This July may feel less celebratory than others, but that’s not stopping artists from finding new ways to both interrogate our present moment and share music that offers a brief respite from it.
To start, Kane Brown teams up with Swae Lee and Khalid for a genre-less collaboration that feels meant to be. Brazil’s Anitta flexes her reggaeton muscle on “Tócame.” Jazz prodigy Jacob Collier brings in Rapsody for an unhurried kind of duet. Black Thought of The Roots expresses himself on “Thought vs. Everybody.” And the Dalai Lama—yes, that Dalai Lama—releases an album of meditation and chants that might just prove helpful to anyone in need of a moment of uplift.
“Be Like That,” Kane Brown feat. Swae Lee and Khalid
Country star Kane Brown‘s velvety drawl blends gently with rapper Swae Lee’s floating rhymes and Khalid’s lilting vibrato in “Be Like That,” a song about frustrated love that’s surprisingly tender and balanced. The three artists—all young Southern stars with roots in Tennessee, Mississippi and Texas, respectively—sound right at home as a trio. It’s a smart collaboration, mixing rap, pop-R&B and country in a way that should remind us just how pointless “genre” categorizations have become. Brown has become a major name as a breakthrough country act, and his buzzy appearance at June’s BET Awards as the first Black male solo country artist to grace that stage drove home his unique position. Not only is he a Black artist in a predominantly white category, but “Be Like That” proves he’s ready—and well-prepared—to make a musically savvy statement beyond that narrow world.
“Tócame,” Anitta feat. Arcangel and De La Ghetto
For a few years, Anitta has been Brazil’s biggest name at the cross-section of Latin pop and carioca funk. “Tócame,” her first release off an upcoming album produced by hitmaker Ryan Tedder, doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel. It simply basks once more in the joys of reggaeton, with a hefty steel-drum beat over which she sings, sultry and insistent, in Spanish. Arcangel and De La Ghetto, a reggaeton duo, provide punch and contrast. Filmed in quarantine, the music video makes use of drone footage and fan-submitted dance videos—a nod towards her status as a dance-trend initiator.
“He Won’t Hold You,” Jacob Collier feat. Rapsody
Not everyone knows the name Jacob Collier—yet. But most players in the music industry certainly do. The British Collier, often considered a jazz prodigy with his multi-instrumental talents, has become a key, fresh voice as a collaborator and musician in the past few years, building a following of major names: he’s managed by Quincy Jones, shared vocals on Coldplay’s last album and has released singles with Ty Dolla $ign and Mahalia. “He Won’t Hold You,” off the third volume of his Djesse album series, is an unhurried, generous wash of sound in the vein of a sweeter James Blake. Rapper Rapsody comes in late in the second half to share something that’s more spoken word poetry than song. “I dance in the rain knowing I can swim too,” she says: “Found liberation, found my freedom, where it begins is without you.” Collier turns it all into a kind of meditation.
“Thought Vs. Everybody,” Black Thought
Black Thought has plenty going on: as a member of The Roots, he’s on air regularly as part of Jimmy Fallon’s house band. But as an independent rapper, he’s been releasing work since 2018. His new EP, Streams of Thought vol 3: Cane and Abel, is out in full at the end of the month. As a taster, here’s “Thought vs. Everybody,” a sharp, unflinching track over a minimal beat. Thick with innuendo, references and condemnation, it’s about this moment—and a little bit about the feelings of futility of living through it. “I hear police discussin’ whether to try and kill us all, I questioned if that would matter/ Much like a tree that falls in the woods, even with iPhone footage to see it fall.” But in the end, he’s found a way to move forward: “Up steps the one who upsets all carriages/ Cause it’s imperative we change the narrative.”
“Courage,” Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama has plenty to teach us about respecting our place within the grander scheme of things—and appreciating the interconnectedness that binds us. An unusual new project from His Holiness, an album of meditations and chants released to coincide with his 85th birthday, serves as a reminder of these lessons. “Courage,” one of the tracks, is a gentle instrumental with a female vocalist backgrounding the Tibetan spiritual leader’s chanting of a mantra. The effect is calming, reflective and healing all at once. We may not have expected the Dalai Lama to come through with a summer album, but as it turns out, it’s here—and much appreciated.
“Love I’m Given,” Ellie Goulding
On her first new album in five years, British singer Ellie Goulding offers up broad array of pop influences. “Love I’m Given” is a beat-driven, soulful banger: “I’ve been changing the love I’m given, I’m turning the page on my indecision,” she sings powerfully; then the melody drops out and it’s just her voice over a handclap backing, effectively turning it into one of those soaring anthems we turn to when we need a boost. It also drives home the theme of this first half of the album, which is a full 18 tracks: overcoming vulnerability, addressing emotional shifts. Goulding has always contributed a capable, unique voice to the pop landscape. Brightest Blue shows she’s grown into an artist with something to say as well.
“What’s Love Got to Do With It,” Kygo feat. Tina Turner
Norwegian DJ Kygo made a hit when he retro-fitted Whitney Houston’s cover of “Higher Love” with his signature electronic beats in 2019. Similarly, his take on Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” brings the 80-year-old Turner out of retirement, turning a classic into a clubby track with chopped vocals and a sticky bass line meant for today. Kygo doesn’t mess with a good thing at the beginning, meddling minimally with the 1984 song’s flute-boosted opening strains. But he isn’t afraid to make it his own once the diva’s famous chorus begins in earnest. The influence is subtle at first, an invitation to give fresh life to a classic for a new generation. Then it’s undeniable. Some songs do stand the test of time.
