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First Stream: New Music From Fiona Apple, Sam Smith & Demi Lovato, DaBaby & More

Billboard’s First Stream serves as a handy guide to this Friday’s most essential releases — the key music that everyone will be talking about today, and that will be dominating playlists this weekend and beyond.

This week, Fiona Apple returns when we need her most, Sam Smith and Demi Lovato are “ready” to take over pop radio, and DaBaby can’t stop and won’t stop. Check out all of this week’s First Stream picks below:

The Album That’s Going To Be On Every Year-End List:
Fiona Apple, Fetch The Bolt Cutters

1996, 1999, 2005, 2012, and now, 2020: Fiona Apple album releases are rare occurrences, comet-like in their relative infrequency, and when a songwriter as brilliant and unique as Apple returns to our orbit, it’s cause for celebration. Yet the long-awaited Fetch The Bolt Cutters may be an even greater achievement than what the diehards for hoping for. Apple’s fifth album is loose, weird and yearning, a sometimes cacophonous and wholly absorbing project centering on the 42-year-old’s exploration of the expectations society had foisted upon her in her youth, and the skin in which she has learned to live. The album is clear-headed and unapologetic -- the details challenge us, asking us to step out on a ledge with their creator, but Apple’s words and voice always lead back to safety. Eight years is a long time to wait for a new album, but Apple made Fetch The Bolt Cutters more than worth it.

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The Song That Will Get You Pumped Up For The Weekend:
Sam Smith & Demi Lovato, “I’m Ready”

In recent months, both Sam Smith and Demi Lovato have released singles that have showcased their vulnerabilities -- Smith with “To Die For,” Lovato with “Anyone.” Yet in teaming up, two of the more powerful vocalists of their generation have decided to let those tears try. “I’m Ready” is more anthemic than emotional, with the titular phrase followed by “...for someone to love me,” an imperative of self-worth more than a straightforward statement; Smith lets their voice glide in the same style as their recent hit “How Do You Sleep,” while Lovato sounds as ferocious as ever while declaring, “I've been lookin' hard for a lover disguised as a sinner.” “I’m Ready” is a collaboration between two pop talents that should do more of them.

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The Album To Take On Your Next Jog (Or Sprint):
DaBaby, Blame It On Baby

DaBaby is relentless in both flow and output: the North Carolina MC has become famous in part because he sounds like he can rap for 100 minutes straight without taking a breath, and also because he can drop high-quality projects in six months or less. Blame It On Baby puts that ravenous attitude front and center — its first track is titled “Can’t Stop,” after all — but in between the tough talk and guest spots (Future, Quavo, Megan Thee Stallion) is notable stylistic evolution. Baby now switches up his spitting with some melodic flourishes, as on the recent single “Find My Way” and the new Roddy Ricch team-up “Rockstar,” and a more fully rounded project — and worthy follow-up to last year’s excellent Kirk — is the result.

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The Song That Will Make You Dance While Threatening You:
Playboi Carti, “@MEH”

Playboi Carti has quickly ascended to rap’s A-list while rearranging our preconceived notions of what rap is -- dating back to his “Magnolia” days, he has stripped his verses down for parts, melding syllables until left with only the most rudimentary noises, and mesmerizing us in the process.  As the first taste of the follow-up to 2018’s Die Lit, “@MEH” represents coiled anger, with Carti thumping his chest and spitting out quick-blast lines in the direction of his doubters; however, he’s paired with a futuristic collection of plinking beats that both recalls Lil Uzi Vert’s recent opus Eternal Atake and makes the rage easier to swallow. Whether or not “@MEH” is representative of Carti’s next full-length, he has continued operating in a singular mode that explains why he’s so in demand.

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The Song That’s Actually More Than Just One Song:
Joji, “Gimme Love”

Recently, the genre-blending, Japanese-born artist Joji has been translating his wide online following into mainstream achievements: he recently scored his first two hits on the Hot 100 chart, for instance, and anticipation is high for his upcoming full-length, Nectar. Now would be a perfect time to release a massive single aimed squarely at radio, and for its first half, “Gimme Love” is exactly that -- but then, its shuffling beats and R&B harmonies are upended unexpectedly, the bottom drops out, and Joji pulls back into a more elegant and orchestral arrangement. “Gimme Love” teases a more discernible crossover, but perhaps more importantly, displays an exciting artist unafraid to keep his listeners on their toes.

