Order of Operations
J. Cole — KOD
Ariana Grande — “No Tears Left to Cry”
Khalid, 6LACK & Ty Dolla $ign — “OTW”
Lykke Li — “Deep End”
SahBabii — “Outstanding” (feat. 21 Savage)
J. Cole — KOD
What to Know: Are there any rap fans left without a passionate stance on J. Cole? His detractors call his music corny and nap-inducing; his followers hold him up as a torchbearer for a genre and generation. As popular and polarizing as he is, Cole tends to stay out of the spotlight between releases: It’s been 16 months since 4 Your Eyez Only, a dark, dense, and deeply personal project about death and responsibility. Based on the title and cover art for KOD—which stands for Kids on Drugs, King Overdosed, and Killing Our Demons simultaneously—it was clear as soon as Cole announced the project earlier this week that it wouldn’t be a pivot to lighter themes.
Why Stream It: With a title like Kids on Drugs, you’d be justified in worrying Cole’s latest would be the album equivalent of this infamous T-shirt, but KOD is more nuanced than the after-school special it may seem to be at first glance. The album succeeds at being less conceptual and more listenable than 4 Your Eyez Only without sacrificing substance. Cole touches on everything from infidelity (“Kevin’s Heart”) to tax policy (“BRACKETS”) while (mostly) reigning in his instincts to bash the listener over the head with unsubtle messaging. The production and technical rapping ability displayed at times on KOD are as stirring as anything in his catalog (save for the untouchable second act of 2014 Forest Hills Drive), and closer “1985” is a pitch-perfect evisceration of SoundCloud rap that impressively manages to avoid preachiness or bitterness.
Why Skip It: Rumblings from the surprise listening party for KOD promised vocal experimentation and a newfound hunger from Cole; those aspects of the album turned out to be overstated. He alters his voice on a couple of tracks (billed as his new alter ego, Kill Edward), but overall KOD is actually less adventurous than tracks like 4 Your Eyez’s “Ville Mentality.” There are moments that feel novel—the rapid-fire flow on the title track, for example—but in the end it’s the same old J. Cole, warts and all. On “Once an Addict,” in the midst of a deadly serious retrospective on his mother’s alcoholism, he raps, “But still I’m all ears, like basset hounds.” Cole’s recent work could surely use a touch of levity (or a radio single) to break up the gloom, but cringey bars like the above detract from what he’s trying to accomplish.
Ariana Grande — “No Tears Left to Cry”
What to Know: Almost one year after the deadly attack at her Manchester concert, Ariana Grande returns. She hasn’t put out any original music since the event (opting only to release a cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as a single in support of the victims), but “No Tears Left to Cry” begins the rollout for her fourth studio album. The track is coproduced by Max Martin, who—along with Pharrell—is rumored to have contributed heavily to the production of the upcoming project.
Why Stream It: “No Tears Left to Cry” is a bait-and-switch, in the best way possible. The title and opening half minute suggest that it’ll be a somber reflection on the emotional aftermath of the Manchester incident. The song does nod to the tragedy, but it’s the polar opposite tonally of what was expected. “No Tears” is an upbeat, carefree anthem, complete with the refrain, “I’m lovin’, I’m livin’, so we turnin’ up.” It nails the Capital-E Event feeling that the best comeback singles bring, and I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t get streamed straight to the top of the charts.
Why Skip It: Assuming an extended album rollout is coming, Grande is about to be ubiquitous for the rest of 2018. Her album—and likely “No Tears Left to Cry” specifically—is going to be the soundtrack you’re stuck with on every Lyft ride at some point this year. If you enjoy postponing the inevitable, skip this track for now and let it find you in a month or two.
Khalid, 6LACK, and Ty Dolla $ign — “OTW”
What to Know: These three artists may have overlapping fans, but they occupy different lanes in the wasteland that is modern R&B. 6LACK (pronounced “black,” which he really wants you to know) is a capable lyricist who uses melody to sell his relationship rhymes; Khalid’s a crooner whose breakout single found him gently imploring his lover to “focus on communicating”; Ty Dolla $ign is a ’90s-style lothario who tends to be focused on … other things. Tracks from Khalid’s debut, American Teen, spent 2017 all over the Billboard Hot 100, and he earned Grammy nominations for Best New Artist and Song of the Year, so it’s safe to say he’s the main attraction on “OTW.”
