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Alongside the announcement of his sophomore album adultSW!M, Queens-raised rapper deem spencer, drops an introspective new single, "27" featuring singer DaVionne, that vulnerably depicts the heartache of loss and the power of living fully and making it to the age of 27.

In the track he floats from one bar to the next, unbottling the feelings that come with being young and facing an uncertain but boundless future. A steady beat, warping guitar and scattered reverberations bubble into ambient mediation as deem reconciles the loss of his grandfather with his own mortality, as he approaches the foreboding age of the song's title. (It's an age at which many preeminent artists have died, including Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, a group morbidly referred to as The 27 Club.) But the listener can be spiritually stimulated through deem's lyricism, "Ima be back in the form of an ever-flowin river / All facts / I believe in a God and a Goddess / If anybody asks / Comma fall fast / When I'm involved less / I'm what God blessed."

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If you're not hip to U.K. born Nigerian-Jamaican artist Kasien, his latest EP, FOLLOW ME, will have you trying to keep up — track after track, bar after bar. His lyrical conviction is contagious, revitalizing the listener through a robust global soundscape. Kasien is the life coach we didn't know we needed, rapping, "See no limits like Bezos, like Musk, you know / I'm an Afrikan Rebel like Pa, you know / Don't give up, I don't care if I'm last / Got too much trauma in my past to fuss, you know."

Opening with a solitary bark, "BREATHE (SLOW IT DOWN)" feels like an anthem for 2023, a retribution for the time we've lost. The beat is kinesthetic, making the listener chase after each buzzing chord progression as the track swerves and pulses. It is a track for late night drives, high intensity workouts and absolute ragers. Kasien structures the industrial sounds that are the basis for hyper-pop in a rhythmic, Afrobeat-like tempo, intersecting UK drill with a Southern trap style to produce an original flow. But ironically the track is fleeting, its energy lasting not much more than a minute — barely enough time to breathe it all in

Top Dawg Entertainment YouTube

Ab-Soul is back and he hasn't missed a single beat. The Los Angeles rapper has always been a wordsmith at the top of his game, but HERBERT sees him at his most vulnerable, dynamic and confident.

"GOODMAN," a standout from his first album in six years, has all the elements of an addictive Ab-Soul track: a remix of a beloved soul sample, a philosophical premise and an energetic, did-I-even-stutter type of flow. The track's title kinda tells you everything you need to know about it: Ab-Soul ponders, "Am I a good man?" over a slowed down, then accelerated sample of Them Two's 1967 song of the same name. "Never wore a rosary or went to confession / But if I could clean this mess up with a message, it'll be a blessing," Ab-Soul weighs faith against his own actions. Top Dawg Entertainment president and rapper Punch catches the second verse, reflecting on the impact of his predecessors, "Standing on the shoulder of giants / A good man turned tyrant / That's the after effects of my environment." By the end of the song, Ab-Soul fails to reach a solid conclusion on the state of his morality — only bringing more questions into the fold. Might as well hit play again.

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SZA's "Conceited" hits like a much needed dance break after an epic meltdown. It's like snapping out of a stream of negativity and reminding yourself who you are, no more shame or self-pity. She isn't letting circumstances beyond her control — naysayers; who her ex is currently seeing — dictate her worth, even if only briefly. Fun, bouncy production by Cody Fayne, paired with poppy synth melodies allow her infectious, melodic rap flow to glow as she relishes in an unapologetic, cocky moment: "Feelin' like a billion / Feel I might drill on your ho / I'm just livin' my goals / Pressure make diamonds, can't fold," she sings, wielding her power. There's even an evocation of her labelmate Kendrick Lamar's "Count Me Out," taunting those who might bet against her. In the breezy cadences of "Conceited," SZA is being stingy with her energy, recognizing that having everything she needs might not be enough.

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"Gone Girl" marks SZA's loss of one version of herself to the next, or, more acutely, that uncomfortable moment pinpointing the change internally before it's apparent to the outside world. Arriving nearly halfway through the journey of SOS, the song parts a gulf the album attempts to navigate. Serving as both an inner monologue and a PSA for anyone thinking they're about to get the 2017 version of Solána, "Gone Girl" fully faces the realization that SZA isn't that person anymore. "Trying to find a deeper meaning in the nonsense / Trying to grow without hating the process," she professes with the help of earnest piano and a subtle supporting choir. "You better learn how to face that she's gone, gone girl." While the artist's 20s brought her love, loss and varied levels of strife — at times, self-inflicted — so far, her 30s are beckoning more comfort with her demons, more internal work and the realization that soul-searching is not just an odyssey, but a continuum. Smooth seas never made for a skilled sailor, anyway.

December 15

SZA, 'Special'

YouTube

Vertigo is the operating principle of SZA's "Special," a wounded pop-folk ballad about being overlooked and leeched by an ex. Singing plaintively over an airy bed of acoustic guitar and keyboard, she staggers out of a failed relationship like a soldier out of a warzone, her words weary and her senses frazzled. Her self-image warps and contorts as she struggles to figure out what went wrong, producing a fraught and affecting double vision. She wants to be thick and thin, an "art piece" and an "ordinary girl," left alone and validated. The constant vacillation and the spare production build to a glum clarity. "I used to be special / I gave all my special / Away to a loser / Now I'm just a loser," she sings on the dejected, singsongy hook. A bruised ego might help her rediscover her center.

