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 walks us along the Fine Line, Lil Uzi Vert is back and more exciting than ever, and Dua Lipa gets us dancing through the holidays. Check out all of this week’s First Stream picks below:
The Album That Pulls Back A Pop Superstar’s Respective Curtain:
Harry Styles, Fine Line
Who is Harry Styles, right now? We’ve known the talented, charismatic singer-songwriter for nearly a decade now, first within One Direction and more recently as a solo artist; Styles is a household name and arena headliner, and yet, after his self-titled 2017 debut sniffed around his folk, rock and pop influences, no one really knew where he was going to go next. The difficult first step now out of the way, sophomore album Fine Line is a more relaxed and idiosyncratic affair: Styles swaggers fully into view on songs like “Adore You,” “Golden” and “Canyon Moon,” forging a persona that tries to uplift but admits its flaws, that can dance and be psychedelic and play around with harmony and zoom in on something melancholic at the exact moment of maximum heartbreak. Fine Line is more than an extended experiment for Styles, a gifted modern artist — it fully displays his interests, suggests how his career might play out, and provides a clear window into who he is.
The Song That Combines a Dance Challenge With… Narduwar?
Lil Uzi Vert, “Futsal Shuffle 2020”
The world has been patiently waiting for Lil Uzi Vert’s official follow-up to the electrifying Luv Is Rage 2, and thankfully, we have a stunning new single today — one with a whole bunch of quirky features. Tyler, The Creator’s samples voice pops up at the start of “Futsal Shuffle 2020,” as does that of famed goofball interviewer Narduwar; meanwhile, Uzi has unveiled an accompanying dance challenge that looks like a complicated soccer move. No matter: “Futsal Shuffle 2020” is absolutely worth the wait regardless of the details, with Uzi ripping through verses and reminding the world of his nimbleness on the mic. If Eternal Atake is coming, let’s hope the rest of it is as imaginative as this new track.
The Song That Will Have You Sashaying Through Your Weekend:
Dua Lipa, “Future Nostalgia”
“You want a timeless song, I want to change the game,” Dua Lipa opens on “Future Nostalgia,” the title track to her upcoming sophomore album. The line is a solid distillation of where the U.K. pop star seems to be at: for all those who simply want her to re-create the radio enormity of “New Rules,” Lipa has set her sights much higher, and is seemingly creating a nostalgia-drenched dance record that, so far, reads as familiar and essential. Like “Don’t Start Now” before it, “Future Nostalgia” marries an elastic synth-pop sound with Lipa’s penchant for leveling up her vocals into a top-notch hook; the result is another house-adjacent anthem that may not dominate at top 40 but certainly has us hungry for the forthcoming full-length.
The Album That Will Have You Grooving Through The New Year:
“Shoutout to producers making their own albums.” That’s what Kaytranada tweeted earlier this week as his second album Bubba quickly approached; the 27-year-old Canadian artist is credited as the only producer on the full-length, and indeed, Bubba sounds like the result of a singular vision. Just like on 2016’s 99.9%, the guest list is stacked, with Pharrell Williams, Tinashe, GoldLink and Kali Uchis all stopping by to play within Kaytranada’s soulful fusion of R&B and electronic music. The real draw of Bubba are those beats: warm, complex, comfortable yet full of character, Kaytranada’s production effortlessly complements his collection of vocalists, and the 17 songs that make up Bubba compose a delightful listen to close out the year.
The Song That Will No Doubt Be Getting A Show-Stopping Voice Performance:
Blake Shelton feat. Gwen Stefani, “Nobody But You”
As a new track on Blake Shelton’s Fully Loaded: God’s Country release, “Nobody But You,” a duet with the country star’s girlfriend Gwen Stefani, plays out like a low-stakes yet charming collaboration ripe for both country fans and tabloid headlines. Those who grew up worshipping No Doubt will certainly find Stefani veering so far into heartland country a bit jarring, but the shade suits her: she sounds invested in the airborne chorus, and Shelton takes care of the heavy lifting through the rest of the romantic ode. “Nobody But You” may not turn into a career highlight for either, but as a softhearted snapshot of devotion, it’s rather undeniable.
The Album That Could Deliver a British Rapper To a Global Stage:
Stormzy, Heavy is the Head
Stormzy is already a superstar in his native U.K., thanks in part to his blockbuster 2017 album, Gang Signs & Prayer, which fleshed out a hard-nosed hip-hop persona that could also turn tender when it needed. Heavy is the Head has naturally been positioned as an even bigger crossover — Stormzy is not yet a superstar in the United States, but he certainly could become one — and while it takes a few songs to find its footing and steady itself against the weight of expectation, the results are duly impressive once it does. The one-two punch of the quick-striking “Handsome” and the introspective “Do Better” showcase the many talents of the MC, and while guests like H.E.R., Ed Sheeran and Tiana Major9 all stop by, Stormzy soars on the final five unassisted tracks, including the still-potent single “Vossi Bop.”
The Song That Combines Two Generations of R&B, To Great Effect:
Usher feat. Ella Mai, “Don’t Waste My Time”
After spending the 2000s as a commercial giant, this decade has been a more up-and-down affair for Usher, with some major hits, some notable misfires and a few intriguing experiments (including Zaytoven team-up “A”) along the way. “Don’t Waste My Time” closes out the 2010s for Usher with the R&B star in classic mode, grooving and crooning over a crackling bit of production before ceding the floor to rising artist Ella Mai. The “Boo’d Up” singer and Usher sound so natural together that it’s a wonder why the pairing wasn’t dreamed up prior to “Don’t Waste My Time”; regardless, the track represents an encouraging win for Usher, who more than deserves to enjoy a resurgence in the early 2020s.
The Song That Will Have You Singing Along To a Jailbreak:
Alec Benjamin, “Mind is a Prison”
The first thing you notice about Alec Benjamin’s new single “Mind is a Prison” is its set of lyrics, in which the singer-songwriter details an actual prison break, down to the number of strips of ribbon needed to tie up his bedsheets in order to escape his cell. Benjamin has always worked well when his songwriting leans into his attention to detail and unfiltered emotion, and “Mind is a Prison” pairs its heady concept with a pop-rock arrangement that allows him to wedge his vulnerabilities into shorter verses. Ahead of his next project, Benjamin continues improving his craft and becoming more adept in his respective lane.