Order of Operations
What to Know: Twenty-one-year-old Maryland spitter Rico Nasty is, in a word, electric. “iCarly” and “Hey Arnold,” a pair of tracks that gained traction in 2016, flashed her potential and boundless charisma, and 2017’s “Poppin” was a sneering step forward. To the chagrin of many, the Atlantic Records signee was left off the recently released XXL Freshman List, but the snub isn’t slowing her down. Nasty arrives along with a 28-city tour announcement, and by the end of the summer Rico could be substantially closer to the household-name status she seems destined for.
Why Stream It: Nasty sounds like Rico heard Slim Jxmmi’s Jxmtro and decided it didn’t slap hard enough. Some of the credit goes to the production, which rises to the challenge of matching her thrashing performance. The most jaw-dropping instrumentals come courtesy of Kenny Beats, whose flawless May mixtape with Atlanta underground pioneer Key! provides a sonic precursor to Nasty. One of his contributions, a song called “Ice Cream,” somehow successfully flips an actual ice cream truck jingle into a behemoth of a track that demands to be played at full volume. Ultimately, though, Rico’s dynamism carries the project. When BlocBoy JB, an artist who exists to boost the hype levels of tracks, pops up on “In the Air,” he sounds damn near sedated next to his host, who won’t stop bouncing off the walls.
Why Skip It: Nasty is somewhat one-note; while it’s not filled with pure turn-up tracks from top to bottom, the project operates at a consistent tempo and decibel level that doesn’t really let up. I happen to think that quality is an asset rather than an asterisk, but if you’re not in the mood for a 37-minute shot of Monster Energy, Nasty might not be for you. This tweet from comedian Zack Fox, though not intended to slight Rico, is hard to dislodge from your brain once you’ve seen it:
rico nasty rap like she arguin with a teacher about her son’s grade— Zachary Fox (@zackfox) June 11, 2018
2 Chainz—“Bigger Than You” (feat. Drake & Quavo)
What to Know: 2 Chainz is now more than two decades removed from his introduction as one half of Playaz Circle, and six years on from an untouchable run, when “Mercy,” “Birthday Song,” and “I’m Different” dominated airwaves in 2012. His consistency continues to impress: Last year’s Pretty Girls Like Trap Music was an exquisitely tailored love letter to the subgenre that Chainz calls home, and this year’s four-song EP The Play Don’t Care Who Makes It packed just as powerful a punch in a quarter of the runtime. That project spawned a minor hit in “Proud,” and “Bigger Than You” looks to follow up that song’s three-pronged approach with an even more star-studded lineup—it swaps out Offset for Quavo and turns YG into Drake.
Why Stream It: It feels like we may be in the last days of yelping, repetitive Quavo choruses passing as hit songs, but the formula proves to still have some juice left on “Bigger Than You.” As soon as the beat drops and Quavo announces his presence (“Uh, yeah, baller alert!”), it’s clear the track has a stick-to-your-ribs quality, and quick-hit verses from Chainz, Drake, and then Chainz again keep it churning along without a break in the action. Tity Boi isn’t as cheeky as his best performances tend to be, but “Barely came up out the mud, like quicksand” does the job just fine.
Why Skip It: Drake’s bars have as little impact on the song as any guest spot he’s turned in in recent memory. In need of a definitive post-“Adidon” win (no, a Degrassi nostalgia play doesn’t count) and in light of his killer contribution the last time he linked with 2 Chainz, Aubrey’s half-hearted feature here feels like a missed opportunity.
What to Know: The refrain on one of Jay Rock’s early singles was, “You ain’t gotta like it, cause the hood gone love it.” It was a statement of intent that has guided Rock ever since, even as Top Dawg Entertainment, the label he helped legitimize with successful street singles at the turn of the 2010s, has gained international recognition behind labelmate Kendrick Lamar’s superstardom. While Rock’s K. Dot–adjacent status puts undue pressure on his output (his sophomore studio album 90059 debuting at no. 16 on the Billboard 200 felt like a disappointment relative to TDE’s prominence), it also comes with benefits. This year, Rock climbed the charts for the first time as a lead artist behind Black Panther soundtrack cut “King’s Dead,” which peaked at no. 21 on the Hot 100.