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The North London-based rapper Little Simz knows her worth. She may be an introvert, but she isn't faint-hearted, and on "Gorilla" she's keeping score: "Name one time where I didn't deliver," she assuredly raps on over a laid-back, plucking bassline. Over producer Inflo's steady break beat and surging streaks, she displays command of her punchy rhymes with a cadence so casual it feels as if she could deliver them in her sleep. The track closes the same way it starts: with the pomp and circumstance of booming brass notes. It's a declaration — Little Simz is here and she wants you to feel it.

(A version of this review originally appeared on NPR Music's Best Songs of 2022.)

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After making game-changing waves in the R&B space, SZA proves her nihilistic pen game fits just as well in the pop-rock world — not that it needs proving, given that rock is a Black-born art form with roots in rhythm and blues — invoking the angst, anarchy and audacity of pop-punk predecessors like Fefe Dobson or even Avril Lavigne. Each line of "F2F" fires off shots like a bubblegum-filled bazooka aimed right between the eyes of her former love. But the song is really about her, and her willingness to do anything not to think about him anymore. From the very beginning, SZA relishes her role as the toxic ex, letting each admission fly, fueled by electric guitars and a devilish smirk. "Get a rise outta watchin you fall / Get a kick outta missing your calls," twirls the chorus. "I f*** him cause I really miss you / I f*** him to forget you." If the mission is chaos, SZA is more than up for the task.

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We can all be masters of self-delusion. On "Kill Bill," SZA is no exception. "I might kill my ex / Not the best idea / His new girlfriend's next / How'd I get here?" the artist sings over a spacey, mid-tempo R&B groove. As is often the case with inner monologues, the song finds SZA bouncing her more toxic and rational thoughts off of each other — indulging particularly in the former. She refers back to the words of her therapist and mockingly pats herself on the back for her own maturity before reveling in a bit of make-believe violence. Her dreamy vocals help sell the minor comfort the hallucination brings her. Referencing Tarantino's film duology of the same name, in "Kill Bill" SZA is ready and willing to get her hands messy in her personal revenge fantasy. "The text gon' be evidence, this text is evidence," she plans, performing with such calm that you're left wondering if you heard her right. "I did it all for us, oh I did it all for love," she belts out desperately in a final attempt to justify her crime of passion. Even if the jury remains unconvinced, she's willing to pay the price. To her, in this moment, jail, and even hell, is worse than being alone.

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On "Smoking on my Ex Pack," the belligerent rap moment from SZA's new album, SOS, the singer-songwriter channels lethal bars into a perfect anti-ex anthem. Absent any pining or angst, her rapping is matter of fact, leaving no room for questions, letting you know up top she's that girl. Produced by Vine star turned beat maker Jay Versace, the song's chipmunk soul loop unwinds as SZA talks the kind of talk that might make her TDE labelmates clutch their mics a bit tighter. In 90 seconds, she flexes effortlessly on the dudes falling over themselves in her DMs — she blocked your favorite rapper (she heard "the d*** was wack") and she won't text anyone's favorite athlete back either (no exceptions). She adopts the same detached player persona often deployed by the men in rap, only she's performing from a place of self-preservation: "Them 'ho' accusations weak / Them 'bitch' accusations true / You hatin' from nosebleeds, I wish you well," she raps, finding peace in her continued success. Cocky looks great on her.

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Here's a concept driving the sample drill wave currently spreading across New York City: affix the typical drill drum kit to a choice loop and let the uncanny power of the combination do the rest. Much of Kenzo Balla's new project, Mr. Ready to Blitz, functions in this way, with everything from vocal chops ("No Sympathy") to twisting strings ("Don't Panic"), but few songs feel as dutifully assembled as "Krash Out." As the sample gradually uncoils, Kenzo slashes right through the center. A weird phenomenon seems to happen, the rap equivalent of bullet time, where the listener gets an enhanced perception of the rapper's speed relative to the world around him.

Kevin Abstract reflects on BROCKHAMPTON on new song "The Ending." TORBEN CHRISTENSEN/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
TORBEN CHRISTENSEN/AFP via Getty Images

Kevin Abstract reflects on BROCKHAMPTON on new song "The Ending."

TORBEN CHRISTENSEN/AFP via Getty Images

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, Kevin Abstract says goodbye to BROCKHAMPTON (kind of?), $ilkmoney shrugs off virality and rap fame, and a London singer synthesizes the sounds of the UK's contemporary R&B scene. Elsewhere, sample drill continues its spread, Juice WRLD's influence looms large, Gucci Mane's eye for talent rears its head again and more. Stream the playlist on Spotify. Check in.


BROCKHAMPTON, "The Ending"

"The Ending," marks the beginning of the end for BROCKHAMPTON, the Kevin Abstract-led boy band that has been around since 2010. Earlier this year, the group announced on social media that they would be calling it quits following their Coachella show this summer. This Abstract-only track off BROCKHAMPTON's "final" album, the family (they announced another album today, dropping tomorrow, called TM), leads with a sample from Willie Hutch's "Let Me Be the One," curating a homesick feel with its pleading vocals. Dilla sirens sound and Abstract taps into the song's wistfulness, reflecting on the band's formation and how things have changed since the personal became professional. "This the most corrupted vision / I turned my friendship into a business into an empire," he raps. In the song's two minutes, it does all that it needs to; how much time does one need to say goodbye? — Teresa Xie

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$ilkmoney, "I Ate 14gs of Mushrooms and Bwoy Oh Bwoy"

If rapper $ilkmoney hasn't been clear enough about his disdain for the rap game just consult his latest album title: I Don't Give a F*** About This Rap S***, Imma Just Drop Until I Don't Feel Like It Anymore. It reflects not only the way he thinks about the industry but about his own music too. Sure, the former Divine Council member went viral last year, for "My Potna Dem," but that was not his intention, and when the labels came calling, he rebuffed them. He has always rapped like rapping was a nuisance, something done to stave off boredom but never quite worth the effort.

