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
Pharrell & Camila Cabello—“Sangria Wine”
What to Know: After splitting from the girl group Fifth Harmony, Camila Cabello existed in pop purgatory for a very brief period. Going solo is an uncertain path, and even with Machine Gun Kelly collab “Bad Things” climbing the charts, Cabello had a ways to go to prove that she could create her own lane. A year after she ditched the Harmonizers, “Havana” hit no. 1 on the Hot 100. The song was widely palatable—as every no. 1 smash must be—but it was also one of a kind. The hook’s ode to Cabello’s Cuban roots and Young Thug’s characteristically nonsensical guest verse made “Havana” a track that separates itself by being the product of a singular artist and aesthetic.
Why Stream It: “Sangria Wine” is the follow-up to “Havana” in more ways than one. It’s billed as a team effort between Cabello and Pharrell, whose imprint was also clear on “Havana,” on which he’s credited as a writer. “Sangria Wine” utilizes the same understated bounce that put Cabello’s solo career on the map, aiming to work its way up from foot-tapping to all-out dancing with a similarly slow burn. The track possesses some of the irreverence that Pharrell brings to all of his work, but his decision to blend in rather than jump out is a bonus here. His usual histrionics might have been jarring next to Cabello’s sultry vocals, but they mesh together nicely on what amounts to an admirable follow-up effort.
Why Skip It: The hook on “Sangria Wine” is … fine. It’s not weak by any stretch, but it also isn’t bursting with energy and melody in the way that “Havana” was. It may be unfair to praise Pharrell for toning down his unpredictability and then turn around and criticize him for a lack of flair, but it feels like a guy known for doing the most doesn’t do quite enough. Cabello’s verses are excellent and build anticipation as they move along, but there’s a subtle letdown that comes with hearing Chill Pharrell slide in for the chorus. Something between what we get on “Sangria Wine” and what we got on “1000” and the rest of No_One Ever Really Dies would have struck the perfect balance.
Lil Baby—Harder Than Ever
What to Know: Just over a year ago, Lil Baby was a regular around the studios of Quality Control Music, a side character likely to be found gambling with the likes of Migos and Lil Yachty but not a musical contributor to the label’s gradual takeover of the Atlanta rap scene. Prodded to throw his hat in the ring by the QC brass, the 23-year-old has since put out a series of mixtapes (titled—in a gimmick he hasn’t let go of but surely cannot last much longer—Harder Than Hard, Too Hard, and now Harder Than Ever). In doing so, Baby scored a handful of viral singles, including the Hot 100–charting “My Dawg,” and last week became the latest in a line of street rappers to be blessed with a feature verse from Drake.
Why Stream It: The appeal of Lil Baby’s music is his authenticity, but if you’re uninitiated and expecting a typical showcase of how hard he is, Harder Than Ever should be a welcome surprise. Don’t get me wrong: Lil Baby flexes in his raps just as much as the next new-wave trap star. But his delivery is gentle and reserved even when he’s at his most boastful. On “Leaked,” bars about Gucci bags and tick-tockless Rollies sound slightly out of place over the mournful guitar riff in the beat; when Lil Baby raps “I popped the wrong pill, now I’m nauseous / I need to get off this drink, it’s a problem,” it feels much more consistent with the tone of the track. The woodwind sounds that open “Throwing Shade” suggest a cheap imitation of “Mask Off” and “Portland”; instead, Baby and frequent collaborator Gunna rap about keeping themselves and their newfound riches out of harm’s way over a gloomy instrumental. This is Lil Baby’s persona: vulnerability cloaked in materialism. Harder Than Ever is this formula perfected, and it makes for a compelling project from start to finish.
Why Skip It: A huge part of Lil Baby’s early success has been his flow. It’s cyclical and seemingly never-ending, as displayed on the cult hit “Freestyle.” That song has no hook and doesn’t build toward any larger ideas than what’s presented from the start, but the appeal is in the way Lil Baby sounds as though if the beat didn’t stop, he’d have kept rapping for hours. In album format, that approach can get unwieldy. Each track on Harder Than Ever has at least a handful of interesting moments, but drawn out across 17 tracks and 51 minutes, Lil Baby’s breathless stream of consciousness can become monotonous.
What to Know: Since .Paak’s Grammy-nominated breakout album Malibu, released in January 2016, he’s taken the long road rather than flood the market with music. In a recent interview, he claimed to have “65,000” songs recorded for a new album, but made it clear that he and Aftermath label head Dr. Dre were not going to put out a less-than-stellar product. When .Paak returned to the airwaves in March with “Til It’s Over,” it seemed like an odd decision for an artist of such particular standards to give up a song in service of an Apple HomePod ad. It wasn’t the first time a Dre act shilled for a corporation (hell, Dre himself is one at this point), but the single left fans deflated nonetheless.
