Pop

First Stream: New Music From Taylor Swift, Logic, Maroon 5 and 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, Taylor Swift shows off her once-in-a-generation songwriting talent, Logic bids farewell with a riveting hour of music, and Maroon 5 keep on ruling pop radio. Check out all of this week’s First Stream picks below:

The Album That The World Wasn’t Expecting, But That It Needed:
Taylor Swift, Folklore

With the surprise announcement of Folklore, a new full-length that was conceived in relative secret (and by herself, during the coronavirus pandemic), Swift has, for the first time in her career, foregone the traditional album rollout and returned with a new album in less than a year. Along with frequent collaborator Jack Antonoff, Aaron Dessner of The National was heavily involved as a co-producer and co-writer, and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon is the only featured artist; the cover art, meanwhile, is a greyscale shot of Swift dwarfed by the woods around her. Does this unexpected project represent a return to Swift’s singer-songwriter roots -- albeit one refracted through an indie-rock prism rather than her country beginnings -- and a chance for the quieter parts of her recent albums to take center stage?

Yes and no: Folklore is indeed a deviation from the top 40 trajectory that Swift set herself upon six years ago, but there is absolutely nothing quiet about it. Swift presents her new album as a songwriting tour de force, demonstrating the scope and depth of her artistic skill as she ruminates on the passage of time, grasps at fleeting memories and refuses to mince words or sugarcoat a sour reality, often while operating above intricate orchestral arrangements.

Read our full first listen review of Taylor Swift’s Folklore.

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The Album That Makes For a Spry Swan Song:
Logic, No Pressure

Before diving into No Pressure, the latest album from prolific rapper Logic, the fact that he has announced it to be his final album must be taken into account. Logic is 30 years old, at the top of his game professionally and a new father; six years after breaking through on 2014’s Under Pressure, he has offered fans a spiritual sequel as his parting shot as he heads into retirement. And whether or not No Pressure remains Logic’s actual final full-length or if he eventually returns to the music world, the album’s unrestrained energy -- the MC expounding upon every last thought, unleashing fury against police brutality and other injustices, going double-time with his flow over a sonic template set by executive producer No I.D. -- makes it a must-listen. If Logic does indeed ride off into the sunset, he’s done so with one of his stronger career works.

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The Song That You’ll Be Grooving To All Weekend (And Beyond):
Maroon 5, "Nobody’s Love"

Maroon 5’s new single is three-and-a-half minutes long -- a perfect length for top 40 radio, which the group has ruled for several years -- although “Nobody’s Love” could have been twice as long and had the same hypnotic effect. The shimmering, beat-heavy new single oscillates between refrains, with Adam Levine’s voice hunkering down on the hooks and engraining each in your mind before you’re even aware what they are. While the sentiment here isn’t too far away from Maroon 5’s previous hit, “Memories,” the production is more fleshed-out, complementing Levine’s vocals and providing pop radio with yet another effective pop-rock vibe to be played for months on end.

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The Songs That Put The Rest of Hip-Hop on Notice:
J. Cole, "The Climb Back" & "Lion King on Ice"

“I’m known as the chosen one,” J. Cole spits on “The Climb Back,” one of two new tracks released this week to reintroduce himself to mainstream hip-hop and remind the world of his gifts. Although Cole has stated that he’s still finishing up his next album, this back-to-back wallop demonstrates the technical skill and unyielding personality that have made him a star: “The Climb Back” sounds like just that, with Cole dredging up past conflicts and showcasing his current perspective on a variety of topics, while “Lion King on Ice” allows Young Simba to return to the role of a young, hungry newcomer while also addressing some of his feuds. The production is soulful on both, and the thoughts are streaked with violence; whatever Cole is cooking up, it’s likely to be intense.

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The Song That You Can’t Really Dance To (But You’ll Find A Way To Anyway):
J Balvin, Dua Lipa, Bad Bunny & Tainy, "Un Dia (One Day)"

Considering the artists involved, one could press play on “Un Dia (One Day)” and reasonably prepare to hear an international dance anthem; after all, J Balvin, Dua Lipa and Bad Bunny are responsible for some of the most memorable uptempo singles of the past few years, while Tainy is quickly carving out a niche in that space as a producer. Yet this mash-up of styles and voices is surprisingly contemplative, with Lipa pleading, “One day you’ll love me again / one day you’ll love me, for sure,” while the gentlemen surrounding her on the track adopt mid-tempo flows -- the production even evaporating to a whisper at one point when the spotlight is on Balvin. While “Un Dia” upends our expectations, it simultaneously showcases the complexities of its creators.

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The Song To Prep Some Dance Moves For With Your Friends:
Little Mix, "Holiday"

What a sincere pleasure it is to have Little Mix, seven years after their debut album and working toward their sixth full-length, still tossing out wondrous pop gems like new single “Holiday.” Most pop girl groups sadly go their separate ways after a few projects, but the U.K. quartet has endured, and ultimately gotten better, year after year: “Break Up Song” was another stunner earlier in 2020, and “Holiday” has arrived in turn to offer a delectable bass line, top-notch vocals and sensual lyrics (“Touch me like a summer night, you feel like a holiday,” goes the chorus). Even if a stateside takeover never fully takes place, the consistency within Little Mix’s discography, and within a song like “Holiday,” is always worth celebrating.

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The Song That Combines Two 2020 Hip-Hop Forces (Again):
Gunna feat. Lil Uzi Vert, "Relentless"

Any short list of the most successful rap artists of the year has to include Lil Uzi Vert and Gunna: the former returned in grand fashion and snapped the (relatively) long gap between projects with the epic Eternal Atake, while the latter’s new album WUNNA was a masterclass in low-humming Atlanta trap and a notable artistic evolution. After Gunna guested on Uzi’s “Strawberry Peels,” the favor is returned on this highlight from the new WUNNA deluxe edition, and both do what they have all year -- playing with their flows, halting themselves mid-line then picking up the momentum, making complicated wordplay seem effortless. “Relentless” is true to its title, suggesting that neither Gunna nor Lil Uzi Vert is content resting on the laurels of traditional rap.

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The Album That’s Bursting With Pop-Rock Playlist Jams:
Neon Trees, I Can Feel You Forgetting Me

Pop quartet Neon Trees is best known for crossover hits like “Animal” and “Everybody Talks” -- perhaps they always will be, as long as the songs remain undying radio staples and karaoke go-to’s -- but in recent years, lead singer-songwriter Tyler Glenn has become an important advocate for queer visibility in mainstream music. He (and the rest of Neon Trees) are still making top-notch tracks, too: I Can Feel You Forgetting Me, the group’s first full-length in six years, contains several arena-sized choruses (“Used To Like” will have you clapping along in your car, until arenas open back up, at least) and the general looseness of ace musicians playing like they have nothing to lose. After some unexpected pop success earlier in their career, Neon Trees have quietly become a very solid career outfit.

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