Even from that position, $ilkmoney somehow produces some of the zaniest music on the internet, equal parts absurd and deadly serious. One of the best moments on the new project is "I Ate 14gs of Mushrooms and Bwoy Oh Bwoy," a clanging song that almost seems to chase the delirium of hallucinogens. He seems to be spiraling, throughout raps that build in intensity, even careening off beat as his momentum carries. But the whole thing surges to one of the most clear-headed and perceptive hooks of the year, where the source of his stress is not human but machine: "B**** I don't need a pistol / It's just me and my niggas versus the algorithms / And I know they out to get us." — Sheldon Pearce

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LOLA, "Alpha"

The London singer-songwriter LOLA feels uniquely in touch with the UK's contemporary R&B scene. Her music seems to settle somewhere between the electronic-infused stylings of Shygirl and the throwback appeal of FLO. But her sound gives off its own natural glow, her voice emitting light like a firefly in the night. Her new EP, fittingly titled Flicker, is defined by this beaming quality. One of the songs, "Alpha," is particularly stunning, reminiscent of the most refreshing and experimental Tinashe songs — carefully constructed yet seemingly weightless, her singing faint but the subtle harmonies blended purposefully — it is so spectral it's almost eerie. — Sheldon Pearce


Your Stepdad, "PRESENT"

Few songs scream SoundCloud more than one by a rapper named Your Stepdad produced by a beat maker calling himself Sauron. (Obviously, it's shorter than two minutes, too.) Like a lot of half-finished stuff uploaded to the user-friendly platform, "Present" kind of washed over me on first listen as something just aimlessly floating through the endless stream. It felt like a low-stakes expression of youthful, 'all girls are the same' misogyny. Engaging in rapper-speak, he wonders aloud why he keeps "wasting" his money on girls when he isn't horny, and he posits that he'll never get through what's bugging him if he can't even get over the girl he has feelings for. But as the song reached the close, one recurring line finally struck me: "She keeps calling me selfish / Can't even tell that I'm helpless, always rebellious," he raps. The point emerged: This was not an offhand slight but a cry for help, an attempt to expel his intrusive thoughts. And suddenly the song's hook ("I just don't know how to live in the present") started to ring much more poignantly. — Sheldon Pearce


RRR, "GILBERT ARENAS"

RRR Music Group, a New York music collective composed of rappers YL and Starker and in-house producer Zoomo, is set on injecting their youthful style into the city's classic sounds. "GILBERT ARENAS," the first single off the group's forthcoming project, RRR: THE ALBUM, is a sweet, low-key track, backed by an enveloping, soulful sample. Starker's husky, fast-paced flow compliments YL's more mellow approach, who raps, "They only f*** with you for personal gain / Call it out they look at you like you said something strange." The group is finding its place within a new era of rappers. They plan on staying for a long while. — Teresa Xie

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Enchanting, "Keep It Playa"

For many years, Gucci Mane was praised for his curatorial eye. It's fair to say the rap landscape wouldn't be what it is today without his endorsement of now-high profile artists in their nascent stages. The 1017 name rubber-stamped artists like Nicki Minaj, Waka Flocka Flame, Young Thug and more, ushering in new sounds and stars. His attempt to retool has been less successful, but the new 1017 trio of Pooh Shiesty, Foogiano and Big Scarr have helped to restore the brand. An overlooked member of the roster is Texas rapper Enchanting. Her best songs make use of her whisper-rap register, which gives verses on songs like "Track & Field" and "Big Chant" added sass. But her latest song, "Keep It Player," advances another facet of her style. In these fuller, melodic raps, she is much smoother but no less forward. — Sheldon Pearce

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Awon & SOUL.DOPE.95, "You'll Never"

Sometimes it's simple. Sometimes the flip just hits. It feels good. That's at the core of what's working on "You'll Never," a standout from rapper Awon and producer SOUL.DOPE.95's collaborative album, Infinite Wisdom. Of course, there's more to it than just that. Awon is a capable MC and a considerate writer; here he's shrewd enough to lean into the swankiness of the production. But he is merely working in service of that beat: the warm loop, the funky grunt that punctuates each bar, the shimmering chimes suspended over top. Awon must've felt it, too — he discovered the soulful sounds of his enigmatic beat maker while scrolling beat videos and sounds on Instagram. Whatever must've stood out to him is likely the same thing that pulled me in. — Sheldon Pearce


Kenzo Balla, "Krash Out"

A similar concept is driving the sample drill wave currently spreading across New York City: affix the typical drill drum kit to a choice loop and let the uncanny power of the combination do the rest. Much of Kenzo Balla's new project, Mr. Ready to Blitz, functions in this way, with everything from vocal chops ("No Sympathy") to twisting strings ("Don't Panic"), but few songs feel as dutifully assembled as "Krash Out." As the sample gradually uncoils, Kenzo slashes right through the center. A weird phenomenon seems to happen, the rap equivalent of bullet time, where the listener gets an enhanced perception of the rapper's speed relative to the world around him. — Sheldon Pearce

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YouTube

Liv.e (pronounced Liv) places time in the palms of her hands, squeezing and stretching it as she sees fit. Her 20-track debut album, Couldn't Wait to Tell You..., originally released in 2020, was a dreamy introduction to her shape-shifting R&B.

