AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The last decade of music saw major artists break many of the rules about how to release an album. Drake and Beyonce popularized the surprise release, putting out albums with little to no rollout at all.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRUNK IN LOVE")
BEYONCE: (Singing) We be all night, love, love.
CORNISH: So in the era of surprise digital drops and at the beginning of a new year of music, how do you make predictions about what's coming? Well, to answer that question, we're bringing on our experts, NPR Music's Ann Powers - hey there, Ann.
ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.
CORNISH: And Rodney Carmichael - welcome back, Rodney.
RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: What's going on, Audie?
CORNISH: All right. So I want to make you make predictions, essentially. I mean, is that an unwise thing to do in the era of the surprise digital drop?
CARMICHAEL: On the hip-hop side, it's almost impossible to keep up with what these cats are going to do from one minute to the next. I mean, every now and then, somebody like Drake does an interview, and he kind of lets you know what's happening. That's what happened at the end of 2019, so we got a sense of what he's working on.
CORNISH: Let's talk more about that because Drake released a single. It's called "War." Let's listen to a little bit of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAR")
DRAKE: (Rapping) Neeky (ph) sweatsuit, Nike sweatsuit, DG - if man get beaky, ring ring. Call up Gigi. Do him up neatly. Used to look up to a man from certain ends with tune on repeat - thought he was a bad boy then till man got pinched and man went PC.
CORNISH: So the sound feels a little darker.
CORNISH: You said he's testing the waters. What's going on?
CARMICHAEL: This is Drake in in his full-on rap mode. There's no hook on this song. This is not for the club. I think, you know, he feels like he has a little something to prove. He was, you know, by most accounts, the artist of the decade, especially on the rap side. And I think he wants to kind of hold onto that in this coming decade.
CORNISH: Ann, I want to talk to you about Jason Isbell, who you said is, quote, unquote, "threatening new music," which I love. How did you pick up that breadcrumb?
POWERS: So at the end of 2019, Isbell's on the road with his band, The 400 Unit. And they say they've been in the studio, and suddenly, we have a new Jason Isbell record in 2020, or so we think. One thing I know for sure is that the band that Jason Isbell got his start in, the Drive-By Truckers, has a new album coming out. It's called "The Unraveling." It follows through on this great Southern rock band's combination of the personal and the political, and I cannot wait for people to hear it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARMAGEDDON'S BACK IN TOWN")
DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS: (Singing) The die's been cast. Symbolism's so pronounced that there's nothing left to wonder or explain. There'll be no healing from the art of double-dealing. Armageddon's back in town again. Armageddon's back in town again.
CORNISH: All right, so that is a release we're pretty sure about. And Rodney, I guess you have one as well, right? Tell me about Ghetto Sage.
CARMICHAEL: Ghetto Sage is basically the name of a supergroup that comprises Noname, Saba and Smino. These are three artists who are, you know, well-known to hip-hop fans who, like, deeper listen, so to speak. Now, "Ghetto Sage" as an album is still kind of one of those things that's being teased. I'm not sure how much we can definitely bet on it coming out this year.
CORNISH: I was so close.
CARMICHAEL: I know, I know, I know. But they did drop a song called "Haagen Dazs" at the end of 2019, so, you know, they are in the studio. They're doing stuff. They're working out.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAAGEN DAZS")
GHETTO SAGE: (Rapping) I'm really ten toes down, yeah. It look like I'm in boots. One hand on the wheel, but I whip it. It feel like a 10 to two. They killing for tennis shoes, but the people dying out here for less, though. Meanwhile, them same shoes that the clubs said ain't the dress code. You say you fresh, though. I'm on the bread. I'm on the pesto. I'ma (ph) invest, though.
CORNISH: All right, now for something different because, Ann, you've got your eye on some familiar names, people who are going to come back - Green Day, poster guys for pop-punk, and Alanis Morissette, the original angry woman of the '90s.
POWERS: Yeah. Both Green Day and Alanis Morissette, of course, have found new lives on Broadway, Green Day with its musical "American Idiot" and Alanis Morissette with her show "Jagged Little Pill," which is taking the Great White Way by storm. It's interesting how those artists remain relevant today - Green Day, so influential. And Alanis, in the '90s, she was considered by some to be kind of a watered-down pop version of feminism. But now she's a titan. We should check out this new song she has, which is hilarious, powerful, personal. I love it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REASONS I DRINK")
ALANIS MORISSETTE: (Singing) These are the reasons I drink, the reasons I tell everybody I'm fine even though I am not. These are the reasons I overdo it. I have been working since I can remember, since I was single digits.
CORNISH: Thinking back to that period, she was the very essence of a breakthrough - right? - like, an artist...
CORNISH: ...That really cuts through. And Rodney, I know you have some artists that you are hoping to break through this year. Can you tell us who you're watching?
CARMICHAEL: Yeah. One cat that I'm definitely checking for is named D Smoke, and he actually is the winner of a competition show that had its first season in 2019 called "Rhythm And Flow." And D Smoke was really amazing. He's a cat out of South Central - Inglewood, to be specific. And he kind of puts you in the mind of a Kendrick Lamar a little bit, and I say that not only because they are from the same city but also because they are very deep artists.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONEY JACK")
D SMOKE: Paid too much for that - get your money back. Kicking back, sipping up on some Honey Jack, full glasses, it's about to be a mummy wrap off the Honey Jack, Honey Jack.
CORNISH: Ann Powers, for you, a breakthrough you're keeping an eye out for?
POWERS: An artist I love who's releasing her third album this year is Brandy Clark. She and producer Jay Joyce have come together to make an album called "Your Life Is A Record," which sounds like an instant classic. It evokes sort of classic '60s country albums, but it also sounds completely contemporary. It does not feel like it's in a shiny retro package. Let's hear a track from it. You'll hear what I mean.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE THE SAD SONG")
BRANDY CLARK: (Singing) Couldn't be your happy song, but at least we had a song. I'll be the sad song you sing.
CORNISH: Rodney, one more thing before I let you two go - you had a list of projects from people that are big names who have shown no sign of really turning out new music. You called them the Hail Mary joints we need. Who's on that list?
CARMICHAEL: No doubt. We already mentioned Kendrick Lamar. He hadn't released anything on the solo tip since his Pulitzer-winning album "DAMN." in 2017. This is his longest break, I believe, so let's look for Kendrick. Rihanna - I mean, we've been waiting on this reggae, you know...
CORNISH: Leave this woman alone. She's running a business.
CARMICHAEL: I love it.
POWERS: Do not leave her alone. We need her.
CARMICHAEL: She is living her life. She is doing her thing. I love it. She's ruling the world. I would love to hear a soundtrack to her ruling the world. You know what I'm saying?
POWERS: Me, too.
CARMICHAEL: Maybe we can get this Rihanna album in 2020.
CORNISH: And for you - Hail Mary joint?
POWERS: Kesha - come on, girl. She's coming. She's going to give us the anthems we need. I know it's going to happen. And Lady Gaga - come on, Lady Gaga. You are a movie star now. You have satisfied your every need.
CORNISH: Just end this segment with begging.
POWERS: I mean, seriously.
CORNISH: Like, figures.
POWERS: What else can you do? Give us a new album.
CORNISH: That is Rodney Carmichael and NPR's Ann Powers. Thank you both for your predictions. It was a lot of fun.
POWERS: Thanks so much.
CARMICHAEL: I appreciate you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHALLOW")
LADY GAGA: (Singing) I'm off the deep end. Watch as I dive in. I'll never meet the ground. Crash through the surface where they can't hurt us.
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