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
What to Know: As you may have heard, Rae Sremmurd’s third outing is a triple album, an announcement that elicited gasps and groans from rap fans who suffered through Migos’s 24-track Culture II in January. The wrinkle here is that the Atlanta-by-way-of–Tupelo, Mississippi duo are splitting their divergent personas across one Rae Sremmurd album (SR3MM), one disc of solo Swae Lee (Swaecation), and another of Slim Jxmmi (Jxmtro). The obvious parallel is OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below: Swae Lee, sensitive and strange, is André 3000 in this cosplay; Slim Jxmmi keeps an eye trained on the strip club like Big Boi. Mentioning the Sremmlets in the same breath as the GOAT rap duo may seem blasphemous, but Mike Will Made-It’s protégés have radiated superstardom since they Kool-Aid Man–crashed through the industry walls with “No Flex Zone” in 2014.
Why Stream It: On the best Rae Sremmurd tracks, Swae Lee’s bizarro bars and floating, angelic falsettos have coalesced with Slim Jxmmi’s raspy delivery and raw verve to create pop-rap perfection. Swae has had success on his own—crafting a Song of the Summer candidate last year—but straying from the formula was a big gamble on SR3MM. It pays off in a major way. Swaecation’s masterful lead single, “Hurt to Look,” turned out to be an indicator of the album’s sound: nine stepchildren of Drake’s “Hold on, We’re Going Home,” stretched out to create a spacey, ethereal atmosphere with a dash of Swae’s peculiar charm (from “Guatemala”: “Baby when you laughin’, is it ’cause you feel an excellent vibe?”). Jxmtro is the abrasive Mr. Hyde to Swaecation’s gentle Dr. Jekyll, and it’s tough to fret over whether the less-heralded Brown brother can carry a project on his own while “Brxnks Truck,” “Players Club,” and “Cap” are blowing out your speakers.
Why Skip It: “Perplexing Pegasus,” the fourth track on SR3MM, is catchy and sleek and damn fun. It also came out nine months ago. Three other songs from the duo’s side were also previously released singles of varying quality, and “Bedtime Stories” and “Buckets,” while great, have the Weeknd and Future doing the heavy lifting. That leaves three new tracks out of nine on the SR3MM side featuring Swae and Jxmmi at their coupled best: opener “Up in My Cocina,” which pales in comparison with the previous two SremmLife intros; “42,” which slaps, but in an understated manner; and “Rock N Roll Hall of Fame,” which is everything anyone could ask for from a Sremmurd album cut. As excellent as the solo turns are, it’s hard not to come away from SR3MM feeling like you’ve just attended a concert where the openers rocked the stage but the main act came up just short of blowing your mind.
Travis Scott—“Watch (feat. Kanye West & Lil Uzi Vert)”
What to Know: Travis Scott is notorious for delaying album releases, promising new tracks that take years to materialize, and otherwise toying with expectations. So while “Watch” opens with a hint that his Astroworld album may be on the way, the single was dropped Friday with little advance notice. (The fact that “Watch” features Scott mentor and fellow auxiliary Kardashian Kanye West, who did not have a banner week in the public-relations arena, may have contributed to the lack of promotional buzz.) Travis and Ye don’t have a stellar collaborative track record—“Piss on Your Grave” almost single-handedly derailed Rodeo—but both have shined in cameo appearances, and Lil Uzi Vert is also known to make an impression as a featured guest.
Why Stream It: “Watch” doesn’t get off to a great start: Lil Uzi’s observation about the differing size of ours and his wristwear (“That’s a small face / This a big face”), sets up the track to tread into all-too-familiar diamond-based stunting territory. But while the song doesn’t offer any meaningful realizations, there are entertaining quirks that pop up along the way: Uzi’s hook transitions into an frenetic verse that bounces nicely off of the blaring instrumental, while Kanye closes with a 16 that alludes to his recent headline-making behavior. He mispronounces Seinfeld while name-dropping Larry David, references critics of his “free thought” (“One year it’s Illuminati, next year it’s the Sunken Place”), and abandons his rhyme scheme altogether at verse’s end to give a TED Talk on properly mixing alcoholic drinks. Best of all, there are no explicitly political bars and no absurd scatting from Yeezy, a positive sign for his forthcoming album.
Why Skip It: Aubrey Graham once said of his ability to overpower rappers on their own songs, “Every song sound like Drake featuring Drake.” Travis Scott has the opposite problem. His guests are often the main attraction, relegating Travis to the passenger’s seat. It’s no surprise, then, that Kanye and Uzi are the best and most memorable parts of “Watch.” Travis’s one-trick-pony flow already sounded stale on the collaborative dud Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho and on his SR3MM appearance, “Close.” It’s as if tracks grind to a halt as soon as he begins rapping—sticking with Astroworld’s amusement park theme, “Watch” is a perfectly enjoyable Ferris wheel that sputters to a stop halfway through its rotation.
