Order of Operations
Pusha T — Daytona
What to Know: President of GOOD Music, one-half of legendary Virginia rap duo Clipse, and (former) (self-proclaimed) trafficker of copious amounts of narcotics. These are just a few of the titles held by Pusha T, who returns from a three-year hiatus with seven new songs, all produced by Kanye West. Daytona was originally titled King Push, but the title change was just one of several adjustments made to the project prior to release: Kanye reportedly remade every instrumental after the first version of the project was completed and also swapped out the cover art for a photo of Whitney Houston’s bathroom that’s hard to see as anything but in poor taste. Prerelease antics aside, Daytona is billed as another installment of Pusha spitting emphatically about illicit activity over unorthodox production — or as he put it: “high taste level, luxury, drug raps.”
Why Stream It: Pusha’s rapping is on point, as always, and his delivery is so forceful that it almost doesn’t matter what he’s saying (case in point: typing out the phrase “We buy big boats, bitch I’m Sinbad” can’t possibly do justice to the way Push says it, which is to say it sounds like an unequivocally devastating boast coming out of his mouth). The winner on Daytona, though, has to be Kanye’s production. In the era of woozy, lo-fi Ronny J beats, the instrumentals on Daytona redefine hard as a rap adjective. “The Games We Play” is the beat of the year — Pusha free-associating “Drug dealer benzes with gold diggers in ’em” over the opening guitar loop is bliss — until the sample on “Come Back Baby” kicks in and blows it out of the water. The not-so-subtle Drake jabs on “Infrared” are fantastic, but the slick bassline undercurrent is the coldest part of the track. Pusha’s performance is impeccable, but the beats are what cause you to contort your face on first listen, what stick with you afterward, and what beg you to give the economical 21-minute project another spin (or 20).
Why Skip It: There are some deeply weird bars involving janitors, Harvey Weinstein, and Matt Lauer on “Hard Piano,” and as natural a match as Push and Rick Ross are, the track also suffers by having one less-than-transcendent beat in the bunch. Kanye pops up on “What Would Meek Do?” with a guest verse that proves he hasn’t lost a step artistically (if his beats on Daytona hadn’t already), but he can’t resist the urge to troll fans once again, beginning his verse with the sounds that are becoming synonymous with his 2018 output: “Poop …scoop… whoop … whoopy-whoop.” If moments like these are the trade-off for the polish and precision of the rest of Daytona, it’s a small price to pay. — T.C. Kane
A$AP Rocky — Testing
What to Know: A$AP Rocky has never given the impression that making music is his chief concern. On one of his earliest viral hits (before “viral hit” was even really a category of song), Rocky dubbed himself “that pretty motherfucker,” flaunting his Raf Simons and Rick Owens attire; in the seven years since, he’s put out two full-length albums and spent much of his time modeling or otherwise advancing his brand in the fashion world. Making hit songs has always played a role in his success, but his is an overall aesthetic appeal, rather than a purely auditory one. The rollout for Testing has been consistent with that theme: The selling point of lead single “A$AP Forever” is its experimental music video, and his late-night TV performance was just as visually striking.
Why Stream It: Testing is greater than the sum of its parts; there are no obvious radio-chasers like “Everyday,” but there are plenty of highlights. Rocky and Skepta trading energetic bars over a frantic flute-driven beat on “Praise the Lord” might be the album’s most purely entertaining moment, but Rocky dipping into autobiography with ad-lib help from BlocBoy JB on “OG Beeper” is another strong contender. Testing is not uniformly upbeat: “Hun43rd,” a nostalgic, chopped-and-screwed homage to Rocky’s native Harlem is as close as he’s come to re-creating his seminal Live.Love.A$AP mixtape, and the album’s closer, the Frank Ocean collab “Purity,” is a smooth Lauryn Hill–sampling endnote.
Why Skip It: Rocky’s never been a lyricist, and he’s made it clear in interviews that his interest in and understanding of societal issues is, to put it kindly, limited. Testing suffers from his unimaginative writing and his weak attempts at placing the project in some kind of political context. On opener “Distorted Sounds,” Rocky raps, “My newest president an asshole”; When the couplet crash-lands with “I guess that’s why I’m leaving turd stains,” it’s a stark reminder that Rocky didn’t sign up to be no activist. Later, on “Black Tux, White Collar,” he spits “Fuck the prison system, this injustice was ingestive.” I have no idea what that bar means, and would venture to guess Rocky doesn’t either. He pushed back for years against the idea that he had to speak out on these topics, so it’s no surprise that he falls flat on his face trying to shoehorn in these lines and others on Testing. — T.C. Kane
Jorja Smith — “February 3rd”
What to Know: British singer Jorja Smith popped up on many people’s radar for the first time on Drake’s More Life, and she parlayed that placement into a spot on the Black Panther soundtrack. “I Am,” her solo contribution to that compilation, was further confirmation that a full-length project from Smith has the potential to be massive. Her vocals are smooth but textured; she can really sing, but she conveys emotion well enough in her early work to prove that she’s not simply seeking vocal showcases. Her debut album, Lost & Found, is set to arrive June 8, and “February 3rd” is the fourth track she’s released ahead of the drop.
