What A Time To Be Alive Buzz Poetry, Plastic Bags, and Brand Loyalty

“Boasts and grievances blend together, track after track, into a thick thematic murk.”
– Mukqs on DS2

“Making music is part hard work and part social media performance — and then life goes on, like a meme.”
– Hydroyoga on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late

Reporting live from the gutter: Watch the Industry Throne claimants reign baaack-to-back only months after Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, more than 56 nights since Future’s DS2, and any time now before the impending gloom of Drake’s forthcoming album, Views From The 6. This is all happening while Future and Drake still share airplay (an anachronism with resurrected clout) via “Where Ya At,” the song that planted the dream of this release. The spectacle exists larger than life in the it’s-too-late-capital world of radio trap, their brands of ego resonating en masse (yeah, I’m talking Twitter) like maybe no other artists right now. Their combined social media accounts stir us consumers into a guaranteed-platinum frenzy of fake countdowns and meme celebrations. We love it. If this isn’t more than a cash grab, then it’s at least the most serviceable (unimaginative) fan service imaginable.

What A Time To Be Alive arrived this month, announced only a day before, as a professionally Drake & Future affair, featuring the artists’ favored production and lyrical focuses (cloudy bangers about being in the club, with money to spend and demons to battle). It’s Metro Boomin, Southside, Boi-1da, 40, et al. bringing more big-budget, hi-fi sublime DS2-type beats, still suited best to the ever-deepening reserve of ear-catching and heart-melted Future flows, with spare room for Drake to sugarcoat his no-contest Best New views into.

The masterfully pre-meditated result is a populist offering, a retail album styled as a mixtape. It’s Future’s void and Drake’s reflection: a diamond-encrusted infinity mirror. To listen to the surprise and familiar world of #FBGOVO is to listen to a brand merger that works, 100%.

Know The Meaning

The great ones can do it all!!! shout out to Drake and future on this collabo.. @kingjames fire!!!

A photo posted by dwyanewade (@dwyanewade) on

On the heels of DS2 and his Monster trilogy, the power trip of WATTBA amounts to a victory lap for Future: he’s been working all year — he deserves it. Or so says we: the music critics, the line cooks I sing every word with, the dude who rapped “I Serve The Base” in its entirety behind me on the sidewalk for three blocks, the cars that drive down Grand Ave and wake me up at 8 AM just two hours after I’d gone to bed sweaty from dancing to “Rich $ex.” Like a sonic mix of the unfurling purple cloud on its cover, DS2 has come to dye every ounce of summertime sadness in the city, Future’s voice finally specific and loud enough to resonate as collectivizing, relatable truth. It’s maybe more than a little disquieting, our sentimental fascination with his self-destructive, cruelly optimistic masculinism (the nursery-rhyme hooks and 1080p production have something to do with it, too). But who else in the mainstream (he major) could quite capture this death-driven time of our life, could deliver braggadocio (“Gucci flip-flops”) and body horror (“codeine coming out”) in the same tone on the opening hook.

With What A Time To Be Alive, his prescription of bleak bangers can become normal, our listening routinized as something to lean on, a default sound for turning up while feeling down. Man, what a time.

To be alive: Whether you’re suffering industrial or generational woes, Future’s music satisfies that unshakable sense of unrest that requires getting fucked up. On the standout “Diamonds Dancing,” Future coos “sipping on Don Pérignon for no reason,” trusting us to know the real meaning of “no reason.” His is the occasion for our depressive dependencies, a brand of re-affirmation. “For no reason” becomes a reason, especially when we know what we’re doing and the music goes like this. If we’re unmotivated in our day-to-day, Future can at least provide motivation for our night after night: this is all so fucked up, we need to get fucked up. Our rhythm of self-abeyance takes the shape of Metro’s bass. We lean back. Codeine all but appears on every track (notice its absence on Drake solo track, “30 for 30 Freestyle”). Listening to his habit becomes our habit, granting us (exploitative) access to the fantasy of escaping our demons separate from a self-destructive but self-sustaining embodiment. Drake can attach himself to the fantasy in the same way, legitimizing his own stick talk and lean talk by partnering with the most vibrant trapper of the moment.