Why Stream It: “Bubblin” sounds straight out of a 1970s blaxploitation film, but with a distinctly Dr. Dre sensibility. It is a standout single that is energetic and refreshing, without pandering to current trends. In fact, .Paak gives the impression that he’s confident that the masses will make their way back to his music naturally, or maybe that he doesn’t care either way. By the time the second verse rolls around and he snaps into a double-time “Look at Me”–like flow, it feels earned and hits hard: He’s spitting like this because he wants to, not because he needs to.
Why Skip It: Fans that found .Paak on Malibu know that he’s adept at penning lyrically and emotionally layered tracks, and equally successful going for purely fun records. “Bubblin” falls into the latter category, and fans of .Paak’s more introspective work may come away wishing for more depth than “Bubblin” provides.
Jennifer Lopez—“Dinero (feat. DJ Khaled & Cardi B)”
What to Know: Those in their early 20s may know J.Lo more as an American Idol judge and revered relic of the late ’90s than as an actual, honest-to-goodness superstar. But given that Lopez is Latina and from the Bronx, and outspoken and charismatic, it was only a matter of time before she aligned herself with of-the-moment superstar Cardi B. That day has arrived in the form of “Dinero,” with DJ Khaled tagging along for the ride. The song will be performed at the Billboard Music Awards on Sunday night, a moment that will either bring fans young and old together, or cause intense intergenerational feuds about which artist and era are superior.
Why Stream It: “Dinero” is incredibly goofy and gimmicky, but is at least self-aware about it. It’s basically a vehicle for delivering wacky punch lines, which both J.Lo and Cardi do without shame (the opening lines of the song are J.Lo’s “Me and Benjamin Franco stay at the Banco”; Cardi follows up later with “Merengue to the money / Bachata to the bank”). They also lean into the idea that their union is a moment. Cardi ends her verse with the couplet, “Two bad bitches that came from the Bronx / Cardi from the pole and Jenny from the block,” driving home the idea that a torch is being passed.
Why Skip It: DJ Khaled’s useless inclusion aside, what really undercuts “Dinero” is the fact that its genre-melding combination of latin pop rhythm and trap 808s and hi-hats was done so recently, and so much more effectively, on Cardi’s “I Like It.” The latter song is sitting in the top 20 on the Hot 100, and it’s hard to imagine “Dinero” matching that success.
The Wild Card
KYLE—Light of Mine
What to Know: You probably know KYLE from “iSpy,” his ubiquitous and incessantly millennial 2016 single with Lil Yachty. Everything about it was fairly on the nose, from the elementary piano loop in the instrumental to the hook, which repurposed a children’s guessing game into a search for insecure Instagram dates. Youth and youth alone can’t remain an artist’s brand forever, so debut LP Light of Mine is the 25-year old’s fork in the road, an opportunity to either commit to chasing the success of “iSpy” or to put together a statement of stronger intent.
Why Stream It: KYLE is very aware of being perceived as having a frustratingly happy-go-lucky persona, and he addresses that image on Light of Mine’s opener, “Ups & Downs.” Posing as one of his detractors, he asks himself, “Why is you rapping ’bout happy? / Think about all the bad shit that happens.” It’s a deceptively loaded concept, intentionally dumbed down to amplify its stakes. Is it irresponsible to make joyful music in an often joyless cultural moment? It’s not a question KYLE fully grapples with throughout Light of Mine, but taken as a response to trauma-as-art statements like “This is America” (currently no. 1 in the country), the album proves that KYLE believes his optimism deserves a place in the conversation. Single “Playinwitme” is the unofficial “iSpy” sequel, leaning on twinkling keys and a guest spot, but Kehlani’s contributions here outstrip Yachty’s on the original. When KYLE recruits unexpected guests (Sophia Black sings the hook for “Ikuyo” in Japanese), or goes straight dance-pop (the Khalid collab “iMissMe”), it’s a pleasant change of pace from his blueprint sound.
Why Skip It: The first time I heard KYLE, he was rapping about the virtues of swaggerlessness on the Social Experiment’s “Wanna Be Cool” alongside Chance the Rapper, an artist many consider too bubbly and cheerful himself. Next to KYLE, Chance sounds like DMX. “OK, let’s remember that shopping at Payless, it just means you pay less / It don’t make you bae-less,” said KYLE on that track, in a spot-on impression of the eraser-flipping Vine girl. Smiling through struggle isn’t an option for everyone, and if overbearing sincerity and positivity make you uncomfortable or angry, the barrier to entry on Light of Mine might be too much to overcome.