On "Wild Animals," the newest single off Liv.e's forthcoming Girl in the Half Pearl, she wistfully self-harmonizes over a jazzy piano and bass instrumental. It's a self-affirming track with a calamity that only comes with knowing oneself: " 'Cause they always wanna bite when they see mе / And they always got somebody that they seeing / And I hope the girl makes the choice to leave him," she sings. Piano riffs add a touch of delicate ornamentation to a flow that comes and goes at it pleases, swallowing you into its fold before you even know it.

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Rap is youth culture, but, in recent years, older rappers have carved out more and more space to tell the stories of middle-age. 40-year-old Detroit rapper Boldy James has taken it a step further: he has really found his voice in maturity, acclimating to a composed persona, first as an original signee of Nas' Mass Appeal records and recently as a member of the indie stable Griselda. His songs bear the wariness that comes with experience and the poise that comes from a hard-scrabble life navigating obstacles.

James, always prolific, has been particularly productive since 2020, releasing his best music across nine projects, and his streak continues with the Futurewave-produced Mr. Ten08. The standout, "Jam Master J," is full of his patented roiling flows but it is the imagery that elevates them: a plate that looks like shaving cream on a straight razor, a cup of lean so noxious it should bear the health hazard symbol, a lost rap icon as an avatar for achieving greatness.

Masego returns with the new song "Say You Want Me." Benjamin Askinas hide caption

toggle caption
Benjamin Askinas

Masego returns with the new song "Say You Want Me."

Benjamin Askinas

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, dueling sounds of the new New York, roiling raps from a middle-aged street rapper and sugary, off-kilter pop birthed on TikTok. Elsewhere, a multi-hyphenate star rises, a classically trained jazz musician continues her descent down the R&B rabbit hole, a sax enthusiast embraces his vibrant musical lineage and more. Stream the playlist on Spotify. Check in.


Masego, "Say You Want Me"

The future soul artist Masego makes colorful music with jazz and funk flourishes, often channeling the saxophone as an instrument of desire. He's a South African-born Jamaican-American and his songs reflect that musical sprawl (See: "Prone" and "Queen Tings" from his wonderful 2018 album, Lady Lady). But nothing he has released before has pulled from that lineage quite like his single, "Say You Want Me," a vibrant cut that sets the sax aside, settling somewhere between amapiano and dancehall. (He does so literally in the song's video, performing seated between two of the brass instruments.) The song feels substantially bigger and more robust than the music he was making before. "I seek the love drum / I seek communion," he sings. So much of his best music basks in the glow of a woman's presence, and here he seems to find his thesis: "I fought for you right / I never wanna see the day that I'm not in ya light." — Sheldon Pearce

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Yung Fazo, "Steal da Swag"

This singsong New York rapper exists in the same sonic ecosystem as nu-trap characters like Yeat and ssgkobe and former slayworld collective members like Autumn! and Summrs. Only his music can feel like it's moving at warp speed, down to the pitched-up, distorted vocals that feel like they're blurring by you as you listen. "Steal da Swag," from his new project, me vs me, might be his most thrilling song yet. Its zaniness sounds like rap as cartoon. — Sheldon Pearce

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Fousheé, "supernova"

Two years after blowing up on the clock app, the singer-songwriter Fousheé has made sure to surpass her 15 minutes with consistently off-kilter heat, each time sounding like she's fed her hard drive of sugary pop song pitches through an industrial shredder. "supernova" finds that sweet spot between categories again. With sly bass and her helium-like key changes, the latest single to her upcoming album, softCORE, rides perfect timing within the presumed polarity of genre. — Sidney Madden

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Sha Ek, "O to the G"

Recent drill music has been defined by great, singular rap voices: the late Pop Smoke, of course, but also Headie One in the UK, and now Ice Spice. Sha Ek has such a voice — a shout that threatens to tear his songs open at the seams. In 2021, the Bronx rapper exploded into view with the Blockwork-assisted "D & D," among the most twisted drill hits of its era. On "O to the G," it's as if he's picking up where he left off. This time, he navigates the wheeze of a bagpipe sample, his shot-out-of-a-cannon energy propelling him through as the beat thumps and whines around him. "No security, n****, just me and my gang you know we movin' dirty," he raps, his hurtling flows only adding to the sense of reckless abandon. — Sheldon Pearce

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Rufus Sims, "What's the Word"

Rufus Sims looks to bury the past on "What's the Word." Formerly known as Weasel, like his father, a drug kingpin in Chicago, he distances himself from the title, taking on his own name and making sense of the transition. "I had to kill Weasel / It was just too much evil beneath dude for me to sleep peaceful," he raps. "I had to kill Weasel, for the skeletons in my closet / Let's be honest, most bones I had to pick was with my own people." Over a spiraling soul sample that feels like a nod to the Windy City's rap history, he shows growth as both a rapper and thinker, and as he tries to lay the old version of himself to rest, he seems to emerge as something more. — Sheldon Pearce

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Coco Jones, "ICU"

In an attention economy where everybody's showing off all the time, true, multi-hyphenate talent is getting harder to come by. Luckily, we got Coco Jones. The singer/actress has proven she can do both with her debut EP, What I Didn't Tell You. Even with SWV samples and big co-writing credits on the project, it's the songs most free of frills, like "ICU," where Jones' vocal range gets to fly highest. The mic is most definitely on! — Sidney Madden