It turns out Future never needed to leave his orbit; the mainstream would be drawn to him.

Actually, Future has become the “official trapper.” Partnering with Drake means there’s no need to dial down his dirty-riven trap personality. He is officially accessible. On “Scholarship,” in one of those few moments of “interaction” on the mixtape, Drake echoes Future’s earlier, “Demons, they calling my soul,” and it’s Future who calls back, “I said fuck all of you hoes.” Future’s voice sounds like he knows the devil is real. Later, on the fire “Jumpman,” Future Hendrix flatout says he’s gonna shoot you if Metro Boomin doesn’t trust you. It’s the sort of threat that Drake usually leaves as subliminal jibber-jabber but Future can deploy straight-faced, because it’s what we demand from him as a “monster.”

Despite his numerous charting singles and crossover features, mass critical/popular recognition for Future didn’t arrive until his surgical rollout of hyped and brand-specific mixtapes into the cumulative and buyable DS2. That business model seems motivated by his creative falling out with ex-fiance Ciara and the reception/performance of his (not even) unsuccessful 2014 studio album Honest. According to him, the breakup was at least partially due to her work on Jackie with Dr. Luke instead of Ciara producer Mike WiLL Made-It. Future argued that she should stay in her proven R&B lane for at least one more record before diving headfirst into Jackie’s sweeping pop, giving advice that he himself took seriously by rotating from Honest’s pastiche of anthems and love songs toward an inspired, unending din of dirty soda: They tried to make him a pop star, but he works better as a monster.

Future began his ascent to the top with Monster, released only months after Honest, by remaking himself in his own image as a mixtape rapper once more. Grinding in the mode that comes to him super-/preternaturally, he fell into a rhythm just as trap was taking over the radio, all culminating in this #hive moment like Pluto eclipsing the summer sun.

He can now occupy the self-mythologizing space of a known monster, counting “60 naked bitches, no exaggeration,” while playing off our desensitization to his habits. Under the universalizing umbrella of Drake, Future’s litany of cars, diamonds, women, Actavis, and guns cohere into a somehow radio-friendly character that’s digestible without the attendant despair and alienation that clouds much of his most recent mixtape work. Or at least on an Event record like WATTBA, Future’s darkling emotionality is obscured by the mind-numbing momentum of the project’s very existence — we need only to understand these songs as a part of the hyped and turnt whole, not as missives. It’s almost non-canon. None of it sounds drastically different from DS2, but it feels like a whole other world.

So, it turns out Future never needed to leave his orbit; the mainstream would be drawn to him. It was just a matter of time before the radio’s trap revolution came around. His hard work is catching up with perfect timing, and with WATTBA, Future has been positioned to do what’s expected and now finally demanded of him: to deliver the style he reverse engineered, the same style that helped establish ATLien-trap as the dominant sound of radio hip-hop. After starting from the bottom, he’s scored two #1 records now, and they both happened in the same summer.

Before, you had to mix Future in; now, we begin with the very cup of trembling already dirty, raised in a toast, and spilling over. But it’s far from over.

Know Yourself

In a very Drake-like scenario, I took an Uber across town at 3 AM on an oddly balmy night in Brooklyn.

It’s strange, because, more and more, I’ve begun to associate almost every aspect of millennial consumer culture with Drake — especially the rise of tech startups and apps tied to the sharing economy. There’s something about a black-car-chic aesthetic, leather seats, and getting chauffeured for $10 to $15 that makes Uber feel undeniably “Drake.” I tried to make this argument previously in my review of If You’re Reading This by trying to compare Drake to the phenomenology of “Netflix and Chill.” I stated point-blank that Drizzy “has more in common with Netflix than Wayne.”

