The relationship between Future and Drake goes back about four years, to the moment when Drake rapped about passing out Valium and how only older women understand him on the remix of “Tony Montana,” Future’s breakout solo hit. Over the years, they’ve toured together and briefly publicly bickered with one another, and they’ve recorded a handful of songs together. But it wasn’t until the throbbing and menacing “Where Ya At,” from just a couple of months ago, that Drake and Future sounded like they were in the same room when they made a song. “Where Ya At” was a revelation: Future muttering about his street bona fides over moody pianos until rap’s biggest star showed up to hijack his flow and polish it until it gleamed. On his “Where Ya At” verse, Drake takes that melodious, unforced, effortless under-the-breath Future delivery and makes it sound like pop in ways that Future never quite bothers to do. Future takes surefire hooks and delivers them in such a sideways, pill-numb register that you have to work (or be pill-numb yourself) to hear them right. Drake takes workaday rap lines and delivers them with such force and personality that they sound like hooks. Really, these two are oddly perfect forces, the yin and the yang of smothered, fucked-out, staring-into-oblivion synth-rap stardom. What A Time To Be Alive, the album that they made together, came out last night, and it confirms what we should’ve always known: These two were always meant to team up.
The first immediate takeaway from What A Time: Future doesn’t just sound like Drake’s equal. He’s the one setting the tone and establishing the aesthetic. He’s inviting Drake into his soundworld, and that’s significant. Drake has meticulously curated and maintained his own sound, but now he’s gone to Atlanta to record with Future, making a whole album almost entirely with Future’s preferred cadre of producers. It doesn’t sound like a stretch for Drake, one of the great adapters in rap history. But the album belongs to Future in a lot of ways. Future is relatively new to the absolute highest tier of rap stardom; it wasn’t until this summer’s DS2, the album that sounded like a mixtape and still crossed over in ways that his crossover-minded albums failed to do, that Future really got to that level. But Future is on another level now. He’s in the place where, when you’re in a high-speed chase with police and his song comes on, you stop to dance. Drake is legitimizing Future by making this album with him, since Drake is the alpha and omega of crossover rap right now. (Kanye West talks about wanting to make a whole album with Drake. Future just goes and does it.) But Future is legitimizing Drake, too. It’s hard to say who is doing a favor for whom. The effect is something like Watch The Throne, if Kanye West and Jay-Z had made it three months after West released The College Dropout, while Jay was still in his Black Album zone. Its mere existence, which was only a rumor a week or two ago, is the sort of thing that causes fluttering, blood-rushing excitement in rap dorks worldwide. But that’s what rap events are supposed to do. And once the excitement of that event wears off, it still has to function as an album. So is it any good? Well, yes. I’m writing this before the excitement wears off, but I think it really is.
The second immediate takeaway from What A Time: Future and Drake have a lot in common. It’s not just the era-defining rap stardom thing, though that’s certainly a part of it. They’re both unapologetically melodic rappers, guys who regularly blur lines between rapping and singing, who prefer tingly, minimal synthetic productions. They both have the uncommon gift of sounding excited and angry at the same time. With What A Time, they’ve practically made a concept about about distrusting the entire outside world and also fucking strippers. (“Plastic Bag” is literally about throwing enough money in the strip club that the girls need plastic bags to pick it all up, and they both say the phrase “girl, you deserve it” like they’re being chivalrous.) Early word on the album is that it’s a Future album with Drake guest verses, and that’s true to some extent. It doesn’t sound like an earthshaking event-rap album, and that has a lot to do with the way it was recorded — over six nights in Future’s Atlanta hometown, with Future collaborators Metro Boomin and Southside handling the bulk of the production. It’s Future’s fourth full-length of 2015, following DS2 and the Beast Mode and 56 Nights mixtapes, and Future sounds more deeply in his groove than Drake does. The only track that really interrupts the album’s flow is the closing track, the wordy and disconsolate Drake solo track “30 For 30 Freestyle,” which has a Noah “40” Shebib beat and no chorus to speak of. By contrast, Future’s solo move on “Jersey” is completely of a piece with everything else on the album. But the beats are more glacial and muted than the tracks that Future usually uses, a sign that he’s tweaked his aesthetic to fit Drake’s tastes. And while Future’s gurgling rasp can make for mesmerizing full-immersion music, it’s also nice to hear Drake bang through the haze with some fired-up clarity. It’s exciting whenever Drake whoops onto one of these tracks, even though he handles half of the hooks and half of the verses. He may be a visitor on Future’s planet, but he sounds at home there.