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Allyn, "Player Ways"

As a classically trained jazz musician still transitioning into R&B, the Sacramento singer Allyn has a small catalog of atmospheric, lovelorn songs. Her music has steadily evolved over the years, and "Player Ways," from her new EP, After Hours, demonstrates just how much her perspective has shifted. On "Locked In," from 2018, she positioned herself as the "real woman" among "thots" holding her man down at home. Now, she has embraced the other role, which means embracing agency. "You ain't the only man that I got," she sings, responding to his desire to break things off. In a post-"Irreplaceable" world, this has become a dominant mode among women in R&B — lining up a replacement as you show the last man the door — but here Allyn preempts the damage. The next man is already on the way. Her honeyed vocals, and the lack of concern in her tone, help sell her indifference. — Sheldon Pearce

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Boldy James, "Jam Master J"

Rap is youth culture, but, in recent years, older rappers have carved out more and more space to tell the stories of middle-age. 40-year-old Detroit rapper Boldy James has taken it a step further: he has really found his voice in maturity, acclimating to a composed persona, first as an original signee of Nas' Mass Appeal records and recently as a member of the indie stable Griselda. His songs bear the wariness that comes with experience and the poise that comes from a hard-scrabble life navigating obstacles. James, always prolific, has been particularly productive since 2020, releasing his best music across nine projects, and his streak continues with the Futurewave-produced Mr. Ten08. The standout, "Jam Master J," is full of his patented roiling flows but it is the imagery that elevates them: a plate that looks like shaving cream on a straight razor, a cup of lean so noxious it should bear the health hazard symbol, a lost rap icon as an avatar for achieving greatness. — Sheldon Pearce

YouTube

L.A. rapper YUNGMORPHEUS releases two new songs, "Figure-Four Leg Lock" and "Sonny's Triangle." Enkrypt Los Angeles hide caption

toggle caption
Enkrypt Los Angeles

L.A. rapper YUNGMORPHEUS releases two new songs, "Figure-Four Leg Lock" and "Sonny's Triangle."

Enkrypt Los Angeles

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.


YUNGMORPHEUS,
"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

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CL!F, "Lost"

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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YouTube

Solana's back, just in time for Scorpio season, and well, she's still as chaotic as ever. While "Shirt" isn't necessarily new — she first teased the song on Instagram in October 2020, producing a TikTok dance challenge that led to her fanbase naming the song — this marks its official release after a long life on the short-form platform. There's something tantalizing about an unrequited love, the kind that wraps you up totally, strips you of your dignity and leaves you obsessed: "Been so lost without you all around me ... lead me, don't look back. It's all about you," SZA sings in the first verse, over heavy subs, a boomy drum break and glitchy hi-hats produced by the one and only Darkchild with the producer/guitarist Freaky Rob. One thing SZA knows well is the destructive depths of love and how to convey its all-consuming intensity in her music.

"Shirt" is no different, only within this cloud of delusion beams a salient awareness: "Still don't know my worth / Still stressin' perfection / Let you all in my mental / Got me lookin' too desperate, damn," she sings in the chorus. The single is accompanied by a mini film directed by Dave Meyers and co-starring LaKeith Stanfield, capturing the criminal adventures of a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde. She puts it all out there — her insecurities, her flaws, her wounds. She's not afraid to be seen. At the end of the video, in typical SZA fashion, she offers a preview of a new song filled with gentle, finger-picked acoustic guitar and light strings (the internet has already named it "Blind"), perhaps soft launching her long-awaited follow-up to the era-defining CTRL.

redveil taps Denzel Curry for the remix to his breakout track, "pg baby." Ethan Kwon hide caption

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Ethan Kwon

redveil taps Denzel Curry for the remix to his breakout track, "pg baby."

Ethan Kwon

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, prodigies past and present connect with OGs and friends, rappers stretch the limits of genre, and young artists breathe new life into a few unmistakable samples. Elsewhere, Griselda's first lady stakes her claim, a rising Afropop crooner finds his niche, a tired Toronto singer takes on wastemen and more. Stream the playlist on Spotify. Check in.


redveil, "pg baby" (Remix) (ft. Denzel Curry)

Earlier this year, the Maryland rapper redveil emerged as a prodigious talent learning on the fly with his third self-released album, learn 2 swim. Shared on his 18th birthday, part of its charm is that it feels like a bona fide album, its songs gelled together by a singular purpose, but one track in particular seemed to epitomize the album's vision and the artist's style: "pg baby," a soulful cut that laces a throwback R&B sample with carefully defined melodic raps. The song is a boyish striver's theme for keeping it pushing despite missteps because you're always representing everyone back home. But hidden somewhere within his woozy flows was a surprising world-weariness.

redveil taps Denzel Curry for the remix, and his young OG, a rare 27-year-old elder statesman, understood the assignment. Curry knows a thing or two about being a rising teenager (he debuted in Raider Klan at 17) and thinking about home and its influence (his 2019 album, ZUU, was an homage to Miami Gardens), and he adds a verse that is reflective and provincial, performed with his madcap fervor: "With all the locals, fist fights had us falling out with each other / It's silly 'cause they my niggas but really, they are my brothers / In turn, they all made me tougher but rougher around the edges / But most importantly, see what's greater over the hedges," he raps, drawing a direct line between his hometown growing pains and a globetrotting payoff. — Sheldon Pearce

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Armani Caesar, "Ice Age"

