Why don’t collaborative albums ever seem to work? The logic should be airtight: Take one talented performer, add a second, and you should have a project that is twice as amazing as any single entry from either catalog. And yet these sorts of team-ups are not only universally disappointing—but often critically and commercially disastrous. R. Kelly and Jay Z put a pair of releases out in the mid-aughts, and both Unfinished Business and its sequel represent the nadir of each’s output. Neither the Grateful Dead nor Bob Dylan were ever as dull as they were on Dylan & The Dead. The less said about Lou Reed and Metallica’s Lulu, the better.
The best that Drake and Future could possibly hope for on their 11-track mixtape, just released via Apple Music, would be to avoid the mutually-assured destruction of the other. Each already has an album out in 2015, and both Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and Future’s DS2 rank among the year’s best, if only for providing instant classic cruising jams like “Energy” and “F— Up Some Commas.” Individually, each is working at his fullest potential and rarely let a week go by without a killer new single or the utter destruction of a fellow rapper. Based on the magic of “Where Ya At,” the idea of an album-length coupling titillated hip-hop heads across the Internet.
But something obviously changed when they pressed record on What a Time to Be Alive. Perhaps Drake and Future thought they needed to defer to the other, or maybe they both phoned it in assuming that the other would pick up the slack, but there’s very little evidence here that makes the case for either as the game-changing superstar he actually is. Future comes off particularly blasé, falling repeatedly into the cliché version of himself that is all mealy-mouthed strip-club crooning, an issue particularly apparent on the lazy-sounding “Change Locations.” Few people are able to ride the claustrophobic trap beats of frequent producer Metro Boomin, but Future rarely elevates his approach to the level of bombast that runs through tracks like “Big Rings” and “Diamonds Dancing.”
Drake sounds only slightly more engaged. “Big Rings” isn’t nearly as intensely adrenalized as “0 to 100 / The Catch Up,” but it could rally a JV locker room with its chest-thumping refrain: “I got a really big team/ And they need some really big rings.” He’s at his platonic ideal on “Plastic Bag,” which finds him tapping into his warm croon in a way that is so effective that it takes a few listens before you realize it’s another ode to how hard strippers work (the titular plastic bag is used to pick money up off the floor of the stage). But despite a beat by Drake whisperer Noah “40” Shebib, the album-closing “30 For 30 Freestyle” doesn’t come near clearing the admittedly high bar Drake has set for himself in 2015. (Between If You’re Reading This… and his anti-Meek singles, he’s approaching MVP status for the year). Honestly, if you’re interested enough in What a Time to Be Alive to wonder what it sounds like, you probably already have both Drake’s and Future’s 2015 projects. Just shuffle those together for a superior effect.