Heat Check Roundup: YUNGMORPHEUS, Marlowe, Dee Watkins 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.
In this week's Heat Check selects, an insular rapper reestablishes the terms of his savvy music, a hotshot gets a lesson from his OG and a singer-songwriter neutralizes a source of her depression. Elsewhere, there's melodic rap from NYC, throwback R&B from a small town in Virginia, old-school revivalism from North Carolina and more. Stream the playlist on Spotify. Check in.
"Figure-Four Leg Lock" / "Sonny's Triangle"
There is a temptation to call the work of the Los Angeles rapper YUNGMORPHEUS low stakes but really it's just insular. In his songs, he is deeply attentive to the world he occupies, even if that world can sometimes feel the size of a small neighborhood. Two soft-chugging, hookless singles he recently released demonstrate the charms of that with the kind of shrugging understanding bred by familiarity. "I know the difference between the real and what I deem performance / Careful where you place your close ties, you might be bleeding for them," he raps on "Sonny's Triangle." You can almost feel the stories buried beneath that cynicism. But beyond the sense of savvy revealed in his music is a casual cool; his rapping displays a very particular kind of unpretentious mastery. "These honkies hate me 'cause a n**** braggadocios / I might twist an eighth just to put me back in motion ... Money the motive, I might've did it for some tokens / Pigs probably clap a brother just for a promotion," he raps on "Figure-Four Leg Lock." The natural fluidity of his bars seems to mimic his swaggering, which he won't allow petty disturbances to interrupt. That's probably why he prefers to keep to himself. — Sheldon Pearce
Jay Prince, "Black & Gold"
The East London rapper Jay Prince was among a generation of U.K. acts that helped push beyond grime in the mid-2010s. His music has always had a sunnier disposition and a more buoyant sound, befitting his early affiliation with the Soulection imprint and collaborations with the colorful Oregon merrymaker Aminé, L.A. singers Arima Ederra and Joyce Wrice and Mercury Prize nominee Kojey Radical. Now a L.A. transplant, it feels like Prince has found his home, sonically. His new single, "Black & Gold" has the subtle, soulful bounce adopted by SoCal rappers like Buddy. The hushed knock of the production, with its luminescent keyboard accents, suits his piercing voice and his tumbling flows. He shows greater restraint here; the storytelling is tighter and his performance is more precise. "All they care about is numbers in the cloud / Gotta have a bass and it's gotta have a bounce," he explains. If he can't satisfy the first demand, he is certainly delivering on the second one. — Sheldon Pearce
The singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist CL!F's song "Lost" is a pensive ballad that explores the many contradictions of romantic love and emotional toxicity. Produced by Los-Angeles-based Angelo Leroi, the soulful, percussive beat, fashioned out of guitar, bass and kick-drum hits, is offset with lush, warm vocal harmonies. In an Andre 3000-esque verse that feels like stream of consciousness, the Louisa, Va.-based artist's pen gets the opportunity to shine: "You make me believe that magic is tragic from loving you / Feelings of madness so massive from loving you / Maybe I'm being dramatic but that's just what lovers do / I realize that habits just happen like loving you." If this single from the crooner's upcoming debut album, CL!Ftape Vol. 1: Virginia is For Lovers, is any indication, the rest of the album likely channels "real" R&B and stirs up those feels. — Ashley Pointer
Kaash Paige, "Doubted Me"
The Dallas singer Kaash Paige clearly descends from Auto-Tuned Texans Don Toliver and Travis Scott, only she brings rap-like cadences to R&B songcraft. It is a different kind of osmosis, one that requires actual singing. Her 2020 debut, "Teenage Fever," seemed to live in the same psychedelic sonic realm as Astroworld, but Paige is not limited by her voice and can stretch her songs in more imaginative directions. Her new song, "Doubted Me," has all of the characteristics of a flexing rap song — doubters and Penthouses and diamonds and bad b***** — with a "Started from the Bottom"-esque narrative arc, but the sweet melodies could lull a listener into thinking otherwise. Her greatest skill is softening rap aesthetics, which she uses to great effect here, giving her showboating a particularly light touch. — Sheldon Pearce
Rell Briscoe, "Lonely"
Rappers like A Boogie wit da Hoodie and Lil Tjay helped bring the now dominant strain of melodic rap to New York City and an artist like Rell Briscoe feels representative of their efforts. The Bronx rapper, a tune-first writer, has really come on lately, with a mellow new project called Going to Space, but his most impressive showing is still "Lonely," a freewheeling little song about keeping a gun close at hand. The chorus is almost pleasantly droning, as Briscoe hovers just above a facsimile of the production made popular by crooners like Polo G. It feels like an overstatement to call the lyrics at the center of "Lonely" a "verse," and they aren't doing much narratively, but he uses them to play with tempo and melody — messing with double-time flows and inverting the hook's tune. It is in that space that he shows the most promise, as a potential earworm generator. — Sheldon Pearce
KéJa, "Cuttin Loose"
The Baltimore-based singer-songwriter KéJa recently released her debut EP, Things Fall Apart, which lingers in feelings of aimlessness amid a deepening depression. On the memorable track "Cuttin Loose," she finds and eliminates one source of her anxiety: her noncommittal boyfriend. "Talking to a brick wall 'bout my heart / Is the tired truth / If he cared he'd show me / Shouldn't have to pull it up out of you," she sings. KéJa cites Brandy among her influences, and the song channels the rich grooves of Brandy's self-titled debut with plinked guitar and booming bass. Even her full-toned voice seems to be calling for the association, as it flits between sonorous and feathery tones, adding flavor and character to a heart-rending, fed-up performance. — Sheldon Pearce
Marlowe, "President the Rock"
L'Orange can dust any old sample off its shelf to construct a fresh, nostalgic beat. On "President the Rock," the producer cements a legacy as a reclamationist, while Solemn Brigham proves that his flow can match the intensity. The song is off the third self-titled album from the North Carolina-bred duo's collaborative project Marlowe. It is a perfect marriage of looped, old-school instrumentals and unfettered enthusiasm. "Now whеre your business at? / Mind that and mind the brothеrs that be in the back / All they really want is that respect that you can't get with rap," Brigham warns, taking off with his bars like he's afraid to get caught. It's a high-energy song that challenges the old guard, by taking the traditional and breathing fresh life into it. — Teresa Xie
Dee Watkins, "Gleecin" (ft. Icewear Vezzo)
There is a madcap energy to the best Dee Watkins songs. The Florida rapper can come off as a fun-loving troublemaker and there is a mischievousness in his delivery. 2019's "Hell Raiser" established him as an impish sort of menace, and his threats and putdowns often feel like pranks played for his amusement. "Gleecin" is slightly more aggressive in tone, in an effort to establish him as a serious player. Here, he isn't sporting; he needs rivals to know he's better than them. The grim TAPEKID and WoodleyOnThaBeat production strobes like a foghorn signaling incoming danger, and Watkins comes crashing through. "I don't care about no numbers and no charts, I'm the best," he proclaims, and he seems so sure it's almost convincing. That is, until Detroit vet Icewear Vezzo enters the chat with a nonchalant verse that never stops unfurling. In some ways, it feels like an OG showing a hotshot that there's still much to learn. — Sheldon Pearce