Armani Caesar is likely the best rapper in the Griselda stable, and on her new album, The LIZ 2, it feels like she is making her case with each aggressive push into the foreground. Nowhere is this more evident than on "Ice Age," a pure display of strength and skill. "I'm on a roll while they stallin' out / I'm with the s**ts, and they know I'm that b***h / I can stand next to the hardest out, f**k is you talkin' 'bout?" she raps, discernably annoyed that she even has to say it. The crystalline, Denny Laflare-produced beat sounds like someone attempting to play a chandelier like a xylophone, which is fitting given Caesar's overarching message: Elegance is something you embody at all times. — Sheldon Pearce

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Maurice II, "luhvit<3"

On the three-track sampler Luhvit<3, Maurice II (known previously as Jon Bap) negotiates aesthetics in Dilla time. What results is a compelling and dizzying blend of rock, free jazz, computerized neo soul and (seriously) much, much more. After two more meandering cuts, the EP reaches its climax with "izzitwurkinfoya," an up-tempo shift that is more consistent, carrying pan-flute-like hits throughout its sparser, guitar-driven instrumentation. The song poses a rhetorical question that scans as a double entendre. Stay with me. Maurice II asks listeners if defying their gut instinct is setting them up for success. I don't know you but I'm sure it isn't. More broadly, he asks if this thing he's trying out is working. I'm pretty sure it is. — Gabby Bulgarelli


Chxrry22, "Wasteland"

The Toronto singer-songwriter Chxrry22 is signed to the Weeknd's XO label, which is ironic because on "Wasteland," from her new EP, The Other Side, it feels like she's venting about the kind of character he often portrays in his songs. "Such a f**kin' wasteman / In a city full of wastemen / You treat me like I'm basic," she sings. He doesn't want her until he sees her doing better without him. Now he's back to ruin her life again. Guys like the Weeknd and Brent Faiyaz (who released an album earlier this year called Wasteland, with a lyric that feels particularly applicable here: "If I die, I'm haunting you"), have made entire careers off toxicity, playing the philanderer circling back. Here, Chxrry22 calls one out, her voice feathery but assertive when she sets the stakes: "I need a love, deep as the ocean / Pull me to shore / Show me devotion." — Sheldon Pearce

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Tyla Yaweh, "Sex Symbol"

There are many bustling rap scenes in Florida, but the singsong Orlando rapper Tyla Yaweh has existed a world apart from them sonically and aesthetically, skewing instead toward rock-inflected pop rap. It is now cliché to use rockstar as a euphemism for a certain kind of rap celebrity, and Yaweh has leaned into that iconography since he surfaced on SoundCloud in 2019, releasing a song called "Tommy Lee" and collaborating with one-man Nirvana cover band Post Malone (who also discovered him). "Sex Symbol" continues this obsession, and though it doesn't do anything particularly novel with the trope, it does push his sound into a more interesting direction. Songs like his breakthrough single, "Gemini," albeit earwormy, felt nearly weightless. These vocals are heavy and distorted, and he almost sounds like a fusion-dance product of Travis Scott and Lil Uzi Vert. As with much of Scott's work, the focus isn't on the lyrics, which are uninspired, but the crunch of the distortion itself. — Sheldon Pearce

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Jim Legxacy, "dj"

Listening to Jim Legxacy's "dj," I'm reminded of how artists like XXXTentacion and Lil Peep would unlock new sides of hip-hop — and themselves — by wailing in the cadences of emo. Jim does something more contemporary here, singing of an old flame by narrowing into a specific detail, his voice faint and fluttery: "You used to promise me you'd teach me how to DJ." He sounds genuinely broken over that somber guitar riff, but when the drums and bassline erupt, you're immersed in the loose, communal vibes of drill and Afrobeats. It's the most unexpected concoction, but it feels more alive than anything I've heard in a while. — Mano Sundaresan

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Azanti, "late4dinner"

As Afropop's innovators worked to legitimize the form by carefully defining its parameters, a host of young stars have been operating in the fringes and breaking those established rules. Among these artists is the Nigerian teenager Azanti, who makes mellow, R&B-infused songs that aren't unlike those by slightly older mavericks Fireboy DML and CKay. His voice isn't quite the same formidable instrument, but he has a way of soft blending his vocals into his production to soothing effect. His new song, "late4dinner," is a perfect is example of this; as his reverbed singing gives off a gentle hum, it's almost as if it gets swept up into the current of a laid-back groove. — Sheldon Pearce

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Babydoll, "My Faults"

The Chicago singer, producer and DJ Babydoll recently released an EP called tell me it's The End that is full of sweet songs of doomed romance, but no song feels more in touch with sense memory than "My Faults." It seems to linger in the emotions of the song it samples, Duffy's "Hanging On Too Long," stirring with hushed guitars and Duffy's own vocals ("It was just my false hope thinking we'd last," she sings in the distance.) Babydoll's bittersweet verses are layered on top, creating a sublime collage of two separate experiences of lost love. — Sheldon Pearce


Wiki, "One More Chance" (ft. Navy Blue)

"One More Chance," a track from Wiki and Subjxct 5's new mixtape, Cold Cuts, presents Wiki and the rapper-producer Navy Blue as not only collaborators, but as admiring friends. On the song, the two New York-based artists engage in a playful back and forth, trading compliments over a dreamy, lo-fi beat, which periodically builds to a looped choir adamantly chanting "one! more! chance!" It's the first collaboration between the two since Wiki put the production of his 2021 album, Half God, entirely in Navy Blue's hands. "Patrick Morales I love you / I see you as a brother plus you taught me what morale is," Navy Blue praises. "Navy Blue was born under the fullness of the moon," Wiki hits back. It's nothing but a sweet declaration of respect and love. — Teresa Xie


