Sidney Madden

Even in the best of times, many look to live music as a crucial resource — a place to turn for comfort, community and relief from anxiety — and can scarcely imagine their lives without it. For the past few months, the coronavirus pandemic has closed down venues around the country, and it's hard to picture when gathering in nightclubs or amphitheaters will be deemed safe again.

If you saw the first Heat Check Live on NPR Music's Instagram this past weekend, you rocked with us for a live DJ set of all your favorite new songs. Afterward, New York-based artist Linda Diaz, whose work has been featured on Heat Check before, reminded us why we create spaces for the playlist to exist: "Community is invaluable. Black joy is radical," she wrote.

Anyone else starting to feel like the concept of time is a mushy, nebulous, philosophical joke? Feeling fully in the throes of a never-ending limbo, leaning on music as a grounding source of energy has felt more important than ever.

Luckily for fans of R&B, hip-hop, pop and soul, our favorite artists have kept new music coming. Whether they're making daily creations or finally letting go of months' worth of work, we're thankful for new sounds to fill these moments of unrest and static.

The 2020 Tiny Desk Contest closed for entries on April 27, 2020. We've received entries from every state in the country — and now, while our judges comb through our entries to find a winner, NPR has been sharing some of its favorite entries to this year's Contest. This week, Heat Check salutes contenders who could definitely hold their own among the usual selections from the worlds of R&B, hip-hop, reggae, pop and more.

Every now and then, you want to be shaken up and thrown off balance just a little, just to make it all still feel fresh. Consider these new tracks from Jenevieve, Yebba, Siddiq and more the audible smelling salts needed to wake up your "new releases" playlist. These Heat Check additions fall into that sweet spot of musical discovery that keeps you on your toes with every flip, pun and chord change. Some might even have you digging for samples and jumping down digital rabbit holes to track the points of musical progression.

Kick-in-the-door debuts, lowkey scorchers and dynamic rap duos fill this memorable edition of Heat Check. These are tracks that stop you in your skips and snuggle up real close with your hippocampus. The kind of songs you'll reference in conversations with your friends as big moments, either for the artists involved or the genres they hopscotch around.

When reality feels more like a neurotic moving target, a few snaps of the synapses couldn't really hurt right about now, right? If you're fiending for a mental reset the likes of Men in Black's Neuralyzer — brief, fuzzy, just enough to take the edge off — divergent heat from Octavian, Tora and Kali Uchis will do the trick.

If you've ever been in a playlist battle with your friend — switching DJ privileges back and forth every other song — rapid-fire surprises are the name of the game. Whether it's switching sub-genres, regions, decades or movements within minutes, you've got to hit them with an uppercut. It may rattle their jaw and bruise their ego a little, but it's the only way to win.

Earlier this week, Drake's latest single "Toosie Slide" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, making the Canadian rapper the first male artist — and second artist ever — in Billboard history to have three singles reach No. 1 upon release. But unlike the rapper's past No. 1 debuts, "God's Plan" and "Nice For What," this new chart-topper is a result of Drizzy's ability to harness social media in a new way.

Whatever your goals this week, month or year, remember to move with intention and consistency. Whenever I find myself losing focus or fire, I have to remember why I started and the passion that pushed me to start in the first place.

Whether you need to move with the urgency of Kari Faux collecting some duly-owed coin, politick with the classy-ratchet confidence of Yung Baby Tate or maneuver as strategically as Blaccmass and BIGBABYGUCCI trying to find their next party, keep that energy on ten.

Death in hip-hop can feel so commonplace that sometimes, we're desensitized to it. A trending topic for the day, a bump in streaming numbers, some kind words about the artist's music and then, we move on. But in the case of Nipsey Hussle, his impact since his 2019 death feels different.

One silver lining during this isolated reality is that new music is flowing like wine these days. Some artists are moving up album release dates while others are previewing long-held tracks on Instagram Live, Twitter and Soundcloud. Like many things we used to take for granted, the need for good music has never felt more urgent and we're indebted to these creatives who are getting the itch to share.

Mental escapes can take many different forms — settling deep into a calming meditation, binging Netflix's Tiger King in one chaotic seven-hour sitting — but for me, borderless music exploration always conjures up the type of daydreams and adventures my brain really wraps itself around.

When parts of your world seem unfathomable, music always makes sense. Whether it's a comeback from a dark horse R&B crooner, a surprise drop from a storied rap rule-breaker, a subtle warning from a blossoming soul protege or some island-sourced reggae fire, the songs that take us out of reality for a few minutes at a time are more necessary now than ever.

