Who Cares About A Location?: Future and Drake’s 2015 Song “Where Ya At”
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There are times that I find myself slyly announcing to no-one but myself “200 miles on the dash.” I tend to emphasize the “shhh” of dash, as though the word just escaped from my mouth and is drifting away, slowing down for only as long as I keep my teeth clenched and hiss through the fractures and gaps. The words close a phrase from “March Madness,” a 2015 song by Future that is littered with the sounds of cash registers and unending pursuit. The track is emblematic of the unique sonic identity Future sculpted; there is no soaring chorus, instead it all feels like a slow loop that replays its way through a six note pattern that ascends and descends the staircase of the singer’s complicated life. The tune was searing and it came after DS2, the album that catapulted the artist into iconic status. If you were in your 20s or 30s and lived near someone who played hip hop radio, then you heard something from DS2 in between one of Fetty Wap’s many hits.
This was the summer of 2015. It was the end of the Obama era and all that, but it was also the beginning of the end of the Drake years and the start to Future’s brief but astonishing reign as the king of the melodic puncture. He produced an absurd amount of music and it seemed as though Future was making records every day as he meandered through the miasma of his life. Over time the narrative developed that the artist known by many names, including Hendrix, was unveiling himself and his drug addiction for all to hear. This always seemed simplistic to me. Still, folks ran with it.
Amidst all those stories which sought to extract the gems of personal struggle in a musician’s life, something went missing. As I heard it, Future was offering one of the most consistently fascinating catalogs of moments in music; his tracks are and were made of small little twists and turns. Forget the importance of a drop or the catchiness of a hook. For Future it was in the detail and certain vocal tics carried with them entire movements of an atmosphere. In those choices Future took a sound he had developed and played on it just enough so that it appeared as if he was evolving. This remains true today. Yes, it feels linear, even when things feel-sorta-kinda-maybe stagnant. I don’t mean to suggest that Future’s music is getting better with every album or mixtape; rather he is building on a sound.
Unlike other artists who deliver unique sentiments with each album, Future appears to be sculpting and resculpting a specific sound. With each record he trims a little here and adds some more there; it is as though there is some ideal album that could be at the end of the road and Future has brought every kind of tire that one could conceive of for whatever terrain he encounters. He is going to keep driving until we can’t not listen and look. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But when DS2 came out it “Where Ya At,” was a sign of the direction hip hop was going and the impending deluge of collaborative projects that would follow. Most of them would disappoint. One of those was, of course, Future and Drake’s What a Time To Be Alive.
If much of DS2 now sounds so clearly of a moment (I think Future’s other work ages better, including his incredible and still under recognized debut album Pluto), “Where Ya At” remains more than a captivating capsule of a different time in music and all of its exciting potential (what would it mean for Drake and Future to collaborate? How would Future change the popular mode of hip hop? Where could Drake go after embracing the trap sound on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late?). In the awkwardly titled “Where Ya At” we also hear a sort of naive excitement. These are the sounds when the thrill isn’t gone yet. Here we have two established artists with forever in the making personae, and a young producer who was finding himself before the world soon came to consume him as an ad-lib. Metro Boomin had worked with Future for some time, and he had a hand in “Tuesday,” the at-one-time ubiquitous hit by iLoveMakonnen. But 2015 was the year when the twenty two-year old torched the industry’s sonic foundation and rebuilt a new aural architecture that has been, when not foregrounded, apparent behind every popular track since.
Over the last decade Drake, like Rihanna, has proven himself an adept mimic. That is not a knock. Whatever complicated and nefarious economic wheelings there are (and I want to follow Meaghan Garvey in breaking up with Drake because of well…all of it), the persona-artist-conglomeration that is “Drake” has consistently shown an ability to follow someone else’s lead and then pull ahead of them in the last minute. If the reference tracks that leaked supposedly bar Drake from ever being able to claim the gauntlet of “greatest rapper around,” those drips never prevented him from sliding into the role of “greatest interpreter around.”
“Where Ya At” was not a smash success but it was the lead single and it is the only song to have a feature on DS2. Two and a half years later the track remains exciting. It is a song driven by little moments and it is an example of how, even when Drake can’t quite snatch someone else’s model, he vocally carves himself into the song by leaning into and falling out of specific moments. With the producers and engineers he works with, Drake is able to find the space to sustain his totally fried out, please take a sip of water, voice. On “Where Ya At” we hear breath; we hear the vocality of an individual. However, the sound of breathing is not just some signal of embodiment, it is not merely some marker that there are human beings behind the music; rather in the different forms of breath which come onto the record, we have a trace of something that seemed to escape. It is a simple thing to note, but it remains important that, for an artist who is meant to sound slick, we still hear friction: Drake breathes.
Of course, metaphors of the aquatic have for a long while followed Future. It is that bubbling or burbling or warbling or whatever it is that critics and fans have found so attractive (assuredly related to the persona of an artist who tells you that he is masking his pain through drug use, and masks himself in a particular sound). Next to that sound Drake’s guest verse is all the more notable. The breath is heard. It is a kind of grace moment that reveals the inner-workings of a manufactured product. When the ripples and chimes of “Where Ya At” begin (maybe a banjo?), we are welcomed by an exasperated Future who expresses frustration with folks who weren’t there before. But before he lets us know what the theme of the song is, he too takes a breath. We hear a sort of sigh as his lips part, and the poppysmic of Future’s mouth opening is made audible. And then he takes another breath and the words seem to tumble out of his mouth, “talking talking talking ‘bout what you need and all this shit” the sibilance of “sh” mirroring the inhalation he takes. Here that sound isn’t meant to pump the brakes on the drift of words. It is an invitation.