Why Stream It: This is technically an equal billing, but Khalid takes center stage on the hook. The song falls in line with the imagery of American Teen—picture a late-night drive across your hometown to meet a high school crush. “OTW” certainly has all the makings of a hit: infectiously catchy, with smooth vocals and a breezy instrumental resulting in a four-and-a-half-minute run time that feels half as long. The lineup comes together surprisingly well considering the artists’ differing styles, and each delivers a satisfying verse that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s 2018, so chances are slim that the trio actually got in the studio to record this one rather than emailing verses, but “OTW” is cohesive enough to make it believable.
Why Skip It: There’s no indication “OTW” will appear on a full-length project from any of the three artists involved, so it may end up falling through the cracks and ultimately be forgettable. There’s also the fact that if Khalid’s target demographic skewed any younger, they’d be Jake Paulers. If the relatability his fans adore about his music isn’t there for you, it’s probably safe to file “OTW” with the rest of Khalid’s catalog as unremarkable and move along.
Lykke Li — “Deep End”
What to Know: The four-year album drought is about to end: Lykke announced last week that So Sad So Sexy is coming in June, and released two new tracks, “Deep End” and “Hard Rain,” on Friday. She may not yet be a household name (Drake remixed one of her songs in 2009, before that guaranteed a certain level of associative stardom for an artist), but she’s consistently well received critically: Both Billboard and Rolling Stone included 2014’s I Never Learn in the top 10 of their end-of-year album rankings.
Why Stream It: I Never Learn was a ballad-filled breakup album through and through, but Lykke Li switches up her formula on “Deep End,” using trap-influenced drums as the backdrop for her characteristically moody and affecting vocals. It’s a slick sonic and strategic flex for an artist who has been away for nearly a half decade to return sounding so at home over the sounds of the moment, and “Deep End” manages to fit in and stand out at the same time.
Why Skip It: After a couple of listens, “Deep End” starts to flatten out a bit. Once the thrill of the instrumental wears off, it feels like there’s not quite enough to it—and then you remember that the track’s producer, T-Minus, was behind Drake cuts like “I’m On One” and “The Motto.” Those songs also consisted of catchy instrumental loops that grew tiresome quickly, and some of that staleness pops up here. Lykke Li isn’t nearly as grating as 2011 Drake, but “Deep End” feels a tad too simplistic for its own good.
The Wild Card
SahBabii — “Outstanding” (Feat. 21 Savage)
What to Know: SahBabii is a Chicago-born, Atlanta-made rapper who takes after Young Thug in his vocal delivery and general eccentricity. His breakout single, 2017’s “Pull Up Wit Ah Stick,” crashed the Top 50 on the back of its catchy hook and a tried-and-true music-video format (a format that would later benefit 2018’s breakout rapper, 6ix9ine). His madcap follow-up, “Marsupial Superstars,” was featured in Season 2 of Atlanta (impeccably placed after the deadpan “It’s Michael Vick” line), further establishing SahBabii as an artist to watch in Atlanta. His album, Squidtastic, is set to drop in the coming months.
Why Stream It: “Outstanding” the adjective may be a little strong for “Outstanding” the song, but it improves with repeat listens and is another piece of evidence that SahBabii’s creative instincts are just offbeat enough to be intriguing. The music video boasts a “Vertical Visual Experimentation” style, which is basically just SahBabii messing around with unusual lenses on a selfie stick. Still, you have to respect his directorial ambition.
Why Skip It: SahBabii created his own religion, and his last nonpromotional tweet reads: “I will trade my human life to be a anime character.” He’s a quirky dude, but his music still lags behind in that category. “Outstanding” and its visuals show that SahBabii is an artist who hasn’t figured out how to make music that’s as interesting as he is.