Every Friday, we’re bombarded with a slew of new music releases vying for inclusion on our streaming playlists. To help cut through the fat, this column will assess the week’s most notable single and album drops and advise you to either stream or skip.
Order of Operations
Ty Dolla $ign—Beach House 3 (Deluxe)
What to Know: Ty Dolla $ign’s guest appearances may favor quantity over quality, but when it’s album time, he locks in. 2015’s Free TC, a melancholy ode to his incarcerated brother that was packed with club joints and raunchy sex jams, presented a powerful portrait of the sadness underlying the good life. Campaign, released during the 2016 election, was similar in execution: Where Free TC weaved voicemails from Ty’s brother between the partying, Campaign had songs like “Zaddy” and “Pu$$y” interspersed with passionate missives from friends and family about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The theme of drugs and sex as vices distracting from real-world worries wasn’t as pronounced on 2017’s Beach House 3, but a series of interludes, meticulously produced with the likes of Mike Dean and Skrillex, tie the album’s exploration of fame and excess together.
Why Stream It: This week’s release is a deluxe version of Beach House 3 with six added tracks, but if you haven’t heard the album in full, rectify that before checking out the new set. The highlight here is “Number,” which is Ty at his finest: His knack for presenting a vivid picture of a specific moment in a hazy night out is on full display. He’s hilariously impressed with himself for persevering through intoxication to call up his new flame: “Baby I’m wasted / How did I get your number right?” It’s a silly concept for a song, but laying it out over a subtly masterful beat from Hitmaka (Ty’s best collaborator and a part of the forthcoming Jeremih joint album, MihTy) and adding expertly deployed backing vocals showcase Ty’s ability to make vapid valuable. “South Beach” is another success and a track that could easily fit on Beach House 3’s main tracklist, far exceeding the expectations set by the “featuring Quavo and French Montana” label.
Why Skip It: Ty’s focus on artistry extends only so far: “Pineapple,” with its unimaginative hook (repetition is a good barometer of Ty’s effort level, and “Ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, pineapple” just doesn’t cut it) and cut-and-pasted guest verse from Gucci Mane, is a flailing attempt at attracting streams, and “Clout” proves Ty still hasn’t learned that one-note trap records are not his strong suit. Neither song is hard to listen to, but measured up against the highs of Beach House 3 and the freshness of “Number,” they feel like throwaways that don’t have a great chance of catching on.
Rita Ora—“Girls” (feat. Cardi B, Bebe Rexha, and Charli XCX)
What to Know: The lineup on “Girls” is all over the place in terms of current buzz: Cardi B is on the short list of hottest rappers in the world; Charli XCX peaked in popularity four years ago; Bebe Rexha has scored top-10 hits with extremely American acts G-Eazy and Florida Georgia Line; and Rita Ora has seen exponentially more success in her native United Kingdom than in the States. The four coming together may not qualify as the biggest crossover event in history, but it’s still noteworthy due to the unfortunate shortage of pop posse cuts featuring women. It’s been 17 years since Christina Aguilera, Lil Kim, Mya, Missy Elliott, and Pink teamed up for “Lady Marmalade”—which inexplicably didn’t spawn countless spinoffs—and Jessie J, Nicki Minaj, and Ariana Grande’s “Bang Bang” felt like such an event in part because of how rarely the cypher setup is applied to women-driven pop songs.
Why Stream It: Even if “Girls” isn’t the start of a revolution, it’s undeniably catchy and what some (not I, but some) would call “a bop.” The song is driven by the refrain “Sometimes, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls,” adding it to a list of recent moments in pop music—from Janelle Monae and Tessa Thompson’s wink-wink chemistry in the Dirty Computer music videos to Demi Lovato and Khelani’s onstage flirtation—that push sex positivity and liberation. Smartly, “Girls” uses the hook’s karaoke-friendly repetition as an extended setup for Cardi’s closeout verse, which is over in a flash but drips with the same charisma that lit up Invasion of Privacy. There are certain lyrics (namely “I don’t gotta introduce myself / I’m too sexy, I seduce myself”) that work only if they’re delivered with complete confidence, and Cardi pulls them off with ease.
Why Skip It: “Girls” is the unofficial sequel to Charli XCX’s single “Boys,” and the rhythm and cadence of the 2017 song’s hook (“I was busy thinkin’ ‘bout boys, boys, boys”) is almost identical to what we get here. In a perfect world, “Girls” will get a video treatment to match its predecessor, but until that day comes, it feels a tad lazy to essentially remake a song that had little variance to begin with. The talents of the quartet on “Girls” might have been better served with a more original concept, but again, it will all be worth it if it leads to a “Nice For What”–style video that doesn’t have Drake in it (which is the ideal version of the “Nice for What” video).
What to Know: The “Dreams and Nightmares” structure may not have originated with Meek Mill’s anthemic and now signature album intro from 2011, but it has certainly seen an uptick in popularity in recent years. Similarly, Cardi B’s “Get Up 10,” and Tee Grizzley’s breakout single, “First Day Out” feature piano keys twinkling under the rappers’ biographical come-up tales—in Tee’s case, about his legal battles and close calls with dodging extended prison time. Then, about 90 seconds in, both the beat and the bars kick into overdrive as the track transforms into a full-on banger, setting headphones and high school football locker rooms on fire with motivational boasts. Both Jay-Z and LeBron James shouted out Tee in the aftermath of “First Day Out,” which reached no. 48 on the Hot 100, setting up Activated as a hotly anticipated debut.
