Released a year ago this month, Drake and Future’s What a Time to Believe Alive defined a peak moment for two of the world’s most popular rappers. Claire Lobenfeld digs into the samples that make up the album’s defining moments.
It’s hard to believe that What a Time to Believe Alive only came out a year ago. The album was released at the height of Drake’s beef with Meek Mill, a feud that now seems ancient. Future was untouchable, his run from Beast Mode to DS2 was peppered with megastar moments like ‘March Madness’ and it truly felt like he was about to hit a turning point and actually become a pop star – without having to rest on pop music.
The mixtape’s genesis feels almost mythical, too. It was supposedly recorded over an impromptu six-day session, which is notable since most collaborations are now simply assembled digitally; performers can be anywhere in the world as long as there’s an engineer to splice together the takes. But the two rappers’ relationship has always seemed reciprocal: does Future lean on Drake’s fame by inviting him to guest on all of his full-lengths? Does Drake win authenticity points from Future’s co-sign? Their Summer Sixteen Tour might still be on the road, but the duo’s need for each other seems drastically diminished.
In the meantime, Drake has returned to his role as Rihanna’s romantic heel and is doing just fine as a superstar on his own, while Future’s 2016 output has been impressive only in its velocity. His releases Purple Reign and Evol (sadly not inspired by Sonic Youth’s album of the same name), plus hosting duties on DJ Esco’s Project E.T., generated just one hit — ‘Low Life’, featuring The Weeknd — but have mostly felt lackluster after such an impressive 2015. This tailoff leaves WATTBA as a relic of the pair’s previous peak, a mile-marker for how swiftly time goes by when you’re running on the internet’s clock.
Leaving aside the continuing journeys of our two protagonists, WATTBA contained some of 2015’s most exciting pop-rap, from ‘Diamonds Dancing’ to the endlessly meme-able ‘Jumpman’. We look back at the samples that make up the album, from Young Thug and Frank Dukes to Quincy Jones and and Uncle Murda.
This isn’t a sample so much as a beat entirely repurposed and further finessed into a new track. Metro Boomin’s production is somber, a perfect palette for Future to wax on life before fame and for Drake to taunt one of his rivals. It’s a pretty standard affair — and it was for Young Thug too, whose ‘I Mean’ hook was pretty much just blowjobs and Balmain.
But as with almost every Thug track, he manages to sneak in something that breaks your brain a little bit. In the second verse he raps, “I’m an astronaut / I’m dodging bullets, no Russia,” invoking the Cold War and suggesting that his innovative style is never going to be trampled by anyone else. Future and Drake may have caked off this track, but as far as rap’s arms race goes, Thug is the victor here.
Frank Dukes – ‘Wizardry’
Toronto’s very own Frank Dukes (né Adam Feeney) is one of the smartest producers working right now. Capitalizing on a contemporary obsession with vintage samples, Dukes records instrumental tape loops with vintage instruments, synths, amps and microphones and sells them digitally to people like Drake, Future and, well, Drake and Future. (That soft piano line in Kanye West’s ‘Real Friends’? That’s Dukes’s.)
‘Wizardry’ comes from The Kingsway Music Library, the bank of “samples” Dukes licenses for a modest price, and has caught the attention of Rihanna, Jeremih and many, many more.
Finding information about French producer Nollores is difficult (hence this wonderful photo illustration). There is no information on his Bandcamp, his SoundCloud page has been deleted and his Twitter hasn’t been updated since February 2015.
But Chloe Grace Moretz is a fan and so is PartyNextDoor’s main man Neenyo, who flipped his 2014 track ‘By My Eyes’ into one of the most tranquil stripper odes ever made. If this track is any indication, then Drake’s in-development gentlemen’s club, The Ballet in Houston, should live up to his classier-than-a-booty-bar promise.
‘Ironside’ was the theme music for the police drama of the same name popular in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but you might also know the Quincy Jones tune because RZA included it in both Kill Bill movies. While Jones’s original has been flipped nearly a hundred times — 92, according to WhoSampled — it’s 808 Mafia who have turned its piercing siren into one of their calling cards, particularly with Young Thug’s ‘Danny Glover’ and, more obviously, Future’s ‘Fuck Up Some Commas’.
‘I’m the Plug’ utilizes the siren in a way that makes it come off more like a preset sound effect than a sample of the Tarantino fight scene element that acted as Southside’s inspiration. It’s also one of three (!) cuts Future guested on in 2015, the third being Waka Flocka Flame’s ‘Rotation’. It adds just another layer of self-reference to the album.
Metro Boomin takes Uncle Murda’s big 2015 hit and turns it into the most memorable track on What a Time to Be Alive. It is, again, another piece of the mixtape that was heaved on from somewhere else. But, if anything, the litany of recycling on this project only helps to bolster the narrative that the whole thing was made by the pair seemingly out of nowhere.
On Drake’s ‘5AM in Toronto’, he raps: “Bitches lovin’ my drive / I never give them a break / Give these guys the look, the verse and even the hook / And that’s why every song sounds like Drake featuring Drake”. The What a Time to Be Alive closer features him on his own, rapping over a beat from his mixtape Comeback Season 2. It was pre-So Far Gone, and a piece of his catalogue that even some of the biggest fans of Drake The Pop Star don’t even know. One thing Drake loves to do is outline exactly how he’s come into fame, and this is one of his most subtle instances of doing so.