The gravitational pull of “Where Ya At” is in the questions that follow. 12 seconds into the track we get the hi-hats so associated with “trap music” and they are followed by the litany of questions which really require no answer. It is always hard to know who a song is addressed to (if anyone) so let’s call the addressee of this song “Joe.” It will be easier that way. “Where Ya At” is about how Joe failed to show up. Joe didn’t offer his help and even if he was where he was supposed to be, he failed in his obligations as a friend. With that failure came a painful scalding. A blister has formed and Future still reckons with the emotional toll that blister extracts, if only implicitly.
There are no answers that can adequately respond to the song’s titular question. No answers are needed. Future relies on the repeated construction “Where your ass was at, dog, when…” before he goes on to list any number of scenarios when Joe could have offered assistance. But again, there is not appropriate answer: Future has already marked out a response. He has got the map out and knows where Joe was and still is: Joe has entered the landscape of nowhere. And so the wound still hurts, but only in those rare moments when the narrator is accosted by a man who failed to show up. While the narrator was showing out, Joe was doing his thing. That is worthy of nothing more than inattention. There is no desire to heal the burn — to do that would be to show Joe a map out of the nowhere. After his carelessness why would anyone want to help in that way? If you weren’t there for the ride, don’t appear at the destination.
The parallelism of each line provides its own disorienting feel. For a long time, when I listened to “Where Ya At” I found myself unable to tell where I was in the song. The more than a dozen assignations of nowhereness create a kind of aural sense of loss. At least that is what I first thought. Two years later, I’m starting to hear the seams of the engineering. I’m starting to hear the breaths.
At about the 47 seconds mark, after 8 lines of the first verse, another filter is put on Future’s voice. The change in vocal quality marks a change in affect: what was at first the clear assigning of nowhereness becomes a hard to hear condemnatory proclamation. Future’s throat now seems to be made of gravel and with each word the phlegm and spittle grows more viscous and he finds new points of punctuation. Future is not slurring his words. The message is still clear. Rather, he is finding a new place for emphasis.
The fluctuation of pitch and reorganization of sounds and the new ways Future maneuvers through the list of faux-questions is what I find so miraculous. After breaking the “Where your ass was at…” structure for a few lines, he returns to “Where your ass was at when I was trapping in the store?”
Again no answer is needed. But the sharp hard sound of store is forsaken. Future gives his own non-answer in the shedding of the note of familiarity encased in the word “dog.” His timbre changes too. Gone is the vocal fry that accompanied each question before. Instead, Future lowers the pitch and elongates the word “store” as though he just stepped out of his car or off a sidewalk while posing the non-question. Store. Stow. Stowe. Stowaway. These are the moments that steal away and very subtly open up the tune.
This manipulation of the word is something that Drake tries to follow in his own way. However, the vocal masking that defines Future’s unique sound is absent in Drake’s formation. There is no warbling. There is nothing that sounds like mumbling. And why would there be? Drake has never been mistaken for a mumble rapper; he shares little with artists like Young Thug and Future who are known for the pulsations of their vocal jabs. Drake can’t get there (he might be lost in the nowhere). What Drake does, though, is amp up the vocal fry and ride the cynical faux question form.
Part of the power of Future or Young Thug’s voice is that in their automated sounds, the voice is clearly marked out not as a reproduction of a performance in the studio, but instead a representation of that prior moment of recording. We don’t hear Future as the man Nayvadius DeMun Wilburn. Instead we hear an artistic voice. It is a representation of the voice. That is not Drake’s mode. In the absence of that acknowledged representation, the act of breathing sounds very different.
When Drake goes through the litany of questions, we hear him, ever so quietly take a breath.
In Drake’s breath, there is some instability and friction and it sounds like the friction of collaboration and the friction of the tune’s message. Future is unconcerned with answering any of his questions, but the same cannot be said for Drake, who is trying to keep up and assure listeners both of his success and his devotion to craft and camaraderie. The song’s fundamental accusation is that someone didn’t show up. When Drake ends each line he lets the word curl back onto himself. Where Future is acerbic and declarative, dressing down the addressee in each moment, Drake seems to let the question sit as though he actually cares. He seems to really wonder where Joe was. It is as though the inability to show up reflects not only on the absent person but on Drake himself. What we hear in these breaths is the specific kind of effort that Drake never wants to show as he is too busy trying to reveal the effort he is putting into a relationship that he also dismantles.
The aesthetic of “trying too hard so that it all breaks” is not welcome here. Even if insincere in his actions, Drake’s persona requires that we think he wants to fix things. Future doesn’t care. This complicated revelation is fully apparent in Drake’s final words which ring hollow: “fuck where you was at, I had the 6 [Toronto] on my shoulders.” The proclamation that he was single handedly lifting up his city becomes another place to hear how the voice works. We don’t hear a breath here, in fact there is no decay for his words at all. Before he can condemn and sharpen the word “shoulder,” Future slides in to recover the scenario. Drake’s metaphor of carrying the city remains unfurled. He tries to elongate the word as Future does with “store” but the claim is never completed. The suggestion that he was the bearer of Toronto is punctured. It is, and can only ever be, partial.
Meaghan Garvey wrote in her review of DS2 that Drake“does a commendably bitter Future impression.” I agree. Drake’s attempt is exactly that, an impression. He does not take full hold of the model because he can’t make it his own and so I wonder where the bitterness actually lies. Assuredly there are material reasons for the sound of his vocals. The breaths open up questions: did Drake just come back from a run that day? Where was his famous hookah during the moments of laying down the tracks? Was he upset about his own failures to show up for others? Where was Drake at?
That final question haunts the song. At least that is what I hear.