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, The Weeknd wants us to stay up late, J Balvin covers the full spectrum and John Legend releases a call to action. Check out all of this week’s First Stream picks below:
The Album That Is A Superstar’s Most Complete Body of Work:
The Weeknd, After Hours
When Abel Tesfaye first arrived as The Weeknd in 2011, it was in the shadows, presenting a harrowing, sometimes nihilistic vision of R&B on the intoxicating breakthrough House of Balloons. A few years later, he had become a chart-topper, utilizing his pristine voice as a pop instrument on hits like “Can’t Feel My Face” and “Starboy.” Yet After Hours, The Weeknd’s first proper album since 2016, is his most effective marriage of those two modes to date. While his mastering of melody powers songs like “Hardest To Love” and the smash “Blinding Lights,” his understanding of song structure is present in the thrilling crescendo of the six-minute title track; “In Your Eyes” represents one of Tesfaye’s purest top 40 confections ever, and is soon followed on the track list by the haunted, explicit “Repeat After Me (Interlude).” After Hours is ostensibly a meditation on piercing late-night loneliness, and while The Weeknd has explored that theme before, he does so here with a sensational blend of his many skills.
The Album That Will Make You Want To Dance Through The Quarantine:
J Balvin, Colores
J Balvin’s new album is a difficult one to hear in our current era of social distancing — these songs were designed to be heard in large gatherings, just like so much of the Colombian superstar’s amiable brand of Latin pop. As Balvin’s profile has exploded over the past three years, his North Star of song construction has never wavered; the 10 songs on Colores are all named after different colors, but the concept of this album is loose, and Balvin is more interested in entertaining us with clean hooks and an impressive collection of beats as he masters the interplay between his rapping and singing. That number of songs, by the way, is part of Colores’ main appeal, as the 28-minute project is focused enough to contain multiple highlights — check the stripped-down opener “Amarillo” or the velvety “Gris” — without overstaying its welcome. Balvin makes celebrating look easy, once again… even if we’ll have to wait a few months to experience that celebration with others.
The Song That Feels A Little More Timely This Week:
John Legend, “Actions”
“Actions speak louder than, speak louder than, speak louder than love songs,” John Legend sings on the chorus of new single “Actions.” As an artist who’s recently been on the front lines of encouraging understanding of the coronavirus through livestream check-ins and social media, Legend has released “Actions” at a time in which doing seems much more important than saying. And while the track, which samples David McCallum’s “The Edge” (later immortalized on Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode”), is not explicitly about the state of the world, Legend has long been a symbol of social consciousness, to the point at which his legacy will extend far beyond his list of hits and awards. “Actions” can mean something slightly different for everyone, but once again, Legend has used his platform for positive motivation.
The Album That You’ll Be Reading The Lyrics To Over and Over:
Conan Gray, Kid Krow
Perhaps you’ve been tracking the steady rise of Conan Gray for years, or perhaps you’re just discovering him now, upon the occasion of his debut album release. Regardless, one listen to Kid Krow demonstrates the breadth of his songwriting talent. Gray’s first full-length is an impressive synthesis of indie-pop, alternative rock and confessional bedroom-pop in which the 21-year-old reflects upon feeling isolated, having his heart broken and longing for childhood; the subjects here are universal, but Gray renders them with enough personal detail that they avoid sounding tired. And whenever he increases the guitar lines in the mix, as on “Checkmate,” Gray becomes an unlikely rock star, and one that makes you want to experience the songs of Kid Krow in a live setting.
The Album That Cozies Up Next To You On a Sunny Afternoon:
Kelsea Ballerini, Kelsea
Kelsea Ballerini presents herself in such a likable way through her songwriting that her albums often sound like check-ins from an old friend; on third album Kelsea, for instance, she fills us in on all the times she’s put her foot in her mouth (“Overshare”), the hot new guy she wants to boast about but doesn’t quite know how to (“Bragger”), and how she’s been feeling tired of the party scene lately (“Club”). Yet that brand of slice-of-life storytelling has also gotten richer with each new release, and on Kelsea, songs like “Homecoming Queen?” and the Kenny Chesney collaboration “Half of My Hometown” are among her most visceral statements to date. The former best new artist Grammy nominee still trades in family-friendly country-pop, but as time goes on, her voice has continually sounded more vital.
The Song That Re-Imagines A Pop Star’s Trajectory:
Lauren Jauregui feat. Tainy, “Lento”
Ever since the members of Fifth Harmony went their separate ways, Lauren Jauregui has piqued the interest of pop fans with her potential as a solo artist; her unique voice and complex persona have been on display in her wide-ranging selection of collaborators, which have included Halsey, Steve Aoki and Marian Hill. “Lento” may finally provide Jauregui with the clearest path forward, though: a sensual, multilingual dance track aided by reggaeton producer Tainy, the song finds the former 5H star crooning in Spanish and hypnotizing the listener before abruptly declaring in English, “That’s why I keep to myself, I don’t need to be bothered.” Jauregui has spent the majority of her career grabbing our attention in a group setting, but with “Lento,” she posits herself as the next cross-culture solo artist that you need to watch.
The Song That Will Fulfill Your Tough-Talk Quota For The Weekend:
NLE Choppa feat. Roddy Ricch, “Walk Em Down”
Both NLE Choppa and Roddy Ricch are enjoying upward trajectories, as the former, a Memphis native who’s still a teen, recently scored another Hot 100 hit with the excellent Polo G-Stunna 4 Vegas team-up “Go Stupid,” while Ricch is still ruling the chart with “The Box.” The new collaboration “Walk Em Down” arrives at an exciting time, and the MCs use the opportunity to make a menacing anthem: Choppa snarls through his time on the mic, threatening to take an adversary “right off the map,” while Ricch is a bit more jovial, stretching his voice into a more melodic warble. The two personalities play off each other nicely, making “Walk Em Down” an intriguing blueprint for future combinations.
The Song That’s Tailored To ‘90s R&B Fans:
dvsn feat. Snoh Aalegra, “Between Us”
If the new track from Canadian R&B duo dvsn sounds somewhat familiar, you’re not losing it — “Between Us” samples Usher’s undying 1997 hit “Nice & Slow.” Yet the new song is also far from a retread, as dvsn, who have paid homage to the hallmarks of classic R&B over the course of their career, create something fresh, rhythmic and sexy (the thing that is not wanted “between us” is an article of clothing, it turns out). The pair was also wise to recruit rising singer Snoh Aalegra for the track, as the fragility in her voice complements the sumptuous production. “Between Us” throws a lot of voices and ideas at the listener in a short amount of time, but dvsn make an ambitious reinterpretation sound relatively natural.
The Album That Will Have You Grooving Around Your Apartment:
Adam Lambert, Velvet
In recent interviews, Adam Lambert has discussed a newfound sense of artistic freedom with Velvet, his fourth album and the first which he says didn’t make any attempts at radio bait. The truth is, Lambert has always thrived whenever he sounds like he doesn’t give a damn about scoring a hit single, from 2012’s brilliant Trespassing album to his work with Queen. Now, he’s back with a full-length that lets him explore his innermost disco impulses, and fill out last year’s Velvet: Side A with shimmering tracks like “Comin in Hot” and the Nile Rodgers collaboration “Roses.” And who knows? With a mini-disco revival taking place at top 40 right now, perhaps Lambert will inadvertently show up on pop radio again soon enough.