Leon Bridges—Good Thing
What to Know: Leon Bridges’s 2015 debut, Coming Home, earned him comparisons to legendary soul singers like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. Those parallels were both on target and off base: His music is overtly indebted to 1960s soul, but Bridges insists that “my writing is nothing like Sam Cooke.” In Bridges’s view, his music pays homage to a bygone era and recalls an illustrious moment in the history of black music, but his ambitions lie above those of a lounge singer playing the classics. Balancing inspiration and imitation can be a tricky endeavor, and while Coming Home earned him a Grammy nomination for best R&B album, Bridges made it clear that Good Thing was going to be an attempt to broaden his sonic range, saying, “I’m more than retro soul music.”
Why Stream It: Bridges’s attempt to modernize his sound on Good Thing is apparent, but thankfully doesn’t take shape in the form of shoehorned 808s or jittery “trapsoul” cadences. “You Don’t Know” is a pulsing dance track driven by an irresistible bassline; “Shy” is a smooth R&B cut laid over an instrumental that’s almost hip-hop in the way its lead guitar riff loops throughout the track. The album’s closer, “Georgia to Texas,” is an impeccably executed origin story, on which Bridges harnesses the emotion his voice naturally conveys to outstanding effect. At 10 tracks and 35 minutes, Good Thing is a breeze to run through, but that climactic narrative moment still feels earned coming after the range of tempos and sounds explored across the album.
Why Skip It: The biggest knock against Bridges, and one he seems acutely aware of, is that he simply isn’t cool. He has a serious clout deficiency, as the kids might say: His performance at the 2016 Roots Picnic festival failed so spectacularly to strike a chord with the young, black audience that he described himself as “broken” afterward. There’s nothing on Good Thing that will reverse that perception, or endear him to the coveted demographic of streaming-happy youth. There are also occasional missteps, like “Beyond,” a saccharine ode to newfound love that requires Bridges’s textured vocals to save it from lackluster writing (“It’s kinda hard for me to explain / Her personality and everything”) and a Sheeranesque melody that feels out of place next to Good Things’ other, more nuanced dives into intimacy.
Christina Aguilera—“Accelerate (feat. Ty Dolla $ign & 2 Chainz)”
What to Know: Lotus, the last full-length Christina Aguilera album, is more than five years old. She left The Voice in 2016 and has since expressed her displeasure with the experience—prompting some to wonder whether her new album, Liberation, is titled in reference to Aguilera freeing herself from the cycle of reality TV. “Accelerate” is the album’s lead single and enlists a trio of reinforcements—Ty Dolla $ign; 2 Chainz; and the track’s producer, Kanye West—that indicate Xtina is making a play for relevancy and using rap’s streaming power to boost her impact in the process.
Why Stream It: I advise you to stream it, and only that. Do not watch the music video, at least for your first listen of “Accelerate,” unless you are prepared to have your opinion of the track irreversibly sullied. If you do click the link above, you’ll see Aguilera seductively lapping up a glass of milk like a cross between a house cat and a McPoyle, bathing in a variety of unidentified liquids and just generally leaving the viewer very little bandwidth to focus on the song itself. An audio-only experience of “Accelerate” reveals it to be an interesting, if inconsistent, comeback single. The backing track recalls Pablo-era Kanye—namely “Fade”—and like much of that perpetually unfinished album, the song feels neither polished nor overproduced. That aspect makes for a refreshing change of pace from radio comebacks that sound meticulously factory-formulated and focus-group tested.
Why Skip It: None of the three vocalists on “Accelerate” are anywhere near their peak on the song. Ty and Christina’s melodies on their back-and-forth hook are grating at worst, unspectacular at best; 2 Chainz for once delivers an entirely forgettable guest verse. Most unforgivably, Aguilera and her team thought the song was deserving of a video in which what appears to be whole milk drips down her chin in an extreme close-up ... and they weren’t entirely wrong. “Accelerate” itself isn’t quite as garish as its visual complement, but its all-flash, no-substance makeup does fall in line with the imagery of the music video.
The Wild Card
Valee—“Womp Womp (feat. Jeremih)”
What to Know: If rap’s colorful, prescription-drug-exalting new school makes mumble rap, then GOOD Music signee Valee makes murmur rap. His one-of-one flow is unmistakably urgent but delivered in the manner one might transmit a secret code. Valee doesn’t have many notable collaborations under his belt (save for Pusha T hopping on “Miami”), but he serves up a hometown connection on SoundCloud one-off “Womp Womp,” linking with fellow Chicagoan Jeremih.
Why Stream It: If you listened to only the instrumental version of “Womp Womp,” produced by Cássio, you might be able to figure out its title. The beat knocks from the start, but the muddy bass track kicks in at about 25 seconds, womp-womping along delightfully for the rest of the song’s duration. Somehow, the beat isn’t the highlight: Jeremih’s absurd hook (guess which two words he says a bunch) and Valee’s language-bending verse (he somehow fits “Chinese food, wonton / I might as well try that one time” into an actual rhyme) make “Womp Womp” one of the most riotous, out-of-left-field loosies of the year.
Why Skip It: The song is absolute gibberish, which is a draw for some but surely a dealbreaker for others. If lines like “She’s a slobber / All on my knob, corn-a-cobber” aren’t your speed, or if couplets that rhyme “hundred” and “London” (pronounced “hun-odd” and “Lun-dawn”) sound too outlandish for your liking, steer clear. Personally, I became irked by the song’s incoherent structure and nonsensical wordplay somewhere between consecutive listens 17 and 19, but by Round 20 I was all the way back in.