The real divide in between the two rappers is the overriding darkness of the album. Future is the one who went through the messy public breakup, who nearly saw his DJ and right-hand man imprisoned for years in Dubai, and who always seems to be on enough mind-altering substances to knock out an adolescent elephant. Future’s tossed-off lines are the ones that resonate the most, simply because they’re the bleakest: “I like the smell of that money when it burn,” “I got so many bad bitches that I barely want ‘em.” Many of Future’s lines here could be boasts, but they could also be confessions: “I watched my broad give up on me like I’m average / I went back inside the attic, counted it up, and started laughing.” You could year his drug-talk as party-lifestyle rap boilerplate, or you could year it and think, Holy shit, this guy needs an intervention or he’s going to die: “This Adderall got me to the ceiling / I think them Percocets had me in my feelings.” Drake’s verses are all fun, but they don’t evoke anything the way Future’s lyrics invoke dread. A Drake line will be something like this: “On the Billboards, all we do is pop shit.” That’s clever. (Pop? Get it?) But it also seems weirdly dweeby when he’s rapping next to Future, a man who has no use for cleverness. Drake is textbook Drake for so much of this, making sly references to his image and his public squabbles, letting you tease out the meta-commentary in his lines: “I might take Quentin to Follies / You hate your life, just be honest.” Meanwhile, Future is telling us what the world looks like from the middle of a black hole. At one point, Drake even raps about drinking Robitussin, which is, what, the training-wheels version of Future’s beloved Actavis, right? (I’ve barely fucked with anything stronger than weed since high school, so forgive me if I’m mangling this.) The outlooks of both guys are just different, and that difference makes for an intriguing tension at the album’s core.
But with all that tension, there’s still a powerful chemistry at work here. This is a hazy, genuinely pretty album from two artists who understand one another’s voices and play to each other’s strengths. “Diamonds Dancing,” with its murmuring clouds of psych-rock guitar and its intuitive-repetition hook, is absolutely entrancing, especially during the brief moments when Future hits falsetto mode. “Jumpman” is an eerie, minor-key, paranoiac banger, the type of song that these guys just routinely murder, and Drake’s “ooh!” yelps are rocketing up the rap’s-best-ad-libs charts as I write this. It’s still early, and both of these guys make songs that work like slow-release medication. You might get irritated at Drake’s “yeah-yuh” delivery on his “Live From The Gutter” verse, but you just know that, when you fast-forward a month or two, you will be in a car yelling along with it. It’s just the way these guys work.
What A Time To Be Alive isn’t a defining release for Drake or for Future. The inevitable Watch The Throne comparisons, including the one I made a few paragraphs ago, are a bit of a red herring. Kanye West and Jay-Z spent months recording that in studios around the world, tweaking and perfecting it until it was the lavish sound-monument that West had envisioned. This is something else: Short and sweet, knocked out in less than a week, no guest vocalists showing up anywhere. It’s hard and fast and effortless, both rappers relying on their joint charisma and on the estimable production talents of Metro Boomin and Southside. But in that way, it might be a more immediately engaging album than WTT was. There’s no intent to What A Time. Drake and Future are just making fly shit, music that will sound amazing at 3AM when you’re drunk enough that you can barely see. That might not be music’s highest calling. But it’s valid and it’s necessary, and I can’t really imagine a better use of these guys’ talents. What A Time will almost certainly not stand as 2015’s best rap album. It probably won’t stand as 2015’s best Future album. It might not even be the year’s best Drake album. But right now, this minute, I don’t want to listen to anything else.