Why Stream It: The fire and hunger, and uniquely offbeat rap style displayed on “First Day Out” is apparent from the opening seconds of Activated, when Tee describes his own energy as “up like a kid before Christmas night who ain’t never had nothing in his life.” The production has the same blend of sinister bounce that carried Grizzley’s My Moment tape, with established producer London on Da Track standing out on highlights “2 Vaults” and “Connect.” Helluva, the veteran Detroit beatmaker behind Tee’s rise, makes sure not to be overshadowed, supplying the hypest moment on the album with “Too Lit.” Lil Yachty and Lil Pump provide exuberant assists, and it’s refreshing to hear them paired with a more polished rapper in Grizzley. But there’s no team-up smoother than “Bloodas 2 Interlude,” a teaser for the sequel to Grizzley and Lil Durk’s underrated collab album from 2017.
Why Skip It: Tee is known for his explanatory rap style—a Twitter meme earlier this year poked fun at his penchant for name-dropping friends in his music and potentially implicating them in crimes—but Activated doesn’t have enough of that aspect. Grizzley’s energetic performance is laudable, but the ratio of trunk-rattlers to reflective tracks is a bit skewed toward the former. The real knock on Activated is the inexcusable double-appearance of Chris Brown on “Set the Record Straight” and “Fuck It Off.” The issue with Brown’s involvement goes beyond his problematic persona; the dude just doesn’t add anything to most of the tracks he hops on in 2018, and the exhaustingly played-out bars he provides (“Red pill, blue pill, we in the Matrix / Take it to the face, better do what I say, bitch”) make it hard not to smash the skip button.
John Mayer—“New Light”
What to Know: John Mayer’s debut album, Room for Squares, came out a week after Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, and while I admittedly don’t know as much about soft-rock culture as I do about hip-hop, The Blueprint came out approximately 37 rap generations ago, meaning John Mayer is officially an O.G. He has three no. 1 albums, three no. 2 albums, and from 2002 to 2006 dropped a string of the illest dorm-room-proclamation-of-love singles in human history. “New Light” is his first release since 2017’s The Search for Everything, which had a track called “Emoji of a Wave” and may or may not have been one of those U2-style “automatically beamed onto everyone’s iPhone” albums, considering the numbers it did (120K pure first-week sales!).
Why Stream It: “New Light” is produced by No I.D., the mastermind behind Jay-Z’s universally hailed and self-flagellating 4:44. There’s no Nina Simone sample on “New Light,” which is for the best; it’s more geared toward a cookout than a confessional, and if it resonates with aunts and uncles nationwide this summer, it’ll have found its calling.
Why Skip It: If John Mayer was in a police lineup and you had to point to the culprit who said “I’m the boy in your other phone / Pushing 40 in the friend zone” on a track, he’d be your first, second, and third guess. “New Light” is the definition of easy listening—I absentmindedly ran it back four or five times while writing this—but the visual of 40-year-old Mayer moping while sending his own 2006 song lyrics to his crush is the exact opposite of “a mood.”
The Wild Card
Playboi Carti—Die Lit
What to Know: There’s a sense among critics that Playboi Carti turns the degradation of lyricism in rap into something like high art. From thoughtful profiles to measured reviews, the consensus has been that while Carti may very well be deficient as an MC, his embrace of simplicity and use of innovative production make his music worthwhile. He’s “new school” in nearly every sense of the term, and yet he’s not entirely a fabrication of YouTube views and SoundCloud streams. He got his start running with Atlanta-based underground label Awful Records, where he was deemed the next big thing; soon after, he joined up with A$AP Rocky’s AWGE crew. It took no time at all to cash in on his cachet: Less than three minutes into his self-titled debut, the beat dropped on “Magnolia,” and he immediately had a smash hit to match his buzz.
Why Stream It: Die Lit follows a similar formula to Playboi Carti. On the new album, Carti wraps around the vibrating instrumental of “Long Time (Intro)” and takes in his surroundings (“I ain’t had shit in a long time / just to feel like this it took a long time”) before Pi’erre Bourne rejoins the fray on the headbanger “R.I.P.” The collaborations with Lil Uzi Vert on Playboi Carti were a highlight, but Die Lit answers them with “Shoota,” on which Uzi and Carti link up with Maaly Raw (the beatmaker behind Uzi’s rise) to create a bright and triumphant track. Chief Keef, the father to Carti’s (and Uzi’s, and countless others’) style, pops up on “Mileage” and sounds perfectly at home.
Why Skip It: Carti was always going to have an uphill battle to top his first release, and if you’re wondering whether his latest project manages to be his best: Die Lit ain’t it. It’s 19 songs long, and its 11 guest spots still aren’t enough to stave off an unbearable level of monotony. Pi’erre Bourne’s beats don’t hit as hard as on his last go-round, and it’s possible that his recent foray into rapping (including two guest verses here) have pulled his attention away from what made him rap’s breakout producer in the first place. Die Lit is fun at times and occasionally as strange as Carti’s best work, but there’s no “Magnolia,” and nothing as otherworldly as “Half & Half,” or as buoyant as “Dothatshit!”