Order of Operations
Jorja Smith—Lost & Found
What to Know: At only 20, British R&B prodigy Jorja Smith may not have as much life experience as some of her genre peers. She’s conscious of that fact, to the point that she turned down Drake’s initial offer to appear on “Get It Together” because she felt she couldn’t relate to the lyrical themes of relationship strife, only changing her mind after a breakup gave her the needed perspective. Her powerhouse vocals have brought her this far, but on Lost & Found, Smith looks to carve out a reputation as a mature songwriter.
Why Stream It: Across Lost & Found, Smith sings about heartbreak, loss, and loneliness without it being an overly glum project. Even when the tempo slows to a crawl (“Tomorrow”) or the lyrics turn especially melancholy (“Goodbyes”), Smith’s vocals have enough character to keep things interesting. She channels influences like Alicia Keys on the title track to Adele on “Don’t Watch Me Cry,” but there are also plenty of moments when Smith sets herself apart; the dark, slow burn “Wandering Romance” features eerie reverb effects and background vocals for one of the album’s highlights.
Why Skip It: Smith’s songwriting is only intermittently convincing; a close reading reveals that many of the lyrics lack subtlety. “Blue Lights,” while an admirable attempt at socially conscious storytelling, falls flat without any striking or fresh turns of phrase. “Lifeboats (Freestyle)” has the same pitfall: The song takes a metaphor about people overwhelmed by life’s challenges way too far, and nearly every line of the song references water, drowning, or life jackets. “Life’s not full of shallow end, your house ain’t full of armbands” is, as Deadpool might say, just lazy writing.
What to Know: The 1972 blaxploitation film Super Fly has been overshadowed by its soundtrack. Produced and performed by Curtis Mayfield, it’s considered an essential entry in the catalog of one of America’s most legendary songwriters and a monumental release in the R&B-soul genre. The movie is being remade by music video auteur Director X, and this time Future—also a producer on the film—has been tasked with crafting the accompanying LP. He may not go down as an all-time great like Mayfield, but within Atlanta, the setting for the new Superfly, Future has reached a status as close to legendary as it’s possible to get. He’s the perfect curator for the project, which drops a week ahead of the film’s release.
Why Stream It: The burning question surrounding every Future-involved release is always: Did he try? Is this a project made up of leftovers or is it the real thing? His contributions to DJ Esco’s Kolorblind from earlier this year were surely the former; his 2017 Young Thug collab Super Slimey was somewhere in between the two; his impeccable R&B album HNDRXX was the latter through and through. Superfly isn’t fully locked-in Future, but he clearly took pride in doing justice to the franchise. Tapping Dungeon Family legends Sleepy Brown and Scar for the intro was an inspired choice, and single “No Shame” pays homage to the ’70s with its vintage instrumental. Drill pioneer Young Chop comes through with a casually cinematic beat on “Stains,” and closer “Nowhere” is an emotional end-credits cut.
Why Skip It: The original Super Fly album was commended for its gritty themes and political insights, and those are absent here. It’s also missing any sort of narrative, something Kendrick Lamar proved was possible to orchestrate on a blockbuster soundtrack with Black Panther: The Album. Handing off curation duties to a single artist should in theory make for a cohesive project, but Superfly still sounds disorganized, especially when awkwardly placed solo tracks from Miguel and Khalid pop up in the middle of the tracklist back-to-back as the only respite from Future after the album’s opening track.
Dej Loaf—“Liberated” (feat. Leon Bridges)
What to Know: When Dej Loaf broke through in 2014 with the viral hit “Try Me,” she was regarded as a novelty: a petite woman with a sweet voice rapping about murdering entire families was entertaining enough in itself to push an already catchy track over the top. She’s struggled to replicate the success of that song and the similarly aggressive “Back Up” over the past few years, though, and recently pivoted away from her capable rap skills toward a sunnier pop aesthetic. Which style suits her best is up for debate, but her talent is not, and neither is her savvy—it seems she’s realized that newcomers like A Boogie have occupied her lane and lapped her in popularity, and has responded accordingly by switching up rather than doubling down.
