The New York weather has been temperamental at best lately. We were pulling wool coats that we’d happily packed away out of closets and boxes last week, and today it’s so humid that we’re all praying for rain again. Hot and cold, like that one Katy Perry song if you omit any reference to romance. There’s nothing romantic about wearing a parka in mid-June, and our 5 Best list this week kind of mirrors this climate: not easily predicted, but it’ll suit all kinds of moods. Dive in.
Career-wise, 2015 has been a great year for the Adenuga family. Joseph Junior Adenuga, the veteran rapper better known as Skepta, got a massive career jolt when Kanye West and others reignited worldwide interest in the endless creative geyser that is England’s grime scene. His sister Julie, a longtime DJ for pirate radio station gone legit Rinse FM, just signed on as the London anchor of Apple’s worldwide Beats1 online radio station. They’re both on the way to becoming household names among the music fans of the world. But as “Lukey World” bears witness to, no amount of career success can protect you from life’s harsh realities. The song is a tribute to Skepta’s friend Lukey Maxwell, who died recently, the victim of street violence. Skepta’s intensely methodical delivery is usually reserved for table-flipping party tracks; here, over ominously creeping production, he applies it to a heartfelt eulogy. A wide range of emotions emerges, all of them soul-wreckingly potent: Skepta waxes nostalgic about his friend’s encouragements, wrestles with continuing to plot promotional strategies with his team while he should be grieving, and laments the end of the rap career Lukey was trying to launch: “We were getting shit poppin’/ Now I’m on Google, searching coffins.” Like everything Skepta raps, it’s brutally honest, unflinchingly hard, and guaranteed to make you feel something. –Chris
Mid-week, Joan Shelley released “Stay On My Shore,” the thorny, bright lead song off her new album Over And Even. It’s an idyllic and sad song that kindles tiny, human hopes against enormous natural forces, finding solace in acts like feeding the birds, chopping lumber and basking in the healing rush of sea and salt air. Though she’s a prolific singer-songwriter, this was my first time hearing Shelley’s white gold alto. She has one of those voices that feels pulled from Elven chants or other fantastic, far-away worlds, and that effervescence carries this song even more than the coaxing acoustic finger-picking that courses underneath. The Kentucky native put out an album called Electric Ursa in 2014 that somehow slipped through my fingers, but I’ve had it on repeat too, and it’s more of the same gorgeous, gentle folk. Even in a year, “Stay On My Shore” shows improvements over that record. She’s enlisted Will Oldham here to provide a curve of harmony on the phrases that need it like a master wood carver. He whittles away at her slender, bright voice with just there right amount of husk. It seems this song couldn’t possibly have been pieced together by human hands, but must have sprung up wild somewhere on a distant shore. –Caitlin
Collaborating on-command doesn’t always yield astounding results, but the Bay Area-based performers Mr. Carmack and Kehlani suggested otherwise this week. “All In” was recorded for Yours Truly’s “Songs From Scratch,” a series that puts two artists in a studio together and has them write and record an original song. On “All In” Mr. Carmack’s production is so sleek that it glints in certain places, most notably in the drawn-out instrumental conclusion. Never overwrought, its recurring blips coalesce with orchestral strings, adding extra shine to Kehlani’s knee-to-the-gut lyrical honesty. This is a song about kinda-sorta lovers at a turning point in their relationship, narrating the preceding seconds before the conversation over whether or not it’s time to take things to the “next level” or just call it quits finally happens. Kehlani’s voice is classifiably “sultry,” but it it has the raw emotional imperfections, the audible anxiety, that makes everything she sings sound like an act of bravery. In this song, small declarations of uncertainty feel massive, heart-stopping. –Gabriela
JJ are capable of magic, but it’s never really come together for a full album — jj n° 2 is still their high water mark, and even that sags a little. Their best songs are usually one-offs or part of smaller projects, like the incredible “Beautiful Life” or High Summer’s “Big Hearts, Big Dreams.” In fact, their strongest front-to-back release is their kills mixtape, where they stretch their warped take on pop to the extreme, stealing songs outright and covering them with their druggy haze. “Truce” is more in that vein, a Drake song if Drake were Swedish and on a cocktail of prescription drugs at all times. The track blurs the line between homage and parody and, at this point, JJ have gotten so good at playing badass that they just are badass. “Do you wanna meet my crew?/ My real crew/ That’s not you,” Elin Kastlander lays down the law, a chorus of warped voices backing her up. And while the rapping is a lot of fun, the real highlight is the ghostly, hopeful hook — “Woke up today/ Oh, what a day,” she muses in wonderment, like the whole world is within reach. That kind of uplifting beauty is why I’ll always check out what JJ are up to because, when they manage to ignite the fire, the duo is transcendent. I just wish they’d do it a little more consistently. –James
Hey, he did it! The Weeknd made a song that doesn’t sound like every other Weeknd song! Now that he’s a proper pop star, Abel Tesfaye is starting to act like it, jetting out to Sweden to kiss the ring of the magnificently bearded diamond miner Max Martin. And what could’ve been a hopeless clash of styles turns out to be exactly the energy-jolt that Tesfaye has needed for years now. “Can’t Feel My Face” moves, with its strut-swivel bassline and its liquid guitar stutters. It’s an explicit stab at digital-era Off The Wall-style club-pop. But where Michael Jackson used his lost-little-kid voice to convey a kind of impossible watch-my-feet joy, Tesfaye is still in fucked-out blues mode, lamenting the soul he lost to a self-destructive relationship but finally giving some clue about how much fun that relationship had to be in the first place. –Tom