Maiya the Don, "TELFY"

The New York rapper Maiya the Don is in the midst of a viral moment with "TELFY," an ode to self-worth disguised as influencer marketing for a designer bag. Being in one's bag is a shorthand for being in a space so comfortable it inspires success, and here the bag in question is represented by a literal Telfar bag, only further reinforcing her status. Despite the usual rap showboating — her Range Rover isn't rented, she's dripped down in Prada wearing shoes by Giuseppe — the whole point of "TELFY" is that even without the brands, she'd still be that girl, an unstoppable force for cool. "This dress looks good 'cause I'm in it," she snaps. The song allows the prominent sample of Sisqo's "Thong Song" to do much of the work, affixing bigger rap drums to its base yet leaving it otherwise uncut and unadorned. But its energy is really powered by Maiya's swaggering, self-assured performance. As she rumbles through the verses, she is putting everyone in her line of sight on notice. — Sheldon Pearce

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YouTube

Ab-Soul is trying to get back on track. As one of TDE's original four, he helped build the label's rep as a rap powerhouse with epigrammatic lyricism that attempted the heady work of unraveling the mysteries of the universe. But soon his chosen rap position as the stoned overthinker started to spiral out of control. He not only lost his sense of reason chasing conspiracy theories, but also the grounded outlook that made his wordplay so bracing. On his last album, Do What Thou Wilt., from 2016, he got so tangled in the threads of string theory that he lost the plot entirely.

His new song, "Do Better," resurfaces the Ab-Soul at the root of even his most outlandish music — the curious, trenchant around-the-way philosopher. Trying to do better is a common theme in his songs, working through the big questions to get at more personal answers, but here he puts the onus on himself explicitly. The beat is built around a swirling sample of Nick Hakim's "Green Twins," which seems to echo in the background as drums click into place before him. Soul leans into his usual imagery — the crown of thorns, puzzles and chakras, stardust and galaxies — but here he draws upon it to think about self-improvement. He mourns Mac Miller and ponders drug dependency, wrestles with survivor's guilt and challenges his own inactivity. It seems that he has remembered: the most poignant discovery is that of one's own character.

This #NowPlaying pick comes courtesy of Heat Check.

Few rappers seem to love rap as much as R.A.P. Ferreira. The artist formerly known as milo is such a meticulous writer that his rhymes exude the care put into them, but he is also an allusive penman that is constantly thinking of other thinkers, the ideas they might bring to notions of rhythm and symmetry and lyricism, the lessons their work might imprint upon his — and anyone else's. "ours" is a prime example of studiousness becoming craft, the 10,000 hours manifesting. Over a wonky-sounding piano-mash, courtesy of Rose Noir, Ferreira performs with the looseness of someone relying on muscle memory. "Most disastrous motive, wrote this letter to them pacifist poets / In my bag is an understatement / Retract it, I keep ready to blaze like a matchstick / Blood-soaked cowboy, down to my last tin of Altoids / They'll say this was a stream of consciousness / I was simply a being, being honest," he raps. Even if you don't know he belongs among the greats, it's clear that he does.

Baby Rose and Georgia Anne Muldrow team up for "Fight Club." Nicole Hernandez hide caption

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Nicole Hernandez

Baby Rose and Georgia Anne Muldrow team up for "Fight Club."

Nicole Hernandez

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 features grounded wordsmiths, emergent L.A.-based chanteuses, auto-tuned misfits and songs of self-care. A rap thinker flexes his muscle, another reflects on his stereo past, an unlikely yet welcome soul collaboration bears fruit, a gaggle of nu-trap imitators try to replicate a singular star and more. Stream the playlist on Spotify. Check in.


Baby Rose, "Fight Club" (ft. Georgia Anne Muldrow)

On Baby Rose's latest single, in collaboration with genre-fluid experimentalist Georgia Anne Muldrow, the vintage vocalist embarks on a new journey. Propelled by detuned piano, tambourine and punchy, pulsing bass, "Fight Club" urges us to abandon comfortability, to take the risk. "I wanna run to my fears till I'm not afraid," Rose sings on the chorus, to which Muldrow responds, "Catch a current of fresh air to ride." Muldrow plays a catalyzing role here in a collab I never knew I needed. — Ashley Pointer

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R.A.P. Ferreira, "ours"

Few rappers seem to love rap as much as R.A.P. Ferreira. The artist formerly known as milo is such a meticulous writer that his rhymes exude the care put into them, but he is also an allusive penman that is constantly thinking of other thinkers, the ideas they might bring to notions of rhythm and symmetry and lyricism, the lessons their work might imprint upon his — and anyone else's. "ours" is a prime example of studiousness becoming craft, the 10,000 hours manifesting. Over a wonky-sounding piano-mash, courtesy of Rose Noir, Ferreira performs with the looseness of someone relying on muscle memory. "Most disastrous motive, wrote this letter to them pacifist poets / In my bag is an understatement / Retract it, I keep ready to blaze like a matchstick / Blood-soaked cowboy, down to my last tin of Altoids / They'll say this was a stream of consciousness / I was simply a being, being honest," he raps. Even if you don't know he belongs among the greats, it's clear that he does. — Sheldon Pearce