Why Stream It: “Liberated” sets out to uplift in more ways than one, but it’s successful in large part due to Leon Bridges’s guest spot. The soul singer isn’t straying far from his typical message of promoting freedom for the masses, and it turns out Dej also sounds excellent in this context. Her usual conviction—once expressed via threats and boasts—is here applied to gentle and melodic verses, with a hook that implores, “People gettin’ liberated! / Get up on your feet if you got the feeling!” It’s undeniably joyous and a surprisingly seamless meshing of artists who wouldn’t immediately come to mind as likely collaborators; it may be too unassuming to become a hit, but those who do stream “Liberated” won’t regret it.
Why Skip It: The cynical view would be that “Liberated” is too on the nose about its inspirational messaging, rendering it a mildly desperate attempt by a downward-trending artist at regaining relevance by appealing to an optimistic and woke demographic. But “Liberated” isn’t so calculating as to undercut its own message. What does bring the track down is the boilerplate instrumental, which loops some run-of-the-mill tropical chords in a childlike progression and doesn’t do much else to add to the vocals.
Kamaiyah—“Addicted to Ballin’” (feat. Schoolboy Q)
What to Know: Oakland rapper Kamaiyah earned a spot on last year’s XXL Freshman list by zigging while the rest of the rap game zagged. The YG affiliate, much like fellow Californians SOB X RBE, flows like she’s never heard a Migos song—or any music made after 2000 and outside of her native Bay Area, for that matter. But chasing the sounds of the moment is tempting for a reason, and as long as Kamaiyah continues to resist the current waves she may have trouble connecting with a wider audience.
Why Stream It: “Addicted to Ballin’” is nothing groundbreaking from Kamaiyah: It features DJ Mustard production, a half-sung, half-shouted hook, and lyrics about success and excess. The addition of Schoolboy Q spices up the usual recipe, and the two make for a pairing that’ll have you wondering why they haven’t collaborated sooner. The single will get some summer play, especially on the West Coast, and it could gain momentum in the coming months as the soundtrack to top-down driving and July 4 cookouts.
Why Skip It: With the overwhelming amount of money-flaunting rap flooding the airwaves at the moment, it would have been a welcome experiment if “Addicted to Ballin’” was actually a harrowing confessional about Kamaiyah and Q’s troubling dependence on overindulgence, and the horrors that such extravagance can bring.
The Wild Card
Peso Da Mafia—Never a Drought
What to Know: Baltimore rap trio Peso Da Mafia is a strictly regional act at the moment. They scored a hometown hit with 2017’s “Money Man,” which came complete with a signature dance courtesy of member Lor Dee, who doesn’t actually rap and acts as the group’s hype-man-slash-choreographer. His costars fill familiar roles: Shordie Shordie is the Quavo equivalent, a hookmaster whose raspy delivery accentuates his melodic instincts. PMD Purp flows a bit like Offset, but back when Mr. Cardi B was more earnestly energetic and less polished of a spitter. Never a Drought is the Mafia’s debut album, and includes their breakout hit as well as its rising follow-up, “TSAY.”
Why Stream It: Never a Drought is a solid introduction to the potential Peso has to expand outside of Baltimore. Catchy, quality hooks abound on the project, and even when they leave a little to be desired—“Nights I Starved” passes on the chance for introspection in exchange for more repetition—the polish of these songs is impressive. While their established singles stand out, an uninitiated listener might guess that “Sometimes” or “How You Do It” or most any other track on the album were the hits that propelled Peso to the top of the Baltimore rap scene.
Why Skip It: There is no reinventing of the wheel on Never a Drought, and at times Peso sounds more like an approximation of fellow DMV rapper Shy Glizzy or a generic-brand Migos; the production could be ripped from the cutting-room floor of beatmakers like 808 Mafia and Zaytoven. Never a Drought has the requisite local lingo and accents, but the group doesn’t do quite enough to introduce a unique and intriguing B’more sound. Peso is worth keeping an eye on, but it might take more attention-grabbing originality to break out of a city without a recognizable sonic profile.