In a week of news updates on COVID-19, social distancing and looming uncertainty, music serves a unique purpose right now. Music has the power to soothe, amplify and excavate our emotions.

After years of simultaneously trendsetting and meandering in a creative purgatory, Lil Uzi Vert finally unleashed his sophomore album last Friday.

I don't know how or when it happened, but it's really March, y'all. That means it's time to wipe the crust out of your eyes (with a tissue) and flip the switch from autopilot. The winter thaw is coming and Q2 is well on its way.

There's an unexpected jolt of energy that comes with getting caught up — whether you're ready for it or not. This week's selects run the gamet of what it means to get caught up — in the feeling of new love, in the pressure of perception, in the grips of temptation or in the cycle of the same old bulls***.

You know what it is. Stream this week's Heat Check playlist via Spotify and Apple Music.


Brooklyn-hailing rapper Pop Smoke, who was born Bashar Barakah Jackson, died Wednesday morning, according to his record label. The rising act was killed during a Los Angeles home invasion on Feb. 19, 2020. He was 20 years old.

Pop Smoke was a rising start in the New York drill scene because his intensity made him an outlier. Everything about his demeanor and delivery stood out — his tongue-curling ad-lib, a sometimes disorienting flow and the type of gravel-gargling tone that stops music listeners in their tracks.

You ever been to a party and, for some reason, it's hard to get a handle on the vibe of the room? I'm not talking about the visual representation of who's there (or who's not), but more the collective energy surging through the space is just ... off.

It's taken me a few years, but through my vast research, I've concluded that eight times out of 1o, this amorphous feeling is a consequence of the DJ switching up their music selection too quickly. You can always spot a rookie DJ by an ill-timed switch up. You gotta be able to transition accordingly.

This is not a drill: Heat Check is back! After a short hiatus and some stellar, late-breaking 2019 releases, Heat Check has returned to recap you on the world of experimental R&B, hip-hop and everything in between.

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After first premiering the song exclusively at NPR Music during 2019's Tiny Desk Fest,

Don't say she didn't warn you!

Back when Megan Thee Stallion graced the Tiny Desk Fest in the fall of 2019, she gave fans a hint about what — or who — her new music would sound like.

"My next project I will be introducing a new lady. Her name is Suga. She's besties with Tina Snow," Megan said in an exclusive post-show interview.

Damn, y'all. This year has been long. (I have no scientific proof, but I'm pretty sure it's been longer than most.) Naturally, in a time when almost everything feels like it's spiraling out of control, music is the constant mirror to the chaos — both personal and prolific — just as much as an escape to solace.

"No Cap" is yet another phrase that has bubbled up from the hip-hop community to the top of the layman's lexicon. The term is basically synonymous with "no lie" and is applicable in a whole swath of situations, especially when, ironically, there is a lot of lying going on.

Music has a way of adding some glitter to lies – lies we tell ourselves, dreams out of reach, fantasies on replay. Balancing glitchy, pithy pop with raucous reggae, trap and R&B, this week's Heat Check picks capitalize on the fantasy, giving us a moment's escape from the ordinary.

It's the time of year for reflection and gratitude. It offers a moment to look back and take stock in where you've triumphed, faltered and learned along the way. Even if this year has felt inexplicably long or this decade has challenged and changed you in ways you couldn't imagine, new music discovery is something to always be thankful for — a taste-making process that's in your control and wholeheartedly your own.

There's a certain unspoken euphoria in knowing exactly who you are. It's like a tiny party-of-one celebration when you check in with yourself, verifying that you're actually living your truth out loud. And yes, the practice of that check-in is always changing because your truth is subject to change. But the moving target is always worth the pursuit.

This week's Heat Check picks stand out not for sounding different, but for already feeling oddly familiar. Though all of these tracks are new releases, there's something lived-in about each one. Sometimes close to home is the best jumping off point.

Don't be fooled. Spooky season isn't just reserved for the weeks leading up to Halloween. As the season shifts into colder temps, cradling death is just part of the process.

"I can twerk to anything. I'd twerk to Mozart!"

A bold statement. One I overheard through the chatter and bass of a Halloween party this past weekend. From across the living room-turned-dance floor, whose hardwood bore the scuff marks from shoes, scrapes from Ikea couches and a weird, sticky splotch that definitely fell into the category of "We'll worry about that later," homegirl in a Guy Fieri costume (let that part sink in) proclaimed herself to be a cross-genre twerker.

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