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, Harry Styles makes a must-hear return, Camila Cabello drops yet another winner, and Sam Hunt wants to take his special gal home to meet mom. Check out all of this week’s First Stream picks below:
The Song In Which a Pop Hero’s Got a Brand New Beat:
Harry Styles, “Lights Up”
When Harry Styles first stepped out as a solo artist in early 2017, he did so with “Sign of the Times,” a nearly six-minute modernization of the epic rock ballad. “Lights Up,” the first taste of Styles’ eagerly anticipated second project, is shorter and tauter, but no less ambitious: the song swirls around before finally landing on a extended, riveting chorus, then pulling back for an evaporating reprise of the chorus. The percussion is punchier than on Styles’ debut album, but the elegance of the production remains; meanwhile, Styles sounds both alluring and fully confident in his aesthetic. If there were any lingering doubts that Styles is an authoritative presence in pop music, “Lights Up” should put them to rest.
The Song That Will Inspire You to Text Heart Emojis to Your Romantic Partner:
Camila Cabello, “Easy”
One week after previewing her Romance era with the bitter kiss-off “Cry For Me,” Camila Cabello has quickly returned with a love song — but unlike the flirtatious pop tracks of her recent past, “Easy” is a more grounded look at longstanding devotion. “You really, really know me / The future and the old me / All of the mazes and madness in my mind,” Cabello marvels over a simple, patient beat; elsewhere, she remarks on her perceived flaws (her crooked teeth, her stretch marks) that her mate has made her reconsider. “Easy” is a reflection on a love strong enough to inspire self-confidence — an adult theme that doesn’t necessarily translate to top 40 radio, but Cabello, ever-flourishing as a songwriter, sells it well.
The Song That Will Convince You To Take Your Special Someone Home for the Holidays:
Sam Hunt, “Kinfolks”
Anticipation remains high for Sam Hunt’s second full-length — after all, his first, 2014’s Montevallo, made him a crossover country superstar, and follow-up single “Body Like a Back Road” ended up becoming one of the genre’s biggest chart hits ever. “Kinfolks” finds Hunt still infusing his country-pop with elements of hip-hop delivery and production, although here he focuses on a down-home narrative of introducing his new lady to his family and friends as an indication of how much he cares for her (he even name-checks his mom in the song: “Get Joanie on the phone, she’ll leave us on a light”). Even if the delightful “Kinfolks” isn’t a concrete indication of an imminent album, Hunt’s appeal is still intact and is in full effect here.
The EP That Finds a Boy Band Growing Into Men:
CNCO, Que Quienes Somos EP
CNCO has been a steady presence in the Latin pop community since forming on La Banda in 2015, with two albums aimed at younger listeners and full of feathery dance tracks. New EP Que Quienes Somos is far from a hard turn, although the quintet is certainly making subtle shifts in vocal approach and song composition as more members leave their teen years behind. Previously released single “Ya Tu Sabes” is perhaps the group’s most effective rap excursion to date, with a trumpet-led bridge punctuated by ad-libs, while the Manuel Turizo collaboration “Pegao” nicely incorporates the reggaeton star into CNCO’s polished harmonies. Before the group’s next album is released, Que Quienes Somos hints at the directions in which they may evolve — while still highlighting CNCO’s core values.
The Song That Will Soundtrack Your Next Girls’ Night Out:
Kash Doll, Kim Petras, ALMA & Stefflon Don, “How It’s Done”
Following the team-up of Ariana Grande, Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey on “Don’t Call Me Angel,” the second offering from the upcoming Charlie’s Angels soundtrack is another all-women empowerment anthem, although it plays out in a looser, more effervescent manner. “How It’s Done” pulls together the electro-pop shine of Kim Petras, the earnest crooning of ALMA and the disparate flows of Stefflon Don and Kash Doll — but somehow, the mishmash soars, since all four artists sound like they’re having a blast over the track’s three minutes. “How It’s Done” doesn’t try to outshine previous Charlie’s Angels-affiliated hits, but with a riotous hook and inclusive overtones, the song will find its way onto your pop playlists.
The Album That Lovingly Shouts Out Nana & Her Rocking Chair:
Blanco Brown, Honeysuckle & Lightning Bugs
Blanco Brown certainly knows his most successful lane: after the country-rap single “The Git Up” became an unlikely top 20 smash (and minor dance sensation), his new album features a bounty of similar twang-trap mash-ups. Fancy-free tracks like “Funky Tonk,” “CountryTime” and “HeadNod” play out the way one would expect with their titles, although Brown displays a startling amount of emotion elsewhere; heart-wrenched opener “Temporary Insanity” sounds beamed in from another project entirely, and on “Ghett Ol Memories,” he reflects on memories that include “rocking chairs with my Nana.” Brown does an admirable job of giving “Git Up” fans what they want while also striving for artistic growth.
The Song That, Somewhere, Cousin Greg is Awkwardly Rapping Along To:
Pusha T & Nicholas Britell, “Puppets (Succession Remix)”
As any devoted HBO Sunday night viewer would tell you, Succession is must-see dramatic television, and Nicholas Britell’s opening theme music has burrowed deep inside our brains as the series’ second season comes to a close. Pusha T, undoubtedly as obsessed with the Roy family as we all are, decided to float over the piano-and-strings instrumental, snarling about “family, fortune, envy, jealousy, privilege, passed-on legacy” on a new remix. “Puppets” exists as a bit of nifty fan service that should be longer than its two-minute-and-change run time; one also wishes that Pusha slid in an “L to the OG” reference, as a tribute to Kendall’s mad skills on the mic.
The Album That Offers An Unprecedented Global Vision for Pop:
88rising, Head In the Clouds II
Last year’s 88rising compilation Head In The Clouds represented a promising label showcase in which the core artists were still piecing together their artistic identities. With its sequel, 88rising has solidified its voice and vision: Head In The Clouds II finds Joji, August 08, Rich Brian and NIKI mining standout individual moments while blending influences across continents with an impressive fluidity. “Walking,” a collaboration with Major Lazer and Swae Lee, will immediately attract club DJs, but several tracks without flashy guests — especially first-half highlights “These Nights” and “Breathe” — demand repeat listens as unique syntheses of tropical, electronic, hip-hop and pop music.
The Song That Showcases One of Pop’s More Underrated Vocalists:
A bluesy guitar riff reintroduces JoJo, who lingers for a few seconds before declaring, “We go back a long time.” She’d be right if she was singing to us — JoJo has been a famous artist since her early teens — but she’s instead singing to herself, and over the course of this short, moving song, the R&B-pop mainstay prods at herself, questions her decisions, examines her career and tries to understand what has happened to her in general. “Joanna” clearly suggests that a personal new project is imminent, and thankfully (if unsurprisingly), JoJo sounds excellent, her voice sturdy and emotive as she delves into her vulnerable psyche.