I suppose what I was trying to get at is that the “sharing economy” — with all of its flaws, secrets, and undeniable convenience — resonates with the exact brand appeal that pools around every Drake verse. Yes, Drake is cheesy, but wasn’t Netflix always cheesy? Was Netflix cheesy when we finally sold that busted-up VHS tape collection inherited from a 90s upbringing? Was Apple Music cheesy when we spent $1,000+ of college tip-checks on vinyl? Was Uber cheesy when we sold the beater car in order to move to the city?

In a way similar to the convenience of a ‘sharing economy’ app, Drake’s power exists in his omnipresence.

Drake gets this, because he is one of the only actually modern celebrity recording artists. While some may lament that Drake recycles his same old shtick over and over again, I’d suggest that he too deserves it, because he really did invent something from the ground up — just like Uber did, or Netflix, or… GrubHub? He invented Drake — a post-authentic avatar that currently sits atop “the game” of hip-hop, barely scathed by his feminine namesake or Degrassi roots. He gave this avatar a voice by helping to pioneer the singing-and-rapping aesthetic in 2009 on the back of Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak, giving it more room and more immediate relatability with a sans-autotune, sexy, hard-then-soft delivery. He’s done well for himself by understanding that the contemporary music landscape needed a “sharing economy” strategy to progress. Drake provides individuals with information that optimizes the immediate resources of the human condition: slight sadness, slight ego, slight tenderness, and a continuous desire to always win.

In What a Time to Be Alive, that “desire to win” is given a needed rest, despite all of its apparent gesturing toward vague competition. The mixtape allows Drake’s brand to diffuse itself into the lean-syrup of raw trap-culture, an act that clearly reveals his “cheesiness.” It’s obvious how uncool Drake looks next to Future’s stoic chillness, especially during hot-gun moments like “Big Rings” or through his mousy, nasal-y croon on “Change Locations.” More than any other release, Drake’s delivery on WATTBA can feel insubstantial and weak; yet, it’s this quality that reveals another step in Drake’s core brand strategy to underwhelm in order to set up the ultimate alley-oop, presumably his next longplayer. Oddly enough, his effort to un-deliver is necessary in keeping a firm grasp on the plurality of his fanbase. Drake’s brand is so ubiquitous that he has to keep up with the multiple ways people are using his music — some for fashion, some for emotional support, some to just participate. While it’s true that Drake’s incessant feature-mongering, probably the fuel for this mixtape itself, is ball-hogging attached to rap dynasty politics, I think it’s safe to say that “negative Drake” is just as effective as when he makes actually good music. Half of Drake’s brand appeal exists in his convenience — he’s just there — with a new cut, a new remix, hell, even a new tape. In a way similar to the convenience of a “sharing economy” app, Drake’s power exists in his omnipresence.

This phenomena has recently been referred to as “Peak Drake.” While that’s a great, meme-able phrase that kind of captures Drake’s power, it merely reaffirms the attitude of the culture machine that spits out new rendered versions of Drake to be re-consumed. Are we at Drake 3.0? 4.0? Or maybe a beta version of a “Drake One” platform? The fact that our society is currently “Peak Drake” means that he needed to play it cool by putting some distance between his material and himself, something that WATTBA does gorgeously. It’s fascinating to see how Drake manages his flow next to Future’s hard drug vibe, and that “interest” excuses the fact that the mixtape can be underwhelming as a whole. Somehow, the tape’s primary virtue is in this self-assured meaninglessness. Even on its OVO Radio debut, Drake introduced the tape as “a little soundtrack made for the people that need it” — a chill introduction much needed from a rapper who always seems on the verge of having “No Chill,” especially regarding his beef with Meek Mill.

