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Heat Check: Underrated And Elevating

cupcakKe switches her flow up so many times that "Discounts" is a raunchy and hilarious three-minute shopper bargain.
Matt Winkelmeyer
Getty Images
cupcakKe switches her flow up so many times that "Discounts" is a raunchy and hilarious three-minute shopper bargain.

You gotta respect when an artist stays consistent with their artistry, no matter how long they're deemed to be "still bubbling," niche or just generally under the radar. Sometimes it's those who stay underrated for years and then finally "pop" who savor the success in more humble and innovative ways.

Whether it's stealthy rotation faves like Stacy Barthe or creatives re-introducing themselves with something new like Naeem or Alycia Bella, this week's Heat Check head-nods the musical stalwarts who deserve their flowers mid-climb. Stay up with the playlist on Spotify.

Jai'Len Josey, "All Mine"

This Atlanta native with Broadway chops cuts through all squeaky-clean theater stereotypes with maturity and finesse. Following up on the ballad "Death of a Black Girl" earlier this year, Josey hits her stride with "All Mine" and shows off just how comfortably she's growing into her own talents.

"She's 5-5, yeah she's aging like some wine / She's 21 but them thighs on 25 / It's all mine / Best believe she gives 'em hell / running some circles round these men like track and field / She keeps it coming with the checks, she pays the bill / So buckle up, baby / She's coming for the kill."

cupcakKe, "Discounts"

With a bass-knocking beat reminiscent of T.I.'s breakthrough "24s," the brazen Chicago-bred rapper switches her flow up about five times in two verses, marking "Discounts" as a raunchy and hilarious three-minute bargain.

"Underrated but I know they hate it and ain't no debating that I'm elevating / Ever since I made it, niggas that I dated acting aggravated cause I'm fragulated / You send ten bands for a verse back, but your verse wack so I got you waiting / And every time I send a verse back, they on thin ice / Cause they know I'm skating."

Jack Harlow, "WHAT'S POPPIN Remix (feat. DaBaby, Tory Lanez and Lil Wayne)"

Jack Harlow's jam-packed remix for "WHAT'S POPPIN" plays hopscotch across rap regions and generations to achieve mass appeal. It's clear Tory Lanez put in the majority of the work for this four-verse group project, delivering an excitedly dizzying verse leaving everyone, including himself, breathless by the end of it.

Megan Thee Stallion, "Girls in the Hood"

Eazy-E's 1987 classic "Boyz n the Hood" blares with guitar, scratched percussion and an arrogance reinforced with misogynoir lyrics. So when Megan Thee Stallion flipped the script for her 2020 revamp, "Girls in the Hood," she knew she had to do it with venomous, crushing one-liners guaranteed to stomp out and shrivel up every last shred of male ego frailty.

Jayla Darden, "Demonstration"

Jayla Darden's words skip and saunter over some tricky production straight out of an early '00s mind-meld of The Neptunes and Timberland. I'm trying to pinpoint what I'm most impressed with — the succinct pen game, her layered, buttery vocals or the impeccable timing of it all in the pockets of this beat!

Alycia Bella, "Seasons"

Gentle harp chords and a lighter flick welcome you into Alycia Bella's "Seasons." It's the breezy and tender force perfect for that stage of budding love when everything they do is endearing and every moment away from them seems like a dull, bemused agony: "Tell me where you go when you close your eyes so I can follow you."

Sway in that stage for as long as possible.

Stacy Barthe, "Shoot"

Deep, resilient and grounding, "Shoot" keeps the pace of the movement as steady as a heartbeat. Stacy Barthe always adds clarity and drama to anything she lends her voice to; this slave-spiritual-channeling protest anthem is no exception.

"I don't know 'bout y'all / But my back got tired/ Tired of buildin' this country up / Still they tell us we ain't enough / Tired of all of these buildings/ Rather be dead than mistreated / So tonight I'm leaving / Thinkin' bout 10 in the evening."

Naeem, "Simulation (feat. Swamp Dogg and Justin Vernon)"

As Naeem Juwan emerges with Startisha years after shedding the moniker Spank Rock, it's with hints of Baltimore club and electronic love notes intact, but a more focused framework. Think of "Simulation" as a hymn-like cerebral detour that's been marinating in the folds of your brain for a while now.

THEY., "Count Me In"

The sultry slow burner starts off modest, then builds tension to bank on promises of late night companionship — the kind that hits real different after months of quarantining.

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Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.