Arima Ederra, "An orange colored day"

The Las Vegas-raised, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Arima Ederra makes gentle, swaying folk-tinged soul music that nods to influences like Lauryn Hill and Bob Marley. The title track from her new album, An Orange Colored Day, displays her propensity for making serious things light. She is a practitioner of a weightless form of R&B that simmers in the ether like incense, and here her voice seems to let sung phrases spiral until they dissolve. Her harmonies give the song an intangibility, as she sings of angels and heaven. About a minute in, the song erupts into a skittering barrage of drums. They recede, then return. But throughout the ebb and flow, her singing remains unwaveringly subtle and elusive. — Sheldon Pearce


Ruti, "Safe & Sound"

In a post-lockdown world, moving fast to make up for lost time can actually be more draining than redemptive. Ruti makes beauty out of that blah on "Safe & Sound." With scuffled UKG percussion and a wailing saxophone as her backdrop, Ruti's vocals ring so clearly, she's able to hit a sweet spot, leaving the listener both grounded and ascendant. This is a slow burner with more to discover on each listen. — Sidney Madden

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Joyce Wrice, "Spent"

If you aren't up on recent Tiny Desk guest Joyce Wrice yet, there's still time to embrace her soulful music, which has taken a more buoyant turn lately, and bask in its richness. She performed several standouts from her new EP, Motive, during a stunning set, including the Kaytranada-produced "Iced Tea" and the lush "Bittersweet Goodbyes," but another cut worth visiting is the Afropop-inflected jam "Spent," which opens up for her to further showcase the range and nimbleness of her bubbly vocals. "All the time we, spent it way too fast," she sings, with the exasperation of a woman who is all out of patience. — Sheldon Pearce

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ssgkobe, onlybino, xhulooo, spgwes, pourz, "patek"
parczy, "run it up!" (ft. ilymax and xravvvenx)
brentsrevenge, "SRT!"

With all the chatter about rap's waning dominance lately — an overreaction to a slight dip in a few streaming metrics — it can be weird to see the exact opposite curve playing out elsewhere. There is a cadre of obvious rap stars existing beyond the reaches of popular culture, connecting with their audiences directly as everyone else ignores them, and none of these figures is more prevalent online this year than Yeat. Just spend 20 minutes letting stuff autoplay on SoundCloud and you'll start to feel his influence. All three of these songs are deeply indebted to him in some way. Half of the rappers on the "patek" posse cut seem to be miming the mummified Yeat flows and vocals. The rattling nascar and qwentcrazy production on "run it up!" evokes the work of beatmakers like Trgc. Even "SRT!" is playing into the same blurred-out, clouded-up aesthetic, which seems to scrub songs of any distinctive or defining traits. They all have their individual charms but they can only approximate Yeat's peculiar appeal. — Sheldon Pearce


KIRBY, "Take Care" (ft. Dave Guy)

The volume of "self-care songs" has certainly risen since the dark ages of the pandemic, yet KIRBY's new single "Take Care" still manages to meet the moment. There's much food for thought within this transportative neo-soul soundscape, produced by and featuring the trumpeter Dave Guy. Communal sounds of the outside — children playing, banter of neighboring families and friends — provide a nostalgic foundation for a rim-shot-led, pocketed drum groove, a dynamic bassline, soulful, muted horns and KIRBY's own smoky, Badu-esque vocals: "This load is way too heavy carried by yourself / Take care of momma," she sings, her voice wispy but unmistakable. "Know you gotta / Take care of brother / You gotta / Take care and hustle / But please take care of you." — Ashley Pointer

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Open Mike Eagle, "circuit city" (ft. still rift and Video Dave)

The L.A.-via-Chicago rapper Open Mike Eagle looks backward for inspiration into the future on "circuit city," referencing the now-shuttered electronic superstore chain. The Madlib-produced song engulfs you in a soft, rock-tinged instrumental, as Eagle playfully raps, "I'm a brand new man doing the same dance / It only seems confusing because I changed pants." His longtime collaborators still rift and Video Dave hand off verses without interruption, pushing a constant flow over a steady, percussive beat. The song is just one flashback on Eagle's latest project, component system with the auto reverse, where he is at his reflective best — traveling to the age of clunky home stereos, boomin' '90s beats and recollecting his own past, reminding us to have fun while we're there. — Teresa Xie


Exotix, "Ton1ght" (Remix) (ft. j4M and Luvdes)

The singsong Atlanta rapper Exotix likes to overlay monotone, auto-tuned flows atop beats that lightly glow and flicker. He often seems zoned-out in his songs, as if he's dozing off beneath the gentle hum of a nightlight. "Tonight," his best-performing track yet, has the feel of a sleepy cradlesong sped up to 1.5x. Even moving in tandem with the like-minded rapper j4M, the cut just sort of chugs along, pleasantly unassuming. A new remix elevates it to something more than a sparkling bauble. The new version adds sweeping vocal runs from Luvdes, which not only bring texture but tone to an otherwise colorless affair. Even in the few moments where her voice is unsteady or cracking slightly it still feels thrilling because she is reaching for something dramatic. — Sheldon Pearce

Alex Vaughn's "So Be It" is the opener on her new EP, The Hurtbook. LVRN/Interscope hide caption

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LVRN/Interscope

Alex Vaughn's "So Be It" is the opener on her new EP, The Hurtbook.

LVRN/Interscope

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

YouTube

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

YouTube

benihxnx, "lightz"

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

YouTube

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

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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

YouTube