Thu, Sep 24, 2015 - Page 11 News List

CD reviews

By Jon Caramanica  /  NY Times News Service

What a Time to Be Alive, by Drake & Future

What a Time to Be Alive, Drake & Future , Cash Money/Epic

1989, Ryan Adams , PAX-AM/Blue Note

The idea of a partnership of equals is, at best, fallacy, and at worst, fantasy. Never is that more clear than when one-half of the team-up is Drake or Taylor Swift, the anchors of contemporary pop music.

Sunday night, Drake and Future released their collaborative album What a Time to Be Alive and the alt-country wanderer Ryan Adams unveiled 1989, his full-album cover of Taylor Swift’s multiplatinum LP. They are two completely different sorts of albums — one a collaboration between peers, the other a love letter from an indie idol to a pop queen — that still somehow end up serving similar purposes.

Both serve as stopgap releases, either literal or de facto: Drake is still working on Views From the 6, his forthcoming fourth album, and Swift is still on her 1989 tour. Drake has become a master of the incidental hit, releasing a steady drip of material that keeps him front and center even when he’s not playing at full speed. And Swift’s 1989 has had a long tail: Its fifth single, Wildest Dreams, peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 last week, almost 11 months after the release of 1989, which is currently No. 5 on the Billboard album chart.

More important, though, both albums bolster the bigger star in the dyad. On Adams’ 1989, Swift is an object of study, of fascination, of inspiration, of worship. Adams is in her tractor beam, a mere plebe. Its existence pegs 1989 not just as a valuable and stable text in its own right, but also as one with influence. By contrast, What a Time to Be Alive is in theory a match of equals — Future is perhaps the only rapper who could plausibly be said to be having a better 2015 than Drake. But Drake exerts the stronger gravitational pull, and while this album feels of a piece with Future’s impressive streak of 2015 mixtapes and albums, for Drake, in a year of public quarrels, it’s as much a chess move as an aesthetic move, probably more.

In spirit, What a Time to Be Alive is closer to the airless desperation and joyless ecstasy of Future’s July album DS2 than to Drake’s surly February pseudo-mixtape If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, or the bits and bobs he’s released since, like the sauntering, cheeky Hotline Bling or the blistering Meek Mill attacks Charged Up and Back to Back.

On What a Time to Be Alive, both men dwell on the paranoia and psychological tragedy that come with wealth and fame, though of the two, Future is more baldly emotional. “When I was sleeping on the floor you shoulda seen how they treat me/ I pour the Actavis, pop pills, so I can fight the demons,” he moans on Digital Dash. On Live From the Gutter, he laments, “I watched my broad give up on me like I’m average” (a reference, most likely, to the dissolution of his relationship with R&B star Ciara, with whom he shares a son.)

Drake, fresh off his Meek Mill battle, uses this album to continue to take names. “Hats off for a solid effort/But we didn’t flinch for a second,” he shrugs on 30 for 30 Freestyle.

For the most part, What a Time to Be Alive is a layup from two of hip-hop’s most innovative rappers, not a hasty record, but not an intricate one either, more like a series of energetic first drafts, with choruses often little more than the same phrase repeated ad nauseam — though in the case of Plastic Bag and Diamonds Dancing, what choruses they are.

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