Heat Check Roundup: Alex Vaughn, UnoTheActivist, Jeshi and more
The Heat Check playlist is your source for new music from around the worlds of hip-hop and R&B with an emphasis on bubbling, undiscovered and under-the-radar acts. Who's got the hot hand? Who's on a run? It's a menagerie of notable songs curated by enthusiasts from around NPR Music.
This week's Heat Check selects feature artists from as far out as Rwanda, but if there is anything resembling a theme it is songs of self-reliance. An R&B newbie enlists a legend for a vintage ballad of acceptance, a spaced-out rapper decides to go it alone, artists from Compton, London and Nigeria refuse complacency and more. Check in.
Alex Vaughn, "So Be It"
Though acceptance doesn't mean we no longer feel the pain of heartbreak and loss, it does mean that we are no longer resistant to our reality. On "So Be It," the opening track of Alex Vaughn's newest EP The Hurtbook, the LVRN artist finds herself in this place, processing the end of a relationship with a classic R&B ballad. Produced by the prolific Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins — whose credits include Brandy, Toni Braxton and Beyoncé — alongside Xeryus, the track starts off vulnerable with melancholic guitar arpeggios and a laid-back drum groove before it crescendos through the choruses, complemented by thick choral-like background vocals. In the last verse, Vaughn's singing reaches a climax as she settles into the acceptance needed to confront the truth and move forward: "In my heart I still want to forgive / Came to terms that we might never get / Back to what we used to be / Everything's still new to me / Won't be no love lost / So be it." — Ashley Pointer
UnoTheActivist, "By Myself"
Since 2020, the Atlanta rapper UnoTheActivist has upped the productivity, releasing a dozen albums of spaced-out melodic trap that seems to continuously get stranger (See: "Astral Plane"). He has been on the same wavelength as his cousin, Playboi Carti, since the Christmas release of Whole Lotta Red in 2020, but Uno is a step beyond the league of outside imitators, warping the dimensions of his already dark and zonked music to be even more lively. The Limbus 3 standout, "By Myself," is among the most interesting things he has ever released. Its overlaid synths sound like an AR headset overloading. But there is order within the chaos. Listen closely and you can hear a meticulous array of digital tones. Somehow, in the midst of it all, his voice stays steady and centered, like a storm chaser resolute amid a maelstrom. — Sheldon Pearce
The charms of benihxnx's "lightz" are wrapped up in its sample, Timbaland's "Give It To Me," and the way the song milks its components for tempo. The best club rap often creates the same slingshot effect that comes from the chops in regular club music, only there must be enough open space for the rapper to maneuver. In this case, benihxnx seemingly plays hop scotch between the deeply distorted Nelly Furtado hook. It's less about what he's saying and more about how he's keeping time, the way his flows and the bass create friction, making the sample feel like a reverberation. — Sheldon Pearce
Lerado Khalil, "Polaroid Picture"
These soundwaves feel more like a mist, SoundCloud chant rap vaporized and diffused through your headspace. "Polaroid Picture" is Lerado Khalil's recent masterclass in mood-setting, finding the sublime in a mess of classic plugg synths and barely audible vocals. — Mano Sundaresan
thuy, "u should feel special"
A lot of lowercase music channels the hushed insularity and shyness of bedroom recordings, but the Bay Area singer thuy's "u should feel special," the opener from her new project, girls like me don't cry, embodies the subtle assertiveness displayed throughout Ariana Grande's Positions. thuy's voice can be similarly mumbly but there is an effervescence there, too, and her songs are usually imbued with the buoyancy associated with the local rap scenes. Here, she uses that gentle force to remind a guy how lucky he is to be with her: "You need a medal / 'Cause you went and score way out your league / It's amazing how you weren't even a thought / Now you're laying here with me." Though she doesn't possess Ari's range, she does a more than passable job replicating the self-assured sass of her more recent music. — Sheldon Pearce
Sincerely Vlxne!, "Love & Live On"
There is a strain of SoundCloud rap that sounds like it's trying to deep fake the late Juice WRLD and another strain that sounds like it's trying to turn Auto-Tune into vapor. "Love & Live On," by Sincerely Vlxne!, blends the two styles together. It has the same freestyle energy and curdling emo vocals but it is mostly performed as a murmur. At 1:20, the entire thing seems designed for ephemerality, a puff of smoke disappearing before you. But in that moment before it vanishes it can be pleasantly disorienting. — Sheldon Pearce
Jeshi, "Protein v2" (ft. Obongjayar, Westside Boogie)
With a fresh verse and new feature from the Compton mainstay Westside Boogie, the London rapper Jeshi manages to elevate the already infectious track "Protein" with a second take. The foundation was, of course, already set with the Nigerian singer Obongjayar's effortless vocals adding an undeniable layer of cool: "Can't nobody stop me, I'm on go / Late night creepin' , I'm running on no sleep ... Baby, I'm active, can't move slow / There's no plan B, can't do both." For anyone seeking a subtle yet catchy song to put a battery in their back, this is it. The song feels like a clash of coasts in the best way, as all parties involved envision reaping the benefits of their respective come-ups. — Jerusalem Truth
Alyn Sano, "Radiyo"
The Rwandese singer-songwriter Alyn Sano has become a figurehead in the East African pop movement, receiving the nation's Female Artist of the Year award, in 2020, and reaching the semifinals of the African iteration of "The Voice." Her early singles from 2018 — "Naremewe Wowe" and "Rwiyoborere" — tried to recreate the softness of stateside R&B but were undermined by two-bit production. Even chintzy balladry could not mask the beauty of her voice, which has rich, earthy undertones, but her music on the whole lacked animation and magnetism. Last year's "Hono" was a move toward bounce that gave her sound a certain dynamism, and her new single, "Radiyo," builds on that momentum. Embodying the Afrobeats of her neighbors to the west, Sano lets her sumptuous, low-toned harmonies sweep through the clicking drums on her best song yet. — Sheldon Pearce