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The Song That Could Elevate a Country Star Into a New Tier:
Morgan Wallen, “More Than My Hometown”

With his 2018 debut If I Know Me and its hits like “Whiskey Glasses” and “Chasin’ You,” Morgan Wallen began his proper career with a hefty amount of promise, and 2020 could be a year of artistic fulfillment for the Tennessee native. New single “More Than My Hometown” once again leans on the combination of his charming vocal husk and backyard storytelling, with Wallen saying a bittersweet goodbye to a romantic partner -- but the growth here resides in the country-pop sonics, as producer Joey Moi has bestowed the singer-songwriter with a beautifully immediate arrangement highlighted by a post-chorus swoon. If Wallen’s sophomore LP sounds like “More Than My Hometown,” country music is likely going to have a new superstar.

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The Song That Will Not Take No For An Answer:
Pitbull, “I Believe That We Will Win (World Anthem)”

“You know what spreads faster than any virus? It’s fear.” Pitbull is absolutely not flinching in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, and has returned with a message of hope aimed at the globe. Hearing Mr. 305 ratchet up the intensity and deliver his chants over a boisterous rap-rock track is a little jarring at a moment in which none of us can enter the club, yet Pitbull, from his many hits to many motivating Twitter posts, understands what we need to hear to feel better, and remains unyielding in his faith in humanity. “I Believe That We Will Win” is designed for this perilous moment in world history, but when Pitbull gets you to sing the words “I believe that we will win!,” you have no choice but to believe him.

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The Album That Re-Imagines The Future of R&B:
dvsn, A Muse In Her Feelings

Ever since signing to Drake’s OVO Sound label and disrupting the R&B space with their great 2016 release Sept. 5, the Toronto duo of Nineteen85 and Daniel Daley have spent the past few years hinting at what a full-scale arrival of their dvsn project would look like. New album A Muse In Her Feelings is that vision finally brought to life, with an array of slow jams, woozy singing, late-night vulnerability and diverse list of guest artists. While major names like PartyNextDoor and Future drop by and rising stars like Snoh Aalegra and Summer Walker provide highlights, this is squarely dvsn’s show, and unassisted cuts like “Outlandish” and “No Good” demonstrate the feelings that their formula can swiftly conjure.

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The Song That Wants To Grow Your Heart Three Sizes:
Kelly Clarkson, “I Dare You”

The first thing worth pointing out about Kelly Clarkson’s new single is how it has arrived: along with the English version of “I Dare You,” the pop vet has unveiled five “multi-language duet versions,” as vocalists like Zaz, Faouzia and Blas Canto have joined Clarkson for takes of the song in French, Arabic and Spanish, respectively. The point is to unite a world at a particularly fractured time, and “I Dare You” allows a master of the unifying chorus to cry the words “I dare you to love” in the most inspiring way she knows how. While the song is another polished pop product in the vein of her Stronger oeuvre, Clarkson should be commended for striving to achieve more than another hit, and thinking outside the box with how she presents a necessary message.

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The Song That Should Beguile Even The Country Music Skeptics:
Brett Eldredge, “Gabrielle”

Looking for a new song that sounds like it belongs to another music era entirely? Give a spin to “Gabrielle,” Brett Eldredge’s return single that is steeped in the smooth piano-pop days of yore that the country star sounds close to flirting with straight-up yacht-rock. That’s certainly not a knock against “Gabrielle,” which takes an intimate tale of parting ways, surrounds it with rousing orchestration that complements Eldredge’s vocal boom, and goes for broke with an emotional coda. “Gabrielle” strays from traditional country and roams across a soft-rock landscape, but Eldredge smacks the change-up out of the park; get this one into your karaoke playlist ASAP.

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