Returning to the moment when I was in the backseat of an Uber at 3 AM — an unabashedly “Peak Drake” moment — it’s funny to note that the driver straight up asked me what I thought of the Meek Mill vs. Drake beef, as if “reading” the “Drakeness” in the air, acknowledging its presence. All I could offer was an aloof, empty “Well, I’m a huge Drake fan, so…” offering no insight. Turns out, so was he. He put on Nothing Was The Same from the top, and continued to deride Meek in a heavy Ivory Coast accent. He meditated on how Drake “just speaks to him,” stating that his music has “so much maturity.” He called Meek’s music interesting, “but juvenile,” suggesting that his music sounds like he’s just “playing around.” He mentioned that Drake “has a soul.” I was taken aback, but I couldn’t help but wonder where that “soul” rests: is it in the plurality of the human condition being “optimized” or “mutated” by this app-based sharing economy, this disruptive backseat, this metal machine? I took solace in the fact that this “condition” was one that allowed being “on-brand” to include aspects of straight-up failure.

When you’re in such a position as Drake, people are going to think they “know the brand” too well, people are going to want to hear failure. I can’t help but respect how Drake has seemingly dealt with this complex, seemingly constant threat of failure. On WATTBA, he ends up saving face by “failing” on a release where his “paradigm” is given the novel and rare opportunity to come across as the stranger.

Put It In A Plastic Bag

Thank you to all who supported WATTBA in the first week. ??????

A photo posted by champagnepapi (@champagnepapi) on

What is it about rap that forces picking sides? The “you and yours vs. me and mine” mentality begets an essential question: “Are we [actually] talking teams?” The brand loyalty and ego aggrandizement of rap dynasties is distinctively attached to the economic metaphor, a competitive mindset that capitalizes on the human tendency to want to “have a team.” As a result, we see grown adults indulge their entire late-lives into the paradigm of sports love and furniture, a type of brand loyalty that may have always been creeping around in the background of popular hip-hop. Yet, WATTBA makes it clear that this loyalty is attached to a certain baby-boomer concept of individuality: the ability to define an individual life in terms of devotion, whether that devotion be economic or even regarding entire ideologies or belief systems.

So, “what a time to be alive,” a time when there’s at least the possibility for collaborative consumption, where everyone involved can share access to products, services, and ideas without necessarily claiming individual ownership. Despite the guise of a competitive agenda, Future and Drake demonstrate how everyone can own this mixtape — it’s not attached to the masterpiece concept or even to the directly hegemonic aggrandizing à la Watch The Throne. Rather, WATTBA gives us the opportunity to crowdfund our demand for parallax luxury through the brands of Future and Drake, two identities that work together quite well, whatever their actual chemistry on the tracks. Whereas the initial, generative blog-buzz tried to pit these two artists against each other, attempting to proclaim who “won,” the internet has lauded their collaboration as being flat-out useful. As one listener aptly memed, “I’m tempted to text my ex after every Drake verse, then Future brings me back to my senses.”

While Drake’s verses do contain a certain pressure, a vulnerability that seems to be up for scrutiny to the public-at-large, he has a charm that fuses narcissistic gloom with Future’s nihilistic buzz, a monstrous couple that seems to adequately sum up the current internet culture.

While Drake’s verses do contain a certain pressure, a vulnerability that seems to be up for scrutiny to the public-at-large, he has a charm that fuses narcissistic gloom with Future’s nihilistic buzz, a monstrous couple that seems to adequately sum up the current internet culture. Necessarily, Future is able to incisively cut off Drake’s social-media flow by bringing back the dirty — the kind of stuff you just can’t post on your timeline — an aspect that gives WATTBA a near-constant momentum. Despite his apparent, bulky, and brooding presence in Metro’s syrupy environs, Drake creates tension through his ubiquity, through the fact that he still seems to be making more room for himself. He’s always contained multitudes, or at least variations of sad boys, but now he seems himself uncontainable like Agent Smith spreading through the baller-radio matrix. As the radio becomes increasingly ATL, Drake does the unthinkable and predictable, assimilating the Oracle, Pluto’s own Future Hendrix, to catch trap credibility and a needed passivity. Drake and Future’s chill reifies our understanding of the two as unbeatable stars on a hot streak, and they make it look easy.

