Music

R&B/Hip-Hop Fresh Picks of the Week: SZA, Hunxho and Summer Walker, Ray Vaughn, Usher & More

From 126-song mixtapes (looking at you, French Montana) to the media blitz of Tyler Perry’s Mea Culpa starring Kelly Rowland and Trevante Rhodes, the past week has been a characterstically busy one for the worlds of hip-hop and R&B. With awards season firmly in the rearview mirror and the Super Bowl over and done with, we’re in a period of relative calm before festival season kicks off in earnest.

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Until then, we’ve spent the last week fawning over Tyler, the Creator‘s campy new collection for Louis Vuitton, where Pharrell Williams currently serves as men’s creative director. Speaking of the legendary artist-producer, Williams has also been teasing a forthcoming new collabortion with Miley Cyrus, who he previously joined forces with on 2013’s Bangerz and 2014’s G I R L.

Of course, we can’t forget about Jeezy‘s smooth Tiny Desk performance, which saw the veteran flipping his trap anthems into soulful, stripped-back arrangements. And the news cycle hasn’t been entirely positive, with Drake taking to his Instagram story early this morning (Feb. 26) to post what appears to be a call for the release of Tory Lanez — who was sentenced to 10 years for shooting Megan Thee Stallion in the foot (Aug. 8, 2023) — from prison.

With Fresh PicksBillboard aims to highlight some of the best and most interesting new sounds across R&B and hip-hop — from Usher‘s vulnerable new Coming Home track to Rhyan Dougas’ contemplative ode to the cyclical nature of romance. Be sure to check out this week’s Fresh Picks in our Spotify playlist below.

Freshest Find: Marlon Craft & Method Man, “Muggsy Bogues”

Whenever Method Man gets on a track, it’s going to be an event. On “Muggsy Bogues,” named after the shortest NBA player in history, Meth and independent New York rapper Marlon Craft spar over a dark, gritty beat crafted by Arbus and Moo Latte. “I pulled up in the Muggsy Bogues with the pennies/ ‘Cause I’m short on time, so don’t be short on a penny/ In our New York, they would envy the flavor/ Now it’s a bunch of white girls callin’ delis bodegas,” Craft opens his verse. There’s a lot about this track — from the chugging drums to the emphasis on dense, almost understated wordplay from both rappers — that’s unmistakably New York. It’s regional in a way that beckons to prime of East Coast rap while still feeling fresh enough to secure a place alongside contemporary iteration’s of the city’s classic sound.

Usher, “Naked”

So much of Usher’s musical and artistic persona is predicated on his multilayered relationship with sex that when he flips that entire concept on a song as disarming as “Naked,” it’s a particularly stunning moment. “When we strip down, can’t run from real truth/ When we strip down, we gotta face it/ Until I get it right, I’m not gon’ lie/ I’ma need me and you tonight to be naked,” he croons over a lush combination of wailing electric guitar, steady percussion and sultry bass licks. Here, Usher — the man behind such bedroom classics as “Bedtime,” “Hey Daddy” and “Trading Places” — tempers the “sex-a-holic” label with an exploration of his youth, a time where he would try to find his “manhood inside a woman’s body.” It’s heady stuff, sure, but it’s also easily the best song on the new expanded edition of Coming Home.

SiR & Isaiah Rashad, “Karma”

Just a few weeks after unleashing “No Evil,” SiR has recruited TDE labelmate Isaiah Rashad for “Karma,” a continuation of his emphasis on self-reflection as he ramps up the campaign for his forthcoming fourth studio album, Heavy, due out Mar. 22. “Ooh, I need to stop treating hoes like I need ’em/ I’m too busy making promises when I can’t keep ’em/ It’s time I slow this ‘Llac down to a hunnid/ I keep making the same mistakes when I should be learning from it,” he croons over atmospheric piano and skittering kick drums. Additionally, Rashad delivers a strong verse that nicely complements SiR’s lyrical allusions to a Biblical take on karma.

Ray Vaughn feat. Pusha T, “Problems”

It may only be February, but TDE is on a mission to own 2024. With their second of three entries on this week’s column, Ray Vaughn links up with Pusha T for the sparse “Problems.” Over a synth-inflected, somewhat mournful beat crafted by Rayo & WizzleGotBeats, the rappers play their respective roles of rookie and elder statesman. Ray Vaughn spends his verse firing off heated shots to those who deride him as a “backpack rapper” (“Let ’em label me a backpack rapper turned to a school shooter/ All they top five get hit, unless they cool tutors”), while Pusha exudes a complementary cool that underscores his words of advice for longevity in the rap game. “Listen, Ray Vaughn, be clear of your peers/ ‘Cause in a couple years it’d be musical chairs/ We done seen n—as panic and show us they tears/ Reminiscin’ over hits but the money ain’t there,” he spits.

SZA, “Saturn”

After debuting this track during the 2024 Grammys, SZA has finally uploaded “Saturn” to digital streaming platforms. An instant fan favortie, “Saturn” — co-written by SZA, Carter Lang, Rob Bisel, Solomonophonic and Monsune — finds the four-time Grammy winner musing over the possibilities of starting life anew on Saturn, after being faced with little but devastation on Earth. “Stuck in this paradigm/ Don’t believe in paradise/ This must be what Hell is like/ There’s got to be more, got to be more,” she croons over a characteristically ethereal beat bridging R&B, pop and alternative.

Hunxho & Summer Walker, “Your Friends”

Atlanta rapper Hunxho is getting ready for what could be a major breakout year, and this new Summer Walker-blessed version of “Your Friends” is sure to keep up his momentum. “Your Friends” was arguably the biggest hit from Hunxho’s For Her album, and this new remix with fellow ATL native Summer Walker adds a woman’s perspective to its exploration of the thorny dynamics that emerge when friendships bleed into romance and vice versa. “Y’all n—as no better, no cheese, no cheddar/ Be concerned what your homies tellin’ me, I deserve better/ Be concerned with your homies blowin’ me, writin’ love letters,” she warns Hunxho over Avedon & Diego Ave’s moody trap beat.

Rhyan Douglas, “Spin the Block”

The phrase “spin the block” has been run into the ground in recent years, so it takes a special artist — like one Rhyan Douglas — to pull something fresh and real out of that trio of words. A love song with two feet placed firmly in the technology-steeped romance waters of the 2020s, Brampton native Rhyan Douglas croons about the wealth of opportunities that could arise should he bite the bullet and spin the block on a former lover. “But you spin the block/ If all I did was fix up, I’m tryin’ hard/ I’m tryin’ not to give up on you/ Forgot we crossed our lines,” he coos over dry acoustic guitars that recall the best of Daniel Caesar’s stripped-down moments.

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