Why Stream It: Jay Rock’s reputation as a lyrically-inclined rapper is well deserved, and he can get impressively vivid at times, like when he imagines his own funeral and its phony Instagram-posting attendees on Redemption’s title track. Beyond bars, though, the production should be what draws prospective fans. CuBeatz (“MotorSport”) and Teddy Walton (“Crew”) supply excellent instrumentals on “Troopers” and “ES Tales,” and Hit-Boy returns from the abyss with a flute-driven beat for Rock and Kendrick to trade bars over on “Wow Freestyle.” Even the most captivating vocalists need worthwhile backdrops, and these established hitmakers help make Redemption as listenable as it is compelling.
Why Skip It: There are a few missteps on Redemption that read as clear attempts to make a dent commercially. The main offender is the Jeremih-assisted “Tap Out,” which isn’t convincing as a club or radio anthem. The elephant in the room is the fact most casual fans are going to skip straight to the tracks featuring J. Cole, Kendrick, and SZA … and those three turn out to be the album’s highlights. The whole thing is worth a spin, but I’d be lying if I told you diving straight into the collabs was the wrong move.
What to Know: Nearly two years removed from her debut album, British singer NAO, 30, is operating on her own timeline. Her brand of electro-R&B updates age-old relationship jams with a contemporary musical soundscape, exemplified by 2015 standout “Bad Blood,” which remains her high-water mark for streaming performance. “Another Lifetime” is the spawn of a devastating breakup suffered amid the writing and recording of her forthcoming album, and she described it as the final step in moving on from that upheaval: “Finishing the song felt like the full stop I needed to put on a difficult period of my life, so the next day I was like ‘That’s it, I’ve finished the album and this is the first song I want people to hear from it.’”
Why Stream It: “Another Lifetime” is a low-key heartbreak anthem with some crushing lyrics. The oft-repeated line the song gets its title from hits this mark as a hopeless post-breakup sentiment; for her and her not-quite soulmate to make themselves worthy of each other, NAO is resigned to holding out misguided hope: “I guess I’ll wait another lifetime.” The layered vocals go a long way in selling the song’s emotional resonance, and even where her stripped-down voice might have made sense, the alterations add a sense of detachment; it’s as if her overwhelming sadness has caused a separation of self.
Why Skip It: It’s believable that the decision to release “Another Lifetime” as a lead single was borne out of personal significance and spiritual urgency, because it doesn’t make a ton of sense from an accessibility standpoint. Its hook is memorable, but the track as a whole doesn’t build to any specific climax. Instead, it ebbs and flows before ending with as little flash as it began with.
The Wild Card
King Princess—Make My Bed
What to Know: Two landmark moments have propelled the career of Brooklyn singer-songwriter King Princess: one traditional and one thoroughly modern form of artist discovery. Mark Ronson made her the first signee to his new record label, and Harry Styles cryptically tweeted out the lyrics to her breakout song, “1950.” That track, one of only two official releases prior to Make My Bed, is an aching ode to unrequited love that cleverly reimagines the “trying to catch your crush’s attention from across the party” trope through the lens of midcentury queer romances that needed to be furtive to avoid persecution.
Why Stream It: Across Make My Bed’s five tracks, King Princess firmly establishes her sound: sleek, glossy, and impeccably produced. Her closest analog is probably Lorde, but so far Princess’s songwriting is less concerned with capturing the universal 21st-century adolescent experience than providing snapshots of specific pieces of that milieu. “Talia” finds her attempting to drink enough to make a lost love appear in her bedroom, while “Upper West Side” skewers a rich girl who pretends not to be but is inexplicably alluring despite her fraudulence. These are effective conceits with stellar execution, but nothing tops “1950,” which remains as flooring on the 20th listen as the first.
Why Skip It: Make My Bed is a sample platter that reminds you how early into a career King Princess is—she’s making her official live debut this weekend. Of the three brand-new songs, one is a 90-second intro, and the venture into vulgarity on penultimate track “Holy” feels a tad unearned without a stronger structure propping it up. A full-length project will eventually spell out her full potential, but for now, Make My Bed is a too-brief introduction to an artist who could be around for a long time.