Worse than Dirty Sprite 2 and better than If YOu’re Reading This It’s TOO Late (mostly because this one’s shorter). Here’s Pitchfork’s Sheldon Pearce:
“Many tracks are just Future songs with Drake verses tagged on (Future gets almost double the airtime), and Drake often sounds out of his element. When Future gets rolling on songs like “Digital Dash” and “Live From the Gutter”, Drake is a bystander. The tape was allegedly born out of an impromptu, six-day recording session, and too many moments on it feel like they were thrown together in that time span. Drake probably shouldn’t be on a song called “I’m the Plug”, for example, and the hook on “Big Rings” is terribly bland and awkward. This wasn’t created with the care or the dutiful curation we’ve come to expect from both artists when solo.
[…] Unlike Watch the Throne, which was presented as a grand statement album from self-coronated heads of rap royalty, What a Time To Be Alive is a tag-on release, a one-off that intentionally exists in the shadows of its 2015 predecessors as a bonus disc. Designating it a tape seemingly alleviates the pressure to curate. Meanwhile, Drake’s cushy Apple deal allows him to disseminate it for retail via iTunes and premiere it exclusively on his OVO Sound show on Apple Music’s Beats 1 Radio. It’s a low risk, high reward proposition.”
Indeed. Yet, happily, it didn’t make those promised rewards. Unlike If YOu’re Reading This It’s TOO Late, both the public and critics mostly readily called this one on its shit: according to Wikipedia, What A Time To Be Alive sold 334,000 units in its first week (a figure was only 67% of its projected sales), and sales dropped 81% the second week, and as of writing, this has moved less than half the units of Drake’s previous mixtape.
Anyway, a combination of the concept of two big-name rappers and the cover have inspired plenty of people to compare this to Watch the Throne: this shit is not even remotely comparable. That album featured Jay-Z’s last efforts as a rapper (instead of the entertainer he fully embodied on 2013 (ie. “No Church in the Wild,” “Niggas in Paris,” “H*A*M”), with one of his worst albums and worst features), and though Kanye West barely tries anymore on the rapping front, his verses were still chock-full of quotables (as Kanye West verses always are). Comparatively, Drake does this, “She don’t want pets but I’m a dog, yeah, yeah / And she love it dog, yeah, yeah / And she love it dog, yeah, yeah” (which bothers me because he set himself up for a doggy-style line) on a verse that doesn’t even bother rhyming (another issue of the same verse: he mouth-rapes someone after the pillow talk, which is the wrong order, to say the least). This is a verse that follows Future’s crushing-in-context “I watched my broad give up on me like I’m average,” remember?
Elsewhere, Watch the Throne sported some of Frank Ocean’s catchiest melodies and some great beats (“Otis,” “New Day”). Here, Drake, who is able to produce catchy hooks in his sleep (latest example: “YOU!” from “Hotline Bling”; it’s literally one fucking syllable), offers none here. The nadir is “Plastic Bag,” which assumes that strippers use plastic bags to pick up cash at the end of the evening (as a Canadian, this doesn’t happen; we don’t have 1-dollar bills, so fuck if I know), whose beat sounds like it would be on after the strip club has closed down (unlike almost every other song in the genre). I suppose “Big Rings” and “Diamonds Dancing” offer nice rave-ups, but that’s reaching.
Other specifics: the synth-runs through “Digital Dash” and the keyboard hook of “Live From the Gutter” make for the mixtape’s two best songs (though the latter doesn’t even bother transitioning to the following “Diamonds Dancing”). Points lost because “I’m the Plug” is clear filler and “Change Locations” spins it wheels after Future’s verse (therefore, for most of its runtime); “Jumpman” is a slight victory after all of that. The mixtape ends with “30 for 30 Freestyle,” a Drake solo number that’s so obviously tacked on, it’s further proof that there was no thought in making What a Time to be Alive outside of making it and making money. Yet, it’s also an easy highlight because 40’s beat (and to a lesser extent, because Drake doesn’t phone it in): lovely piano runs and samples that sound like ghosts materializing before evaporating.