After experiencing profound commercial success this past February with “If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late,” it’s no surprise that hip-hop mogul Drake is once again in a mixtape-dropping mood. This time, he’s teamed up with Atlanta-based trap stalwart Future to deliver “What a Time To Be Alive,” a collaboration heralded by weeks of rumors and doubt. The album cover consists simply of a pile of sparkling diamonds, and the production, handled primarily by Metro Boomin, is similarly glittery and extravagant. It’s too bad that Drake couldn’t supply the lyricism, creativity or compatibility with Future that would have made this mixtape truly worthy of the hype that preceded it.
“What a Time To Be Alive” is flush with trap influences – lush snares and ominous underlying melodies characterize most of the tracks, and Future delivers most of his lines in a syrupy slur that falls somewhere between Migos and Lil Wayne. Especially at first listen, it’s hard not to get swept away by the high production value and the general swagger, especially on bass-heavy numbers like the clever “Diamonds Dancing.” Unfortunately, Drake overshadows the well-crafted beats with awkward hooks and tired lyrical themes. On “Big Rings,” a particularly forgettable track, he raps about his “team” of confidants and supporters, repeatedly expressing their need for “nice things” and “big rings” in a chorus that could have been written by an overeager third-grader who just learned how to rhyme. His emphasis on the quality and size of his posse, which came across as loyal and endearing on older tracks like “Up All Night,”
now reads as boastful, a thin cloak for the insecurity that’s dogged him through public feuds and ridicule.
His other favorite topic – the pursuit and evasion of beautiful women – is present in spades, veering often into unapologetic objectification. “Plastic Bag” is a prime example, a thumping, repetitive number lacking any of the self-conscious tenderness that characterized his past meditations on romance. In fact, there’s little to no sign of the introspective Drake many listeners know and love, except for on the album’s final track, “30 for 30 Freestyle,” which also happens to showcase his strongest lyricism. After nine snare-laden tracks of tiresome, repetitive bravado, “30 for 30” is a breath of fresh air – one of the few moments on the album where Drake really sounds like himself.
And that, perhaps, is this mixtape’s biggest issue. As he goes toe to toe with Future, matching each boastful verse with self-aggrandizing lines of his own, he is losing at the Atlanta rapper’s game. Drake can certainly fake his way through an album of insubstantial trap, but it sounds disingenuous. This kind of music is not within his comfort zone, try as he might to convince his fans and haters otherwise. Drake is strongest when he gives in to his instinct for sensitivity, when he lets loose with a tender vocal riff. His strongest – and most commercially successful – releases to date have been far more honest, nuanced and enjoyable than this recent effort. So why is he stepping away from his sweet spot? If he’s trying to build credibility, he should honor his primary strength as an artist – his willingness to take risks in both personal vulnerability and musical style. Though there’s no doubt that this is great background music for a substance-blurred night out, Drake is wasting his time trying to mirror Future’s trap aesthetic. If he really wants to convince the world that he’s at the top of his game, he needs to honor his true identity as a musician. Unfortunately, that identity is almost nowhere to be found on “What a Time To Be Alive.”
Contact Clare Flanagan at ckflan ‘at’ stanford.edu.