“Aguïta,” Gabriel Garzón-Montano
Gabriel Garzón-Montano’s most-streamed songs are jazz-funk, slow-burning and often melancholy. “Aguïta” is decidedly not that. The new single, off the American-French-Colombian artist’s upcoming third album, is spare, specific reggaeton: a sinuous hip-hop track with Spanish lyrics. It’s anxious, hollow, catchy. It’s a shift, but Garzón-Montano seems to be on a mission to prove that he cannot be restrained to a style, a language, a rhythm or a concept. His flexibility requires attention.
“Black Magic Hour,” Jidenna
Jidenna made his first splash with the Grammy-nominated “Classic Man” in 2015, but ever since, he’s been exploring musical influences from further afield. His next project, African On All Sides, is a compilation and a documentary that “captures the Pan-African musical journey,” as its description notes. “Black Magic Hour,” the first glimpse of that project, is an entrancing teaser. Jidenna, who is Nigerian-American, lived in Nigeria growing up and has made his connection to his father’s country clear; here, he continues to tell his origin story with unadulterated pride. “I’m from the long line of chiefs, I was made in their image/ Grandfather married seven wives in the village, never sold a slave, and the British couldn’t kill him/ And they called it ‘Black Magic’ when they baffled by the physics,” he raps.
“801,” The Aces
The “801,” for those of us who aren’t aware of Utah’s area codes, is the home territory of the quartet that make up The Aces. Katie Henderson, McKenna Petty, Alisa Ramirez and Cristal Ramirez have been making music together since they were kids. Their new album Under My Influence is a distinctive combination of sounds: it’s pop, yes, but with a rock band heart, while Cristal’s alluringly soft-edged voice—especially apparent on “801”—can lure you into a trance. “Growing up in the 801, there’s only one club, so we blow it up,” she sings, dreamily. “Leave your church shoes and your Sunday clothes, but bring your guilt and we ‘gon let it go.” Alisa has spoken in interviews about this song’s genesis as a reflection on a night out at the rare queer spot in Utah. But no matter where you’re from or what you like to do at night, the real or imagined nostalgia of youthful rebellion hits home.
“Welcome to the Boogie,” Keren Abreu
Nostalgic for the experience of riding the subway? Keren Abreu’s “Welcome to the Boogie” off her debut EP will take you to straight to the underground stations of the Bronx from its opening lines, a recording of the conductor’s generic caution message. But everything else Abreu brings to her song after that is a warm, specific celebration of the city — and especially the neighborhood — that raised her. Moving fluidly between playful R&B whispers and powerhouse vocals, English and Spanish, the Afro-Dominican Abreu spins a deliciously joyful tale of a multicultural place with inspiration to spare. It wouldn’t sound out of place as the introduction number for a show all about her borough. You know, when you listen to Abreu, that you’re in for a good time.
“Think About Things (Acoustic),” Daði Freyr
For the first time in 50+ years, the annual Eurovision Song Contest was canceled for 2020. There’s an irony and sadness there, as the crowd favorite song for the year was Icelandic artist Daði Freyr’s “Think About Things,” a slice of jazzy, earworm-ready electro-pop. It would have been Iceland’s first-ever win. Luckily, the song is still getting plenty of attention; it’s the world’s most-Shazamed song. And this week, with the release of an acoustic orchestral acoustic version featuring fellow Icelandic musicians CeaseTone, we can appreciate the gentle beauty of its musical bones. Hopefully there’s much more to come from Daði Freyr, with or without the Eurovision title in hand.
“The 1,” Taylor Swift
The blessing and the curse of pop stardom is the attention laser-focused in your direction. This is a burden Taylor Swift has both effectively commanded and, at times, struggled under for years. Folklore, her eighth album, suggests she’s finally broken free of those concerns. Surprise-released only 11 months after her last album Lover, and concocted and dropped without any advance fanfare or publicity attempts, Folklore is the ultimate quarantine album: hazy with nostalgia, sad and dreamy. “The 1,” which kicks off the album, sets the tone: a few spare piano chords and plenty of open space for Swift to explore her new voice. It’s a song about the past, about the what-could-have-beens, and the ache of regret. “We were something, don’t you think so?” she reflects. “If my wishes came true, it would have been you.” Plenty of songs exist that wonder about exes. In quarantine, though, this feels like a gut punch: aren’t we all dreaming of the alternate universe in which the pandemic didn’t come crashing down on us, unraveling the best-laid plans and relationships? “It would have been fun,” she continues, wry, “if you would have been the one.” The hesitant phrasing, the hums, the rhythm, the snippets of memory: rarely has Swift’s songwriting been so intentionally vague, yet so emotionally effective.
“Un Dia (One Day)” J Balvin, Bad Bunny, Tainy, Dua Lipa
In her first major cross-genre foray, Dua Lipa lends her voice to Colombia’s J Balvin, Puerto Rico’s Bad Bunny and Tainy, the superstar producer behind many of Balvin and Bad Bunny’s recent strings of hits. “Un Dia” is a downtempo song that’s appropriately a blend of two styles: Dua’s sticky, unhurried pop disco and Balvin, Benito and Tainy’s tried-and-tested melodic reggaeton. This is not the next “Despacito,” but a subtler and more atmospheric kind of global, multilingual pop.
“Ferris Wheel,” Sylvan Esso
“Folktronica” is a genre, and Sylvan Esso are — right now — its biggest stars. The musical duo from North Carolina have been releasing delicately catchy electropop since their start in 2013; the popular 2014 song “Coffee” put them on the map and has kept them there. This latest release, “Ferris Wheel” off of their upcoming late-September album Free Love, lets vocalist Samantha Mead float lyrically over the funky woodwinds and xylophone taps of Nick Sanborn’s whimsical production. It’s what happens when singsong flutters meet playground instrumentals and then get a grown-up gloss.