The New ATLiens

Drake is the biggest rapper in our world, but his new mixtape with Future reveals just how much Atlanta has become its own galaxy.

Rappers Future, left, and Young Thug.
Future and Young Thug.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Photos by Paras Griffin/Getty Images.

Drake is currently the most successful rapper in the world, but neither of the first two voices we hear on What a Time to Be Alive, Drake and Future’s recently released album-slash-mixtape (no one’s quite sure), belong to the self-proclaimed “6 God” himself. The first is wunderkind Young Thug, who technically doesn’t even appear on What a Time to Be Alive but whose sampled, disembodied warble provides the tag that announces the presence of producer Metro Boomin. The second voice is Future’s own, sputtering clipped and nonsense syllables. When he finally intones the song’s first line, “my dope in the bushes,” the words rush out in a slush of half-enunciated consonants, and are repeated again, so you can not understand them a second time.

This entire sequence lasts a little more than 20 seconds and is a riveting and totally fitting opening to What a Time to Be Alive, a solid if rarely revelatory work that performs the curious feat of rendering its own headliner superfluous. There are prolonged stretches on this album (let’s just go with it) when we almost forget Drake exists, an almost impossible feat in 2015. What a Time to Be Alive is a work steeped in a fundamentally elusive musical language flourishing in Atlanta and seeping into a mainstream that it’s increasingly transforming. In its world, Future, Young Thug, and Metro Boomin are central players, while Drake, hip-hop’s premier cosmopolitan, still comes off as a tourist—eager but peripheral, and perpetually fleeting.  

Last week the Washington Post’s music critic Chris Richards published a terrific essay on Young Thug in which he heralded the rapper as the most vital voice in rap if not all of pop music, calling him a “post-verbal eruption that best reflects the incomprehensibility of the right now.” For the uninitiated, Young Thug’s music is a strange and hypnotic hybrid of rapping and singing, luxuriously laconic one moment and ferociously hyperactive the next, all the while nourishing a performative disregard for conventions of narrative and intelligibility. He is also the object of critical rapture: Last year the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica named Young Thug’s mixtape collaboration with Bloody Jay, Black Portland, the best album of 2104, one spot above Beyoncé. “If rap music is an attempt to make sense of this world out of rhythm and rhyme,” writes Richards, “then the music of Young Thug is the sound of that world being dismantled.”

This description fits just as snugly with Future himself, who’s currently giving Thug a run as the hottest, weirdest MC in the land. Future and Young Thug dismantle worlds so as to reconstruct them in their own image and imagination, and the imaginations of the (very) young men who produce them. Both are insanely prolific. By Richards’ count Thug has released over 100 songs in the past year alone, and his most recent collection, an 18-track opus called Slime Season, appeared just last week. So far in 2015 Future has released three mixtapes and has at least two more on the way, to go along with one official album, DS2, which debuted at No. 1 in June and is thus far the best hip-hop album of 2015 by anyone not named Kendrick Lamar.

DS2 is a bruising, sparkling work that pummels and dazzles in equal measure. On tracks like “I Serve the Base,” “Rotation,” and “Fuck Up Some Commas,” Future’s auto-tuned voice quivers and tears, ricocheting off rattling hi-hats and piano keys, swirling into whirlpools of feedback. The sullen swagger and verbal minimalism of the album’s latest single, “Where Ya At” (also featuring Drake, also produced by Metro Boomin) recalls a champagne-and-codeine revision of the Mekons’ punk classic “Where Were You?” This music isn’t inarticulate, it just has better things to do than talk to you.

Both Young Thug and Future are radical formalists, enthralled by sound for sound’s sake, and the more elusive instrumental capacities of the human voice. As rappers (the term feels both too broad and too narrow) they share an obsession with repetition that feels simultaneously avant-garde and reactionary, offering themselves up as vocal analogues to the breaks that Kool Herc merry-go-rounded into perpetuity 40-some years ago. Their voices are both tools and canvases, wreaking havoc on the borders of melody and rhythm and alchemizing Auto-Tune into something radically human.

They are fundamentally creatures of the studio, which isn’t to say they are creations of it. But this is producers’ music through and through: The scene that begat both of these artists boasts an embarrassment of production talent, and their music has become a space for producers such as London on da Track, Sonny Digital, and the aforementioned Metro Boomin (24, 24, and 22 years old, respectively) to go wild with their own invention. These prodigious youngsters’ elder statesman is Mike Will Made It, a comparatively long-in-the-tooth 26-year-old who is already one of the most influential producers of his generation.

In its nerdy meticulousness and studio hermitude, this stuff recalls a hip-hop analogue to Steely Dan, thumbing its nose at mundane and outdated authenticity in service of something less bodily, more cerebral. But its attention to sonic pleasure and entrancement fits squarely into the traditions of classic club music, lithely skating into the more self-consciously arty milieu of electronica and synth-pop. Spiritually and philosophically, DS2 often seems to share more ground with Jamie XX’s In Colour or even Tame Impala’s Currents than with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, an album whose torrential verbosity and bleeding-edge live musicianship feel almost like a polar opposite to the druggy, synthetic worlds of Future and his collaborators.

The avant-garde of Future and Young Thug isn’t entirely outside of tradition. Perhaps their most looming antecedent is Lil Wayne, whose mid-2000s heyday was marked by similarly voracious productivity and a verbal approach that felt like he’d found the cheat codes to language. That long moment when Wayne’s was the most exciting voice in rap already feels too far gone, but Thug, Future, and of course Drake himself—anointed for stardom by Weezy at the height of his powers in 2008—all stand as monuments of Wayne’s world. Going back even further, a figure who surfaces more than occasionally when listening to Future and Young Thug is the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, a rapper so uniquely bizarre that it feels oxymoronic to describe him as “influential.” But more than 20 years after its release, his debut single, “Brooklyn Zoo,” sounds no less immediate, a musician marauding past conventions of narrative and meaning, wielding the word “fuck” like a bludgeoning percussion instrument. In his best moments, ODB dragged the genre toward himself, and some small corner of it might have stayed there.  

Future and Young Thug aren’t for everyone, but if you look back over the long history of popular music—or really, art itself—the stuff that ends up moving the needle rarely is. These are wild and dreamy worlds, full of insurrection and audacious intention. If What a Time to be Alive doesn’t quite live up to expectations, it still manages to confirm its title.