It’s official: In the year 2015, the concept of the mixtape is officially dead. The entire EP/LP/mixtape distinction has become so goddamn ambiguous and loosely attributed to a vast amount of projects to the point of no return, and with the release of their collaborative “mixtape” that was sold on iTunes and featured on streaming services, hip-hop megastars Future and Drake have provided the final nail in the coffin as they are projected to sell 500,000 copies of What A Time To Be Alive in their first week. Yes, their “mixtape” just sold more copies in it’s first week than Kanye and Jay Z’s polished, much publicized, artful collaboration “album”, Watch The Throne. Ye and Hov had a-list guests such as Beyoncé and Frank Ocean, and had a legion of the world’s greatest producers at hand to pitch in. They also had Ricardo Tisci, the creative director for Givenchy, design the album’s luxe and innovative art and packaging. Future and Drake, on the other hand, threw together eleven tracks in six days with beats almost entirely from Metro Boomin. Also, the cover art for the project is literally a cropped Shutterstock image.
No, we’re not making that up. But the truth is, this is the first time in hip-hop history that the two undisputed hottest rappers of the time have joined forces to materialize a project in the middle of both of their own respective hot-streaks. Future is coming off a legendary run with some of the most high-octane mixtapes we’ve ever heard and an incredible album effort just months ago with DS2. In the red corner, Drake is coming off his own scorching mixtape and highly-successful mini-tour with If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late—a project that many critics and fans credit with being the most potent, dense, and interesting offering Drizzy has ever released. Although the accolades were seemingly already written with just the announcement of the project, the real question remains: What A Time To Be Alive might have been a commercial cash-grab and a creative lay-up, but is it good?
The first thing you hear as you press play on What A Time is not Drake nor Future. Instead, it’s a fade-in of one of the most distinct producer tags of 2015—Young Thug incoherently saying, “Metro Boomin’ want some mo’, n*gga” as these cheap, FL Studio synths begin to buzz in a trance, introducing the abrasive introduction, ‘Digital Dash’. Before you know it, the beat unexpectedly drops and Future is running with the baton. He mumbles and stumbles with a familiar flow before building his verse into a more articulate result, one that is reflective and sobering, ironically about his vices and drug use. “When I was sleepin’ on the floor you shoulda seen how they treat me/I pour the Actavis and pop pills so I can fight the demons” he says, all before Drake cuts in to add his own grit and structure. It’s right off the rip that you realize Drake might be adding his own flavours, but all in all, he’s playing Future’s game. With context, you will realize that this tape was recorded in a matter of days in Atlanta, over beats by Future’s in-house producers. There’s one 40 beat that serves as the intro. There’s absolutely no sense of Toronto within this project. Instead, Drake uses his bars all over this tape to exercise escapism, and adapt to his surroundings.
Every song on this tape screams Atlanta. There is barely any unorthodox moments, curveballs or occasions that will have you impressed by innovation. Metro is doin’ Metro. Southside is doin’ Southside. Even 40 does 40. Drake and Future do little to step out of their respective boxes too, but they do flaunt their particular artistic quirks from time to time. Slapper ‘Jumpman’ sees the return of Drake’s ‘6 Man’ flow and as much as it’s a stylistic lay-up, the fact is, it’s a sonic slam dunk. Standout “Diamonds Dancing” features Future crooning back to his Honest days, serving as a traditional ballad all until Aubrey comes in and breaks down the song with an almost Take Care-era demeanour. As the drums fade out, Drake is left with a simple chord progression as he moans about a woman that left him to dry as he gets his chance to air her out on the track. “Ungrateful,” he croaks in an almost drunken state, all before my personal favourite: “Your momma be ashamed of you”.
The flows can catch you off guard, though. Future’s slow, leaned out flow is a great juxtaposition next to Drake’s hyperactive delivery on ‘I’m the Plug’, and even on ‘Live From the Gutter’, Drake morphs the track with a flow sounding like just about any other southern rapper, but he beats them at their own game. It might sound unfair, but Drake has the charisma to say what anyone else can say better than they could. Throughout all the controversy of ghost-writers lately and regardless of whether or not Drake gets some help with writing, the truth still stands: It’s not what you say, but how you say it, and Drake will have you beat every single time. Still, Drake is not even the most prominent rapper on this tape. This is definitely more of a welcome addition to Future’s project-streak than Drake’s. As previously mentioned, this project was conceived in Future’s home plate and done at Future’s work pace, and it definitely sounds like it. Future uses his home-court advantage as leverage and burns through the tape with every bar sounding natural and effortless, all while Drizzy rides shotgun.
Drake uses the album’s outro, ’30 for 30 Freestyle’ as his real message to the outside world. He conversationally spits about handling the Meek drama like a champ, still being on top despite actual conspiracies from industry powers to dethrone him, and reflecting through his life and his growth as a person—all over top of gentle, elegant keys with a kick pounding like a heartbeat, courtesy of none other than 40. It’s here where Drake comes down from the escapism of being in Atlanta and playing by Future’s rules for a short amount of time, all while he sobers up on his sonic journey back to the sounds of Toronto. It was during this final piece of the project that I saw What A Time To Be Alive’s true value—not as a polished, cohesive piece of art, but as a gritty, fast-paced journey through the spoils, vices and emotions that a weekend in Atlanta can evoke. So, use this wisely as the current soundtrack to a night on the town, or as music to drive through the city to, but don’t mistake this project for being something that will stand the test of time and be a sonic culture-shift for hip-hop. It will probably have a legacy based off the numbers and the sheer details surrounding the mixtape, and truth be told, this project is definitely more of a moment than a timeless addition in Future and Drake’s respective careers. However, as a soundtrack of right now, what else could you ask for?