn’t be the case for a mixtape with only 11 songs. A few cuts will make listeners’ party rotations — most likely “Big Rings” and “Jumpman” — but ultimately the energy of the project tapers off halfway through as the instrumentals reveal their lack of variation and any initial excitement over the collaboration fades.
Most of all, the content of the lyrics rarely gets personal, and when it does, it incorporates the materialistic machismo that runs rampant across most of the 11 songs. On “Plastic Bag,” the duo serenades a stripper over a swinging rhythm one can imagine accompanying slow-motion visuals at Magic City, Atlanta’s highest-profile strip club. Drake and Future take turns on the chorus, crooning, “Get a plastic bag / Go ahead and pick up all the cash / Go ahead and pick up all the cash / You danced all night, girl, you deserve it.”
There are some bright spots, though. On the mixtape’s standout track, “Diamonds Dancing,” Metro Boomin offers listeners the project’s most interesting instrumental: an intricate air-horn synth melody and a deep bass line accompanied by an imaginative drum pattern and a steel guitar that invokes the feeling of an old Western standoff. Future branches out with a decently filtered falsetto, while Drake adds an outro demonstrating an impressive range of emotion over the span of just a few lines, going from hurt to dismissive: “I haven’t even heard from you / Not a single word from you / Ungrateful / I’m too good for you, too good for you / You should go back to him, perfect match for you / Unstable.”
Drake has found astounding success in his career due to his dual threat as a talented, confident rapper who is also willing to show a vulnerable and accessible side in his music. His magnum opus, “Take Care,” earned a Grammy Award in 2013 for the effect it had on the rest of hip-hop, allowing a new breed of artists to take the spotlight. His subsequent releases have built on his trailblazer image, from “Nothing Was the Same” to “If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late.”
Aside from the outro on “Diamonds Dancing,” Drake’s vulnerability is missing from “What a Time to Be Alive.” High-energy songs where Drake oozes confidence are fun, but they have the strongest effect when balanced out by his more emotional songs. It’s a very different Drake we’re seeing here.
But maybe Drake knows this already. “I can’t rap like that, all young and naive / Not after all the s— I seen and the things I believe,” he confesses on the mixtape’s closer, “30 for 30 Freestyle.” One would hope that the old Drake isn’t completely gone — his summer single “Hotline Bling” laments the lack of contact with a past love — but he certainly makes no appearance here.
Overall, “What a Time to Be Alive” sounds like a Future and Metro Boomin collaboration that Drake decided to visit. This project is a testament to the power of the producer — Future and Metro have developed a sound together that might graciously host Drake for one or two songs. But Drake, despite his status as one of hip-hop’s top dogs, overstays his welcome.