Why Stream It: “February 3rd” is a perfect modern R&B track: moody, understated, and Instagram caption–ready. The lyrics communicate simply that Jorja is hurt — the refrain asks, “What is it that your eyes don’t see? / Why don’t you lose yourself for me?” — but the track’s vibe isn’t vindictive or overtly heartbroken. The instrumental has a number of moving parts, from subtle tambourine percussion to a glossy synth that kicks in halfway through. It all works together to create a strained relationship anthem that recognizes the nuances that exist between madly in love and irreconcilable differences. And, as always, Jorja’s vocals are magnificent.
Why Skip It: If you’ve heard Jorja’s previous work and were unenthused, “February 3rd” likely isn’t a game changer. It’s less of a single than an album cut, and it doesn’t have a satisfying beginning, middle, and end as much as it just amicably glides from start to finish before fading out. That’s a lot of words to say, “It’s kind of boring,” which seems like the closest thing to a flaw with Jorja’s output so far. — Kane
YG — “Big Bank” (feat. 2 Chainz, Big Sean, and Nicki Minaj)
What to Know: Stay Dangerous, the third studio album from Compton rapper YG, is due out in June. It’s unclear whether “Big Bank” is slated to appear on it, but it seems unlikely given his past commitment to cohesion and narrative on 2014’s excellent My Krazy Life and the even better follow-up, 2016’s Still Brazy. YG is limited as a rapper, but makes up for it with passion and authenticity, qualities that tend to work better in the album setting than on singles. Nonetheless, he’s back with a trio of guests whom it’s hard to picture fitting into the framework of a YG album, but make a lot of sense as the lineup for a buzz-building promotional single.
Why Stream It: One look at the guest list on “Big Bank,” and it’s clear that you’re in for a whole heap of punch lines, some of them corny, some of them cringy, and many of them memorable. The featured players deliver on that front. From 2 Chainz: “Big sack, a lotta hoes, like Santa” and “Big shit, like a dinosaur did it.” From Nicki: “Tell these hoes it’s crunch time, abdomen.” The track is a showcase for rappers established and secure enough to be silly on wax, and it makes for a mindlessly fun posse cut.
Why Skip It: Big Sean takes a lot of flak for a lot of reasons, but he’s a reasonably talented guy who has just so happened to cook up some putrid verses on high-profile collabs. Luckily, “Big Bank” is a low-stakes romp that’s incapable of being ruined by Sean’s clumsy references to current events, which include a Colin Kaepernick name-drop and the ultra-woke “I’m rare as affordable health care,” which he follows up with his signature “Oh god” ad-lib. His contributions — and maybe the hollow DJ Mustard beat — are the low point of the song; it’s not that Sean’s verse is necessarily worse than the rest, but for some reason he’s just held to a different standard when it comes to wack bars. I don’t make the rules. — Kane
The Wild Card
Clairo — Diary 001 EP
What to Know: Claire Cottrill, known as Clairo and DJ Baby Benz, is a 19-year-old artist who first gained popularity once the video for her lo-fi single “Pretty Girl,” which she mixed herself and shot on her MacBook webcam, went viral during her freshman year of college. Since then, her parents have given her permission to focus on her career rather than continue her education at Syracuse. She’s toured with the likes of Tyler, the Creator and Dua Lipa, and also made some gorgeous collabs. She’s really excited about where she is, and you can’t help but root for her.
Why Stream It: Clairo is a producer at heart, and it shows. Her music is groovy and synthy and soft, some songs more relaxed than others. “Hello?” “B.O.M.D.,” and “4EVER” make up the boppier half of Diary 001, but they are no less full of longing, which fits Clairo’s contemporary Virgin Suicides vibe. “Is it ever gonna change? / Am I gonna be this way forever? / Are you gonna be around for me to count on ya?” she croons on the latter. Her songs are romantic, more characteristic of yearning heartache than secure love. The music is often too playful to be sad — those same lyrics accompany the video above — as though Clairo is too hopeful and too aware that youth is characterized by being in flux. “I never want to be the same as I was a few years ago,” she’s said.
Why Skip It: The strengths of Clairo’s music lie in her singing and production rather than in her lyricism, which can be said to lack depth. “I could be a pretty girl, I’ll wear a skirt for you / I could be a pretty girl, shut up when you want me to,” she sings on, you guessed it, “Pretty Girl.” Her explanation behind the song, written in the description of the YouTube video, sheds light on her artistry, but on its own, the song falls flat. Overall, her music would be more compelling if the lyrics carried the emotional weight the music does. In the midst of the rise of the teenage girl, Clairo could be doing more; the themes in her music are universal and deserving of attention, but are also worthy of being expounded upon. And this goes for quantity as it does quality; of the six songs on this EP, only three are new, one of them being a demo. If anything, it’s a testament to her talent that fans expect — and want — more. — Virali Dave