ENTERTAINMENT

First Stream: Run The Jewels, YG, Kane Brown

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, Run The Jewels return when we need them the most, YG does not hold back against police, and Kane Brown offers a message of hope. Check out all of this week’s First Stream picks below:

The Album That Couldn’t Feel More Timely (Or Necessary):
Run The Jewels, RTJ4

Run the Jewels 2, widely considered the most urgent full-length from the duo of Killer Mike and El-P, was released in October 2014, a little over two months after the shooting death of Michael Brown Jr. and the resulting eruption in the Missouri city of Ferguson. That album — full of bone-cracking beats, scathing social commentary and general rage (as well as actual Rage, as in Rage Against The Machine’s Zack de la Rocha) — was needed then, and Run the Jewels 4, which arrives during national protests following the wrongful killing of George Floyd, is needed now. The agility of the pair’s respective mic skills is no surprise to longtime listeners, but the fact that it’s often directed at our flawed institutions — from the “slave masters” on our dollar bills in “Ju$t” to, yes, police brutality in “yankee and the brave (ep. 4)” — feels like a shot of adrenaline during a moment in which so many of us are searching for an emotional release. Killer Mike and El-P couldn’t have imagined this national moment when they started working on RTJ4, but they’ve been speaking for years about the problems now being cast into the light.

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The Song That Does Not Mince Words:
YG, “FTP”

In March 2016, eight months before the presidential election, YG and Nipsey Hussle released “FDT,” an anthem whose straightforward message has remained a rallying rejection of everything Donald Trump stands for. Four years later, with President Trump helping to fuel national outrage, YG has returned with an even angrier declaration. “FTP” provides a modern G-funk update to N.W.A.’s “F–k Tha Police,” with the West Coast vet pummeling the police state and shrugging off the potential consequences of his explosive claims; yet there exists a deep sense of hurt underneath that fury, as YG’s voice cracks when he says, “To whoever make the rules, we need answers fast.”

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The Song That Reaches for a Feeling of Hope:
Kane Brown, “Worldwide Beautiful”

Kane Brown would be an indispensable voice in modern country music regardless of his skin color, yet the biracial singer-songwriter has also helped provide some much-needed diversity and differing perspective to the genre’s A-list in recent years. “Worldwide Beautiful” speaks to what Brown has witnessed during his time at the top, but more to the vision of harmony that he wants the future to hold: “Still got some work but we still got a dream / Every shade, every heart, come together and sing,” he croons over lush production. Although “Worldwide Beautiful” acknowledges how race has divided us, the song lets its dream of tomorrow fly high, and Brown convincingly shares his hope with a country that needs it.

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The Song That Speaks To The Lack of Social Change:
Mickey Guyton, “Black Like Me”

Country singer Mickey Guyton’s new single begins with her first experience with racism: “Broke my heart on the playground,” she sings, “when they said I was different.” Fast-forward to the present day, and Guyton states the plain, heartbreaking truth: “I’m all grown up, and nothing has changed.” As one of the most promising new voices in country in recent years, Guyton has had to establish herself in a predominantly white genre; here, she references the 1961 book of the same name by John Howard Griffin to try and communicate what her experience has been like existing, as a black woman staring at “white painted picket fences as far as you can see.” A searingly personal entry in Guyton’s discography, “Black Like Me” deserves to dominate country radio.

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The Album That Provides a Calming Exhalation:
Bruno Major, To Let a Good Thing Die

On the one hand, the new album from British singer-songwriter Bruno Major has been released in a week during which hushed love paeans and romantic entanglements do not seem fitting with the international mood. Yet the accomplished songs that comprise To Let a Good Thing Die also reflect upon the art of human connection, and offer a sense of peace during a fraught moment. Major possesses a gentle, conversational voice designed for a full-length experience to sink into, and the songs on To Let a Good Thing Die let him slide into a lilting falsetto (“Figment Of My Mind”), slip over entrancing guitar licks (“Tapestry”) and sing about pretending not to like The Notebook but crying during it anyway (“Nothing”). If now is not the right time to decompress with Major’s tone, that’s okay; these songs will endure, and be around when we need them.

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The Song That You’ll Add To Your Post-Quarantine Party Mix:
Natti Natasha, “Que Mal Te Fue”

Since her Becky G collaboration “Sin Pijama” exploded two years ago, Dominican singer-songwriter Natti Natasha has become a reliable presence on Latin pop radio, collecting hits with Farruko, Romeo Santos, Pitbull and Daddy Yankee. Yet Natasha has the chops to shine on her own as well, and over the lurching beat of “Que Mal Te Fue,” she makes certain that her personality is front and center. As a result, the song drips cool confidence, turning the particularly sparse production into an excuse to give Natasha more room to operate. Regardless of how well “Que Mal Te Fue” performs on the charts, Natasha’s longevity will be tied to unadulterated moments like these.

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The Song That Brings The Struggle Home:
Tee Grizzly feat. Queen Naija & Members of the Detroit Youth Choir, “Mr. Officer”

Part of the reason why the killing of George Floyd has sparked such pain across the country is the randomness of the interaction: with the type of police brutality that exists in the United States, the black community has rightfully argued, George Floyd could have been any of us. On “Mr. Officer,” Detroit rapper Tee Grizzley outlines the fear and anger inherent in his dealings with the police, but the song’s most powerful moment comes in its refrain, when Queen Naija and members of the Detroit Youth Choir try to explain the anguish of unnecessary death. “What if that was my brother? What if that was my dad? What if that was my uncle? What if that was all I had?,” they sing. George Floyd was just that to his families and friends, and “Mr. Officer” effectively addresses a systemic issue from a human standpoint.

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