Like a business struggling to retain its core customers in the midst of a major expansion, Drake has spent the entirety of 2015 fighting for hip-hop’s loyalty through his music and extracurricular activities. His February mixtape If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late eschewed the warmth and easy melody of 2013’s Nothing Was the Same for cold, sinister production and the hardest verses of his career. When he was challenged by contemporary Meek Mill over the summer, he came out swinging with a pair of cutting diss tracks and a knockout-via-memes at his own OVO Fest, sending a message that he was willing to embrace retaliation.
Last night, he executed another tactical maneuver by releasing a collaborative mixtape with singular weirdo / trap savant Future, What a Time to Be Alive. From a distance, this looks like a string of unqualified successes for Drake: he’s managed to separate himself from the Starbucks rap of his early career, snuff out accusations of ghostwriting, and has manipulated the public’s thirst for new material like a puppetmaster all year. Dig a little deeper, and the details underpinning each of these successes are sending the same message. Drake can’t help but leave hip-hop behind — he needs to embrace his future as a pure pop star and stop trying to have his career both ways. Anything else is a waste of time.
If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late may have been a collection designed to resonate with hip-hop’s base, but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming the biggest album of the year. It’s hard to think of a better advertisement for Drake’s commercial potency: he released a full-length with few single candidates characterized by iciness, pettiness, and paranoia, and it's become the only album released in 2015 to sell over a million copies. This isn’t a sign that Drake was smart to appeal to the genre’s core; it’s evidence that he’s too big to fail, that casual listeners are willing to follow him down any aesthetic rabbit hole. This is a missed opportunity camouflaged as an emboldening bit of sales news. Instead of using the tape’s success to justify his continuing appeal to "real" hip-hop fans, Drake could’ve used it as the platform from which to launch a pure pop rocket.
The aftermath of his spat with Meek Mill has only reinforced this. When people think about the music Drake released in the beef’s midst at the end of the year and beyond, they won’t think about "Charged Up" or "Back to Back." Those are the tracks that were explicitly targeted at Meek; they were funny and aesthetically distinct, but they’re going to be forgotten. Instead, people are going to remember "Hotline Bling," the longing, lilting single living somewhere between The Police’s "Roxanne" and "Marvins Room."
It’s one of the best songs Drake has ever made, and one of his farthest from hip-hop’s center — like "Hold On, We’re Going Home," it’s amorphous pop-R&B that’s almost entirely sung in his eager, grasping voice. And of course, it’s paid off on the charts: at #16 and climbing on Billboard’s Hot 100, it’s his best-performing single since the predecessor mentioned above.
It's immediately clear that Future owns this tape
That brings us to What a Time to Be Alive, hot off the presses and still being digested by most listeners. It’s immediately clear that Future owns this tape: he’s the king of its aesthetic (thanks to executive production by consigliere Metro Boomin), he has its best verses and its funniest lines, he dominates its runtime. Drake’s verses are isolated and perfunctory, and almost all feel out of place; he recorded the tape with Future in Atlanta, but he could’ve popped a few of these into Gmail as attachments and nobody would know the difference.
His only noteworthy moment comes at the end of the tape with "30 for 30 Freestyle," where he’s detached from Future and reunited with longtime producer Noah "40" Shebib. It’s sumptuous, naked, self-referential, marked with lines about "well-done seared scallops that were to die for," and it feels like it exists in a different universe than the rest of the tape. It’s the only time he sounds like he’s at home.
Drake plugs Apple Music and MacBook chargers, and that's about it
From Drake’s perspective, What a Time to Be Alive is a transparent attempt to harness Future’s perceived authenticity and insane creative momentum as a continued appeal to hip-hop’s heart. It’s ultimately a misstep, a rare one: he sounds awkward and ill-fitting. He lives on this tape’s periphery. Should anyone be surprised that Drake can’t steal moments or slot seamlessly into songs like "Live From the Gutter" or "I’m the Plug?" He’s been honest about his lower-middle-class upbringing and observational perspective on Future’s typical subject matter —he wasn’t a rich boy or a pampered child star, but this isn’t familiar terrain for him. Drake plugs Apple Music and he plugs MacBook chargers into outlets scattered throughout his well-appointed Toronto condo. (Did you notice this tape is an iTunes store exclusive?)
His marginalization in this context — and the developing public reaction to the tape — only serve to confirm a fact that’s been lurking in the background this whole time: Drake’s fight to keep a place in hip-hop’s inner sanctum is futile. He has the widespread appeal, the melodic gifts, and the industry weight to achieve Taylor Swift-level pop stardom. All he needs to do is accept its inevitability.