What a Time to Be Alive rode unreachable hype into its release, but the actual product is full of the quality hip-hop that's expected of its creators.
Talking to Big Think, Slavoj Žižek defines “event” as "something extraordinary [that] takes place... Within a certain field of phenomena where things go on the normal flow of things, from time to time something happens which as it were retroactively changes the rules of what is possible in the sense that something happens." To hear talk of Drake and Future’s collaborative album in the mere days the world had to prepare before it materialized, the two were in the center of a capital-E Event. Many early reviews, too, spoke of it in continued reverence; this pairing generated the most buzz since the maximalist masterpiece Watch the Throne, though hip-hop has produced highly impressive tandems (see Killer Mike and El-P’s Run the Jewels output and Jeremiah Jae and L’Orange’s The Night Took Us in Like Family as just two worthy examples) in the years following.
What’s most unique about this pairing, however, is that they occupy lofty perches in the hip-hop and pop culture landscapes; Future, in less than a year, has delivered four critical darlings of woozy, moody, menacing alternative trap, while Drake has ascended to being one of the few artists in the running for Biggest Pop Star in the World status, all while convincing fans that they’re malnourished and only his music can satiate their hunger. Both are coming off of Billboard number one albums, off which culture-shifting phrases can be found (Future’s “Fuck up some commas” and Drake’s “Running through the six with my woes” are safe bets for two of social media’s hashtags). All the context surrounding this release suggests that, in the Žižekian sense, this should be an event. It isn’t, but that doesn’t discount its merits as another high-quality release from two of rap’s most consistent artists.
The first words heard on What a Time to Be Alive are Young Thug’s spoken tag for album executive producer Metro Boomin. If this was accidental, it’s a hell of a prescient accident, as the tape’s star, undoubtedly, is the 22-year-old producer. In Drake’s FADER cover story, he revealed that album opener “Digital Dash” spawned nightly dance-offs between those in the studio during the album’s genesis. The song’s whining synths combined with the muted bass found in both Future and Drake’s oeuvre has hints of Future’s smash “Fuck Up Some Commas”, but, as is characteristic throughout the tape, the undertones of the beat are what stick long after the final note hits. Boomin, like the best of Atlanta’s current crop of superproducers, layer their beats in ways that allow quiet pianos, usually, to subtly insert themselves into songs so they metamorphose into the emotions that the instrument conveys; on “Digital Dash”, the piano adds a regality to the cheap pulsating synths. Follow-up “Big Rings” pairs Drake’s newfound sentence fragment flow with a massive instrumental worthy of Rick Rossian bosts that never happen. Such is What a Time’s most glaring problem: the rapping.
Just a few bars after the gleeful gloat “I might take Quentin to Follies / You hate your life, just be honest” that recurs his beef with Meek Mill, Drake drops the clunker, “You remind me of a quarterback, that shit is all in the past." Other subpar offerings include “She don’t want pets, but I’m a dog” and all of Drake’s uncharacteristic references to lean. Future, in complete control of his warbling powers, creates the world in which Drake tries to inhabit, which is where some of the middling results come in. This isn’t to come as a surprise, in all relationships, a perfect 50/50 split is impossible, but on past Drake/Future collaborations, and on this album’s best songs, the pairing coexist by merging their worlds instead of seeking to enter the other’s.
When they stand alone as kings of their sound, the album produces some great moments. Over (who else?) Metro Boomin, Allen Ritter, and Frank Dukes production, the rappers collaborate on “Diamonds Dancing”’s startlingly simple hook, “Diamonds, diamonds, diamonds, diamonds on me dancing”, while Future unleashes more of his melancholy boasts that he’s perfected over the past year; “I got so many bad bitches that I barely wanna.” On the song’s outro, Take Care Drake reappears to chastise an unnamed woman. His gripes may be the most relatable, but Future’s lyrics are the ones that hit hardest. “I watched my broad give up on my like I’m average”, he laments on “Live From the Gutter”, and the portrait of addiction he paints continues the bleakness of DS2 in a harrowing way.
When both converge on topics they’ve perfected, like the stripper anthem “Plastic Bag” and boisterous “Jumpman”, the hints of this album-as-Event are clear. Though it’s not sustained over the tape’s eleven tracks, two of which are solo tracks, one for each rapper, the collaborative spirit remains the strongest selling point. This is little solace for those expecting a world-changing release, but for those looking for eleven quality hip-hop tracks from two of the craft’s best, What a Time to Be Alive is truer than not.