Jhene Aiko – “Jukai” (September 22)
Jhene Aiko seems to finally be hitting her stride as one of R&B’s truly unique artists. The cool, unmistakable radiance of her voice has always been there, but on her latest album, “Trip,” Aiko has the production to back it up. The album’s second track, “Jukai,” finds Aiko lost in her own mind, as strings and rich vocal harmonies create a misty atmosphere for contemplation. It’s a mood that fits Aiko’s voice and allows for her most gripping songwriting to date, as she contemplates suicide amidst the death of her brother: “Hell is not a place, hell is not a certain evil / Hell is other people… / or the lack thereof, and their lack of love.” The end result is Aiko’s best work—a meditation that’s enveloping and almost inescapable. But make no mistake, as she confirms in a repetition in the song’s final lines: “I made it out alive…”
ODESZA feat. Kelsey Bulkin – “Divide” (September 9)
In a genre that favors songs that sound bigger and bigger, ODESZA tries to reconcile grandiosity with attention to detail. Since its debut in 2012, the Seattle-based EDM duo has made a living off dreamy synths, quirky drums and even quirkier vocal samples. But its third album, “A Moment Apart,” sees ODESZA working to take that sound and make it enormous. The work does it well on “Divide,” which pairs the boom of 808s with twinkling chimes, bursting into a chorus that shines less like glitter and more like the night sky itself. The song feels like what ODESZA has been aiming for all along: nuanced, well-built chillwave with drops that will make you say “oh shit” multiple times during the same song. It’s an exciting goal to see realized.
Miguel feat. Travis Scott – “Sky Walker” (August 25)
“It would be so easy to do one of these songs,” said Miguel before making “Sky Walker.” That quote, from an interview with Genius.com, just about sums up the effortlessness displayed by the silky smooth R&B singer in making this club-banger. The vibe is a far cry from Miguel’s 2015 masterpiece “Wildheart,” but the Cali native makes the transition gracefully, letting his brash lyrics linger over the hazy instrumental, inserting flourish only when needed. Travis Scott makes a worthy contribution as well. His autotune pairs surprisingly well with Miguel’s harmonic backgrounds, while Scott’s signature ad-libs and vocal riffs from Miguel combine for a backdrop just as attention-grabbing as the lead. The combination sounds saturated on paper, but the swagger the two bring offset any complication, as they strut over lyrics like, “Quick to dead the bull like a matador / Right now I’m higher up than Canada.” If “Wildheart” solidified Miguel as an essential artist in the R&B world, “Sky Walker” is the shining display of that artist with nothing to prove.
Chance the Rapper feat. Daniel Caesar – “First World Problems” (September 26)
Perhaps even more effortless than “Sky Walker” was Chance the Rapper’s surprise performance on “The Late Show,” where the Chicagoan debuted an unreleased gem alongside R&B up-and-comer Daniel Caesar. “When so much turns to too much / Have a dream and then never wake up,” goes the refrain over Caesar’s somber guitar, the lyrics whispered in the same tone as Chance’s “Same Drugs” from last year. The same regretful nostalgia is there too, as Chance illustrates his struggles in a world where ambition, activism, fatherhood and family can’t be fully reconciled. Joining Chance and Caesar are The Social Experiment, who have earned such a rep for arranging gospel rap that their impressiveness is almost a given. The ensemble builds a warm backdrop that erupts alongside Daniel Caesar’s passionate cry in the song’s final chorus. Still, the poignancy of lines like “I hear the seams snappin’ and I’m the team captain…/ I’m just ‘gon keep rappin’… / and y’all keep actin’ / like Flint got clean water and y’all don’t got teen daughters and black friends and gay cousins” makes it hard to believe the song was strung together in just two days. It’s a beautiful ode to the overcommitted—a millennial sermon for all of us to do a little more despite our busy lifestyles.
Rapsody – “Laila’s Wisdom” (September 22)
“Bodak Yellow” has spent two weeks at number one, but those calling Cardi B the undisputed queen of rap probably haven’t listened to Rapsody. The Carolina MC’s star has steadily risen over the past few years, gaining notoriety for guest verses on Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” and Anderson .Paak’s “Malibu,” culminating in her triumphant sophomore LP, “Laila’s Wisdom.” The title track showcases Rapsody’s talents with grace and grit, spitting crafty bars over a fittingly old school beat that samples Aretha Franklin’s “Young, Gifted and Black.” Rapsody has a lot to be proud of, landing a deal with JAY-Z’s Roc Nation late last year, but “Laila’s Wisdom” goes beyond brag rap. The song is a love letter to the people who got her where she is now, and that includes herself. Rapsody’s lines are victorious and grateful, often at the same time, as she proclaims, “Should be a crime to be this fly and awesome / And to think love is all it cost ‘em.” Rapsody is at the top of her game here, but her poise and determination suggest that her ascension is far from over.