But wasn’t it too easy? Recorded in six days, this is maybe the culmination of a year of “retail mixtapes.” If You’re Reading This and Barter 6, among others, launched a string of mixtapes that were “polished” enough to be considered proper albums, which is only to say, to be sellable. The natural result is WATTBA, another proper studio album that is styled as a mixtape. For a brand micro-manager like Drake, it means something that the first sound on WATTBA is Metro Boomin’s DJ tag. The move is distinctly Drake: This is his first real release in trapaholic mixtape culture, and it’s also $9.99 on Apple Music.

The release’s mixtape-ness allows it to exist casually in the aftermath of a still-for-sale release from Future and with the promise of another purchasable forthcoming album from Drake. But for now, they can ride the wave of their brand strength to give us just what we needed at the time, not a moment too late. The two know themselves enough to depend on their “worst behavior” as a binding agent, appealing to the alternately/simultaneously comic and fatiguing, but always quotable, details of their drug and sex lives. This means a coordinated meeting in the middle of their depressive-championship personalities: It’s a business compromise, imaginable as the suited meeting of superpowers from the ending of the “Where Ya At” video. We should’ve seen this coming, that this is not that big of a deal, even though we’ll be playing it during the pregame until their next thing goes for sale.

Savvily sequenced to look forward, the tape ends with the two doing solo tracks. They part ways on what sound like discarded tracks from DS2 and Nothing Was The Same. “Jersey” is another pinging ode to lean, where Future can sum up his unbroken streak: “You do what you want when you got it.” The “30 for 30 Freestyle” is like the most classically (soft-Drake) Drake track released in years, and maybe his best. This is when we notice that Future’s Twitter avatar is the reflective diamond cover of WATTBA, his highest peak in visibility and truthfully his album, while Drake’s is the art for Views From The 6, the album that will establish his hold on the rap game for another year.

This is how WATTBA ends, not with a line-trading duet, but with each restored intact, no strings, previewing the fire to come.

Brand Loyalty

There’s no doubt Future and Drake are an odd couple — in the way Hendrix makes Drizzy seem anxious and uptight, or how “The Boy” makes “The Astronaut Kid” seem frivolous and immaterial. Future is the cracked screen to Drake’s free and easy-to-use app, the Actavis (downpour, no drought) to Drizzy’s clean Sprite. This is how they get us: Drake and Future both feel just as necessary at their lowest and highest, moments that are in turn indistinguishable.

The tension created speaks to a constructed “magic” that only exists in differentiation. We get off on reading the differences between these rappers’ brands. The comparison game is a human need, an associative project that culture seems to perpetually delight in, resulting in plenty of think-pieces that speculate how certain things are similar and how other things are different. Still, somehow, it’s the element of surprise, rooted in the incongruity between Drake and Future’s two hegemonies, that allows WATTBA to stream along with weird millennial impact. They make it clear that surprise is something us millennials can believe in, maybe because it signals change in a world often too static for our accelerated tastes.

It’s the element of surprise, rooted in the incongruity between Drake and Future’s two hegemonies, that allows WATTBA to stream along with weird millennial impact.

What a time to be alive: when temporary, insubstantial magic tricks shock us into branded feelings of sudden belief, sudden importance, sudden meaning. The inception of these two gargantuan personalities into our contemporary hearts anticipated the “magic” of their apparent, ghost-like collaboration, forcing us to melt like butter over relatively #basic trap tracks. It’s this diffusion of quality into the omnipresent virtuality of brand loyalty and surprise-and-delight marketing that demonstrates how buzz can become poetry, how the easiest association can become illegible, how the mixtape can become an album, how the most basic moment can become heartbreaking.

“You do what you want when you cop it/ You do what you want when you got it/ You do what you want when you poppin’.”
– Future, on “Jersey”

“My plan was always to make the product jump off the shelf, and treat the money like secrets… keep that shit to ourselves…”
– Drake, on “30 for 30 Freestyle”

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