First Stream: New Music From John Legend, Victoria Monet & Khalid, BTS & More

John Legend
Joe Pugliese

John Legend

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, John Legend offers a different type of love album, Victoria Monet arrives as a dance siren with Khalid’s help, and BTS gift their fans with a greta new track. Check out all of this week’s First Stream picks below:

The Album That Rises to The Moment of Its Release:
John Legend, Bigger Love

“Actions speak louder than, speak louder than love songs,” John Legend sings on “Actions,” an early highlight on his seventh studio album. It’s a telling statement from a singer-songwriter who could, conceivably, keep cranking out soulful ballads and engineer a highly successful career -- after all, one of those ballads, “All Of Me,” spent a few weeks atop the Hot 100 chart in 2014. Yet Legend has always had more urgent topics to tackle, and Bigger Love gives him room to ruminate on social issues and the Black experience in modern America, with guest stars like Koffee, Rapsody and Gary Clark Jr. contributing to the discussion. Yes, there are love songs on the album, too -- the closing “Never Break” stuns in particular -- but Legend is utilizing his timeless voice to convey something grander here, and likely always will.

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The Song That Will Upend Your Expectations, Then Make You Groove:
Victoria Monet, Khalid & SG Lewis, "Experience"

Victoria Monet and Khalid are both accomplished singer-songwriters that are not known to frequent the dance floor; that makes “Experience,” a new collaboration with SG Lewis that throttles the listener with glittery disco from its opening seconds, even more of a delightful surprise. Monet sounds especially at home breathing her vocals over the shimmery production, while Khalid is clearly the co-pilot here, his buttery tone boosting the second third of the song without outshining his costar. In a world where songs like Doja Cat’s “Say So” and Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” become massive top 40 radio hits, “Experience” could notch another hit for Khalid, and deliver Monet, a songwriting star ready to arrive as an artist, to the world.

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The Song That Finds a Household Name Doing What They Do Best:
BTS, “Stay Gold”

On the Japanese edition of their Map of the Soul: 7 album (titled Map of the Soul: 7 ~ The Journey ~), BTS fans will find “Stay Gold,” a bonus track with all the personality and ambition of the group’s biggest hits. Every hallmark of the best BTS songs are evident here: the playful juxtaposition of singing and rapping, the effortless balance between the personalities within the group, the shiny pop production that never becomes too maximalist, and of course, the polished hook that can be translated to every region of the world. As BTS continues to evolve, even their bonus material offers insight into their world-conquering abilities, and “Stay Gold” is more than just for the completist fans.

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The Album That Shoots For The Stars:
Teyana Taylor, The Album

Teyana Taylor’s 2018 release, K.T.S.E., deserved a bigger audience: as the final release in Kanye West’s five-week flurry of produced projects, the singer’s modern synthesis of classic R&B, hip-hop and dance was a succinct punch in the mouth that should have been a larger commercial moment. No matter, because Taylor is very much on to the next one. The Album is 23 songs, bursting with ideas and guest stars, and will violently shake the mainstream until it recognizes Taylor’s restlessly creative voice. There are moments of love, scorn, sex and heartache on The Album, and show-stopping collaborations, like the percolating team-up with Future and Missy Elliott, “Boomin’,” that’s primed for your most sensual playlist.

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The Songs That Have Sparked a Larger Hip-Hop Discourse:
J. Cole, "Snow On Tha Bluff" / Noname, "Song 33"

Make no mistake, J. Cole and Noname have both used their music to reflect upon social issues and encourage positive activism in the Black community. Yet over the past few days, a chasm has seemingly been created between the two: J. Cole’s “Snow On Tha Bluff” contained thinly veiled critiques of Noname’s social media politics, in a way that was not overly harsh but came across as clumsy to some. Days later, Noname returned serve with “Song 33,” in which she raps about the deaths of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter activist Oluwatoyin Salau, and asks why Cole’s focus is on herself rather than the greater problems at hand. Both songs are worthy of deeper analysis and wider discussion; instead of escalating into a full-blown beef, hopefully “Snow On The Bluff” and “Song 33” can help two differing viewpoints come together.

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The Album That Wants To Start a Global Dance Party During Quarantine:
The Black Eyed Peas, Translation

The last time the Black Eyed Peas issued a proper album, it was 2010, Fergie was still a member, and the Peas were about to play the Super Bowl halftime show; in short, they were the biggest pop group on the planet. A lot has transpired since the Peas unveiled a new pop-rap opus, but Will.I.am, Apl.de.ap and Taboo still want to trigger a worldwide celebration, this time understanding that a mix of classic dance interpolations and the biggest stars in Latin music will help them reach that goal. “Ritmo” with J Balvin, the group’s first top 40 hit in years, still scorches, while “Vida Loca,” a collaboration with Nicky Jam and Tyga that draws from Rick James’ “Super Freak,” sounds as zany as that concept reads. Elsewhere, Shakira, Ozuna, Maluma and Becky G help pack the Black Eyed Peas’ long-awaited comeback with enough star power and uptempo flavor to continue the tradition of “Boom Boom Pow” and “I Gotta Feeling.”

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The Album That Doubles as the Perfect Father’s Day Gift:
Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways

If you’re a Bob Dylan novice looking for a starting point into a towering discography, Rough and Rowdy Ways, his first album of original material in eight years, is more effective than at it might appear at first blush. Sure, the previously released 17-minute experiment “Murder Most Foul” does not arrest the listener in the same way as “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Tangled Up In Blue,” but the narratives that the 79-year-old legend tells here make it easy to understand why he remains so revered, more than half a century after changing popular music. The way he takes stock of his legacy on “False Prophet,” considers life by scavenging morgues in “My Own Version of You,” and sets forth a stomping rocker on “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” growling meticulously crafted phrases that any songwriter worth his or her salt must respect. Diehard Dylan fans will love this late-period triumph, but so will the unfamiliar.

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The Album That Introduces a Captivating Country Star:
Gabby Barrett, Goldmine

Former American Idol contestant Gabby Barrett has broken through to country audiences, as well as the U.S. mainstream, with her single “I Hope,” which has climbed to No. 16 on the Hot 100 chart. “I Hope” leads off Goldmine, and the rest of her debut album makes good on its promise: Barrett possesses the vocal might of a young Carrie Underwood -- listen to her soar on the chorus of “Write It on My Heart” -- with the country-pop songwriting prowess of a Kane Brown or Florida Georgia Line, best displayed on tracks like “The Good Ones” and “Strong.” While Barrett still has time to develop her sound and perspective, Goldmine showcases the type of talent that will entertain as it steadily evolves.

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The Song That Will Be Taught in History Classrooms in a Few Years:
H.E.R., "I Can’t Breathe"

“I can’t breathe” has become a powerful statement in the fight against racial injustices committed by police -- they were the words of Eric Garner, then the words of George Floyd, and remain the words of the millions refusing to allow the status quo to continue. H.E.R. crafts the chorus of her poignant new single around the phrase, yet as succinct as that message remains as a hook and rallying cry, the R&B singer-songwriter has a lot of her mind on “I Can’t Breathe,” and offers an enormously eloquent dissertation. Here she uses rhetorical questions to demand answers (“How do we cope when we don't love each other? / Where is the hope and the empathy? / How do we judge off the color? The structure was made to make us the enemy”), and “I Can’t Breathe” concludes with an extended, beautifully rendered meditation on modern race relations. These are not easy songwriting tasks, but H.E.R. pulls them off admirably.

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