Order of Operations
What to Know: Kanye West’s final Wyoming project is here, and with the least fanfare of the quintet. Taylor has a strong fan base and a deep Rolodex as a member of GOOD Music, but she’s never really popped on her own; her contributions to GOOD collaborations remain her most successful chart outings. KTSE (as in Keep That Same Energy) is the best bet yet for the 27-year-old singer, dancer, and reality TV star to break out, and her R&B leanings promise yet another pivot from the sounds explored on this month’s four previous Kanye-produced albums.
Why Stream It: KTSE shares both lyrical and musical themes (and a seven-song track list) with the rest of the Wyoming catalog. On the album’s opener, Taylor sings about tuning out doubters and takes stock of her life and career in much the same way Kanye and Kid Cudi did on Ye and Kids See Ghosts, respectively. She addresses the idea that she’s the black sheep of the GOOD Music clan, asking and accusing herself in the third person: “You ain’t hot, you ain’t pop / What’s up with you and Ye?” “A Rose in Harlem” lets an eerie vocal sample carry the hook, recalling the structure of tracks from Daytona (“Come Back Baby”) and Nasir (“Cops Shot the Kid”) on which Kanye put samples front and center. KTSE is at its best when it strays the furthest from the Wyoming blueprint. There’s a house anthem that sounds like “Fade” turned up to 11 and which was the showstopping standout at the (predictably late-starting and technologically wonky) livestreamed L.A. listening party, replayed repeatedly to let a team of neon-clad dancers do their thing. Straightforward love song “Hold On” is another refreshing changeup from much of the Wyoming set, and the best showcase for Taylor’s voice. The album’s final track dips into gospel with a rework of Marvin Sapp’s “Never Would Have Made It”; it’s a satisfying bookend to the GOOD Music journey and fleetingly makes you wish Kanye had gone to that genre well more often this month.
Why Skip It: KTSE’s R&B moments are its weakest, which is disappointing considering Taylor’s superb voice. “3 Way” is a slightly uncomfortable ode to, well, three-ways, and when Ty Dolla $ign arrives to dive into the specifics of how the encounter in question would play out, the track lands somewhere on the wrong side of the line between suggestive and overly explicit. “Hurry Hurry” is a sultry and teasing romp with an unobtrusive Kanye verse, but halfway through Taylor adds in a set of hyperrealistic sex moans that are guaranteed to cause fumbling for mute buttons among the poor souls listening in public settings. I don’t want to assume Kanye’s influence or diminish Taylor’s creative input on the album, but these moments feel akin to Ye tracks like “Hell of a Life” (which Taylor supplied vocals for) or “I’m in It” and make KTSE feel at times like Kanye’s dark and twisted fantasies playing out through Taylor’s voice.
What to Know: Demi Lovato had a great 2017. “Sorry Not Sorry,” a triumphant missive about self-love and stunting on exes, peaked at no. 6 on the Hot 100 for her best performance to date on that chart. The album it supported, Tell Me You Love Me, was teeming with a feisty confidence that Lovato attributed to her personal growth and successful battle with substance abuse. She’s fully graduated from her Disney Channel beginnings, and her openness about the difficulties that come with childhood stardom have made her an admirable example of someone who’s mastered the tricky transition from cute kid to serious artist.
Why Stream It: “Sober” is a confession and an apology set to a sparse piano. There’s nothing to distract from Lovato’s pained vocals admitting the hardest thing for any recovering addict to admit: that she’s relapsed. In her own words: “I’m so sorry / I’m not sober anymore.” Across the track, Lovato begs forgiveness from her parents, her fans, and most strikingly, herself. “Sober” is about as much of a gut punch a single song can be outside of any album context, and it doesn’t need any knowledge of Lovato’s personal history to appreciate. It is somehow familiar and fresh: Artists often wrestle with their demons through their music, but rarely do you get such a piercing insight into someone’s lowest moment in what feels like real time.
Why Skip It: It’s actually a bit jarring how personal “Sober” is, and it’s reminiscent of Kesha’s “Praying” in its unapologetic transparency. It’s a testament to Lovato’s songwriting and vocal performance that she’s created what is basically the audio equivalent of excessive eye contact—you want to look at the ceiling, the floor, or anywhere other than directly into her regret and shame.
What to Know: Gibbs has never been particularly concerned with matching up to the mainstream sounds of the moment. In 2014, the year DJ Mustard dominated the charts with his simplistic “ratchet” sound (think Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”), Gibbs teamed with esteemed beatmaker and prolific sampler Madlib for Piñata, which became one of the best-reviewed projects of the year. Two studio albums and some legal issues later, the 36-year-old delivers a self-titled mixtape with some incredible cover art: a hilarious hat tip to the late R&B legend Teddy Pendergrass.
Why Stream It: Gibbs may not bend his sound to be trendy, but with Freddie, he leans into 2018’s favorite format: the supershort album. At 10 tracks and 25 minutes, the stakes are lowered considerably by the album’s runtime. The project itself finds Gibbs in his comfort zone, spitting over sinister production that complements his gruff delivery. “Death Row” is a nostalgic highlight, paying homage to Eazy-E’s “Boyz-N-The-Hood” with a sly instrumental interpolation courtesy of Kenny Beats and an outright tribute verse from incarcerated L.A. rapper 03 Greedo, who borrows Eazy’s flow and cadence from that classic 1987 track.
Why Skip It: It feels increasingly impossible and pointless to try to discern between albums, mixtapes, EPs, commercial mixtapes, and playlists; streaming sales count the same regardless of the category. Freddie, however, is a mixtape both in name and execution. It’s rough around the edges in a way Piñata and 2017’s You Only Live 2wice weren’t, and though it feels intentional rather than haphazard, it’s clear that Freddie is an offering better suited to placating Gibbs’s fans than expanding his audience.
What to Know: Jaden Smith is a promising SoundCloud rapper with a bona fide banger under his belt, a unique style and persona, and parents who happen to be Will Smith and Jada Pinkett. There’s no denying that Jaden gets a legacy boost from his famous folks, but his quirkiness would make him a candidate to blow up even without the instant name recognition. His second studio album, Syre: The Electric Album, is due out July 8 (his 20th birthday) and will hopefully feature the Fresh Prince himself, who has gone full embarrassing dad with his earnest transformation into Jaden’s biggest fan.
Why Stream It: “Ghost” is a great cross section of Jaden’s best abilities: He can flow over skittering hi-hats with the best of them, but he sprinkles in boasts that only he can pull off. An example: “Talked to Elon last week, told him my whip too fast.” His inventiveness is commendable; while he doesn’t sound all that different from friend and collaborator Rich the Kid or any number of other new-wave rappers, Jaden drops legitimately cold bars without resorting to cheap misogyny or name-dropping expensive jewelry or clothing lines. In fact, when he raps “Screw your Goyard bags,” he bleeps out the name of the chic French leather maker, proving that the biggest flex of all is being secure enough to outdo performative flexers without the help of a punchy designer brand name.
Why Skip It: At 2:10, “Ghost” is a too-brief sampler track with a video that’s fun to look at but doesn’t stand alone as a single on par with Syre’s “Icon.” I’m also dubious any hip 19-year-old would say “When I wanna grow, I listen to Hov … take notes” in good faith. As convincing as Jaden can be as a cool kid, he must have missed the memo on this particular issue: If you’re a teenaged or otherwise ascendant rap star in 2018, you’re supposed to be openly disdainful toward all those who came before you. The game is the game.