First Stream: New Music From Pop Smoke, Kanye West & Travis Scott and More

Pop Smoke
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Pop Smoke performs onstage during day 2 of the Rolling Loud Festival at Banc of California Stadium on Dec. 15, 2019 in Los Angeles.

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, Pop Smoke’s legacy gets enshrined, Kanye West has more on his mind and Ty Dolla $ign recruits the best and brightest for his new track. Check out all of this week’s First Stream picks below:

The Album That Honors a Fallen Rap Hero:
Pop Smoke, Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon

Eyeballing the star-studded track list of the Pop Smoke posthumous album, Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon, reveals how deeply invested the entire hip-hop world was in the Brooklyn drill king: DaBaby, Future, Quavo, Lil Baby, Swae Lee and Roddy Ricch are among the major names to appear on what should have been Pop Smoke’s coronation. Yet anyone who has listened to his music prior to this project understands the genre-wide support. Less than five months removed from his tragic killing, Pop Smoke’s natural gifts as a lyricist, hit-maker and unique rap voice have become even more evident, and Shoot For The Stairs Aim For The Moon lets those talents shine with very little post-production filler. An early run of solo tracks, from the no-nonsense “44 BullDog” to the playful “Yea Yea,” demonstrates his range, while “The Woo,” featuring Ricch as well as a revitalized 50 Cent, should have been Pop Smoke’s next NYC-dominating anthem. Maybe it still will be -- even in death, Pop Smoke’s presence looms large in popular music, and this album helps to explain why.

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The Song That Previews One of the Year’s Most Anticipated Projects:
Kanye West feat. Travis Scott, “Wash Us In The Blood”

Kanye West’s most recent album, 2019’s Jesus Is King, represented a shift away from secular music and a celebration of the superstar’s Christian beliefs. “Wash Us In The Blood,” which previews the forthcoming God’s Country, is not a thematic return to hip-hop’s mainstream so much as a return to the boiling anger that made 2013’s Yeezus so kinetic: West can barely contain his flow as he speaks of genocide, mass incarceration, drugs and slavery, with Travis Scott riding alongside his old mentor during this fiery examination of injustice. If God’s Country marries the recent religious focus of West’s music with his barbed explorations of race relations in modern America, the album could prove to be one of the most urgent -- and timely -- of his storied career.

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The Song That Plays Out Like a Musical Avengers:
Ty Dolla $ign feat. Kanye West, FKA Twigs & Skrillex, “Ego Death”

“Murdered my ego when you walked away,” Ty Dolla $ign croons forlornly on his new single, which concerns a relationship that soured and left the R&B mainstay humbled. Fortunately for Ty, he’s got some pals in tow to cheer him up: Kanye West, FKA Twigs and Skrillex all guest on the track, and indie genius serpentwithfeet provides uncredited vocals. West tackles the track’s middle half, waxing poetic about “halfway movements” and being mad at the Grammys ceremony, while Twigs provides a spark at the song’s end; the result may sound like three songs stuffed into one, but Ty proves to be an adept master of ceremonies, serving as connective tissue across each movement and ultimately helping “Ego Death” achieve the promise of its star-studded lineup.

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The Song That Will Make You Headbang While You Donate:
Tom Morello feat. Dan Reynolds, Shea Diamond and the Bloody Beetroots, “Stand Up”

This year was supposed to be a busy one for the reunited Rage Against The Machine, who were scheduled to headline major festivals like Coachella and Firefly... then the coronavirus pandemic happened, and those aforementioned festivals did not. Yet the band’s legendary guitarist Tom Morello knows that this moment, in which nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality have continued for weeks, needs some politically righteous tunes to provide a soundtrack, and so we get the face-melting “Stand Up,” in which Morello’s guitar slices as Shea Diamond and Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds take turns raging (excuse the pun) against cop corruption. Reynolds is used to bringing anthems to arena crowds, but Diamond is a revelation on the track, matching the rock star’s intensity with each call to action.

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The Song That Features Two Pop Masters at Work:
Ellie Goulding feat. Lauv, “Slow Grenade”

Ellie Goulding is one of the most dependable songwriters in pop, filling every song with precise melodies and personalized detail; meanwhile, Lauv’s output over the past year, including his album ~How I’m Feeling~, suggests that he’s on his way into joining that elite class as well. Together, they make “Slow Grenade” predictably intricate, with every stitch of the collaboration thoroughly realized, from the little “ooh!” at the  end of each pre-chorus line to the progressive accumulation of beats during each of the three choruses. Of course, “Slow Grenade” is emotionally intelligent as well -- when Goulding addresses her romantic problem and then blurts out “Why can’t I stop it?,” it’s hard not to empathize.

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The Song That Will Cause a Lump In Your Throat:
Chris Young, “If That Ain’t God”

Although country veteran Chris Young hasn’t released an album since 2017’s Losing Sleep, the tracks he’s released since have demonstrated both the stable foundation of a seasoned pro and the curiosity of an artist still ready to achieve more. After last year’s “Drowning” and the Lauren Alaina duet “Town Ain’t Big Enough,” Young has offered a tearjerker with “If That Ain’t God,” which reflects upon the wonder of the commonplace with a swelling arrangement. Young’s vocal take on the song is the definition of steady, elongating the syllables in the last line of the chorus in order to impress his power upon the listeners; if Young gathers “If That Ain’t God” and his other recent songs into a new full-length, it should be another strong entry in his catalog.

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The Song That Serves As An Unlikely Protest Anthem:
Sufjan Stevens, “America”

Indie-folk genius Sufjan Stevens’ most recent album, 2015’s Carrie & Lowell, was an almost claustrophobically personal reflection on his deceased mother, his checkered childhood and the longing for family we feel as we enter adulthood. Five years later, Stevens is back with a project that promises to be drastically different: “America,” a 12-minute epic built around a confrontation with our country, plays out like a funhouse mirror version of Stevens’ Fifty States albums that made him an indie star in the mid-2000s. While those albums celebrated historical ingenuity, “America” despairs: “I am ashamed to admit I no longer believe,” Stevens sings in the song’s first few minutes before he surrenders to the cacophony. In a press statement, Stevens says of his upcoming full-length The Ascension, “My objective for this album was simple: Interrogate the world around you.” If “America” is any indication, Stevens is prepared to prod at our national problems.

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