If there’s anything Drake loves, it’s wielding his power to orchestrate capital-M moments. But for what feels like the first time in a while, after a year full of memes and headline-news incidents, he’s doing that with a peer instead of at their expense. That’s in large part the gist of What a Time to Be Alive, his and Future’s kind-of-but-not-really surprise collaborative mixtape, which was released on Sunday night with just a day’s notice, and which is expected to sell 500,000 copies in its first week. The project debuted on OVO Sound’s Beats 1 radio show, where it was played twice in its entirety before becoming available for iTunes purchase and for a week-long Apple Music exclusive stream. Untold numbers of fans sat at home on a Sunday evening to listen to a full-length project from front-to-back. It was a Moment.
What a Time was recorded on Future’s home turf—they spent six days together in an Atlanta studio—and he winds up claiming much of its real estate. His depressant-drenched hooks and vocals are an extension of his recent work, which soundtracked so much of public life in 2015 and give the tape a familiar feel. “I’m The Plug” bends to a similar cadence as Dirty Sprite 2’s “Rotation,” “Digital Dash” has strokes of “Never Gon Lose” off 56 Nights. There are bits, too, where Drake dips into his own recognizable style: the hook on "Change Locations," for instance, and the classic, 40-crafted "30 for 30 Freestyle." Overall, the production, which is dominated by Metro Boomin, is largely a variation of a single aesthetic theme: songs built for throwing dollar bills up in the air and watching them cut through the dark as they fall back to the floor. You can almost hear Drake whispering his own lyric, Born in Toronto but sometimes I feel like Atlanta adopted us.
Still, What a Time’s strongest songs are the ones on which the pair meet each other halfway—Future trying to sound like Drake, and Drake trying to sound like Future. On cuts like “Diamonds Dancing” and “Scholarships,” they both stretch their voices, finding a shared, slowed-down groove. But even on its most celebratory tracks, dark overtones loom. Future pulls from a well of past pain to paint a codeine-distorted picture, and winds up finding confidence in his unlikely escape from the gutter. Drake, on the other hand, deals with different kinds of stressors, ones that feel less urgent—post-fame paranoia, an urge to retain his power simply by claiming it out loud, over and over.
Neither Drake nor Future sound better than they have on past projects, but as ever, the two couldn’t be more different. By the time you reach “Jumpman,” the tape’s tenth track, it feels like Future has run out of ideas, that his penchant for experimentation has been slowly eaten away by all the lean he says he consumes. His voice, too, sounds like a weaker version of its former self under the weight of his usual Auto-Tune. Drake, on the other hand, sounds like he has too many ideas, culled from too many disparate places. But the very fact of What a Time’s existence is greater than the sum of its parts: it’s a tape that is bound to defy the classic vs. trash binary that has become the internet’s default mode of processing new material.
The short-sprint creative process that birthed What a Time is the norm for Future, but less so for Drake, who is accustomed to working on full-length projects for extended periods of time, writing and arranging and then rewriting and rearranging, with 40 and a handful of other trusted collaborators by his side. This newly spontaneous, six-day approach is a testament both to his increased confidence—that he’s a good enough rapper to simply just rap over some beats, for once—and to his urgent need to finally prove himself as such.
Only a few hours after the tape was released, there was already a Drake-less edit of it floating around, a tepid suggestion that some fans were ready for another solo Future project and wanted no parts of The Boy. What a Time comes at a time during which there is a growing Drake backlash, and an increasingly perceptible fissure between #FutureHive and Drake fans. That’s fundamentally a reflection of the polarizing pull of the internet, but social media-led assessments of Future as purely emotionally honest as opposed to Drake as purely manipulative and self-serving essentializes both of them, and extracts too much biography from art. Much early reaction to the tape, and to their analogous projects over the past few months, has been to compare the two and evaluate them as though they were opponents, rather than collaborators—that you can only be Team Drake or Team Future. But where Future and Drake converge is the intersection of geography and class and skill and taste, and that’s pretty chill.