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From Dixie Chicks To Rihanna: Our Music Predictions For 2020

Rihanna performs with Pharrell Williams at her fifth annual Diamond Ball on Sept. 12, 2019. This January marks four years since her last full-length release.

The last decade of music saw major artists break many of the rules about how to release an album. Beyoncé and Drake popularized the "surprise release" — putting out albums with little to no roll-out at all. So in the era of surprise digital drops, and at the beginning of a new year of music, how do you make predictions about what's coming?

NPR's Audie Cornish spoke to NPR Music's Ann Powers and Rodney Carmichael about some of the artists that are definitely dropping albums in 2020, including Drive-By Truckers and Dixie Chicks, as well a few releases that are less certain — including pending projects from Rihanna and Kendrick Lamar. Listen in the audio player or read on for an edited transcript of their conversation.

AUDIE CORNISH: I want to make you make predictions — is that unwise to do in the era of the surprise digital drop?

ANN POWERS:Depends on what you mean by predictions. We have a general idea about major artists who are putting out new music in the new year — what we often don't know is the exact date. Like so many things in this world, we feel it coming, we just don't know when it's going to hit.

Rodney, what are some of the breadcrumbs a music critic follows?

RODNEY CARMICHAEL:On the hip-hop side, it's almost impossible to keep up with what these cats are going to do from one minute to the next. Every now and then, someone like Drake does an interview and he kind of let's you know what's happening. That's what happened at the end of 2019, so we got a sense of what he's working on.

Drake released a single, it's called "War." The sound feels a little darker; you said he's testing the waters. What's going on?

Carmichael: This is Drake in his full-on rap mode. There's no hook on this song; this is not for the club; this is not for the memes. I think, you know, he feels like he has a little something to prove. He was, by most accounts, the artist of the decade — especially on the rap side, but maybe even as a pop artist. I think he wants to hold onto that in the coming decade.

Ann, I want to talk to you about Jason Isbell, who you said is threatening new music. How did you pick up that breadcrumb?

Powers: At the end of 2019, Isbell's on the road with his band The 400 Unit and here they go: they're offering new music, they say they've been in the studio. Suddenly, we have a new Jason Isbell record in 2020 — or so we think. There's no date yet, but I think it's going to happen.

One thing I know for sure is that the band Jason Isbell got his start in, the Drive-By Truckers, has a new album coming out. It's called The Unraveling. It's kind of a follow-up to their career high, American Band, which came out in 2016. It follows through on this great Southern rock band's combination of the personal and the political, and I can't wait for people to hear it.

So that is a release we're pretty sure about, and Rodney, you have one as well. Tell me about Ghetto Sage.

Carmichael: Ghetto Sage is basically the name of a supergroup that comprises Noname, Saba and Smino. These are three artists that are well-known to hip-hop fans who like deeper listens, so to speak. Noname and Saba are both out of Chicago, Smino is out of St. Louis. Individually, they've all been kind of rising, doing their solo thing over the last few years. Over the last couple of years, I'd say, they've started to collaborate and work on songs together and tease this project.

Ghetto Sage as an actual project, as an album, is still one of those things being teased. I'm not sure how much we can definitely bet on it coming out this year. They did drop a song called "Häagen Dazs" at the end of 2019.

Ann, you've got your eye on a big comeback album by, of all people, the Dixie Chicks. Have they really been gone? What do you know about this project?

Powers: They really have been gone from the recording studio from quite a long while — almost 14 years. What they went through 14 years ago really shaped country music, and not necessarily in good ways.

Essentially, Natalie Maines on stage once insulted President George W. Bush and that led to an enormous backlash for the group, right? And, in a way, they were sort of blacklisted.

Powers: Some pundits think that what happened to the Dixie Chicks caused country music to become more conservative in the 21st century, possibly affected the status of women in the genre. But one thing is absolutely sure and that is that the Dixie Chicks are heroes to a whole generation of country listeners and artists. I saw a Dixie Chicks tour a couple years ago, and I cannot tell you how thrilled and excited that audience — mostly women — was to see that band.

Before I leave Dixie Chicks and their heyday, we should mention that there are some other, more familiar names that are going to be coming back: Green Day, poster guys for pop-punk, and Alanis Morissette, the original angry woman of the '90s.

Powers: Both Green Day and Alanis Morissette have found new lives on Broadway — Green Day with its musical, American Idiot, and Alanis Morissette with her show, Jagged Little Pill, which is taking The Great White Way by storm, right now. It's interesting how those artists remain relevant today. Green Day is so influential and Alanis, in the '90s , she was considered by some to be kind of a watered down, pop version of feminism. But now she's a titan.

Thinking back to that period, she was the very essence of a breakthrough. Rodney, I know you have some artists you are hoping to breakthrough this year. Can you tell us who you're watching?

Carmichael: One cat that I'm definitely checking for is named D Smoke. He actually is the winner of a competition show on Netflix that had its first season in 2019, called Rhythm + Flow. Now this was a hip-hop competition show, kind of like your American Idols and whatnot. Unlike a lot of these competitions shows, it seemed like they were really invested in trying to pick some good talent versus just the marketing of the show itself.

D Smoke was really amazing. He's a cat out of South Central [Los Angeles] — Inglewood, to be specific. He kind of puts you in the mind of a Kendrick Lamar, a little bit, and I say that only because they are from the same city but also because they're very deep artists.

Ann Powers, for you, a breakthrough you're keeping your eye out for?

Powers: Breakthroughs don't always have to come for brand new artists. An artist I love who's releasing her third album this year is Brandy Clark. She and producer Jay Joyce have come together to make an album called Your Life Is A Record, which sounds like an instant classic. It sounds vintage, it evokes classic '60s country albums, but it also sounds completely contemporary. It does not feel like it's in a shiny retro package.

Rodney, you had a list of projects from people that are big names who show no sign of turning out new music. You call them "the Hail Mary joints we need." Who's on that list?

Carmichael: This is my list for people I would love to see come out and people we can really expect to do something in 2020. One being Kendrick Lamar — he hasn't released anything on the solo tip since his Pulitzer-winning album, DAMN.,in 2017. This is his longest break, I believe. Kendrick is another one who likes to surprise us, so let's look for Kendrick.

Rihanna. I mean, we've been waiting on this reggae —

Leave this woman alone! She's running a business.

Powers: Do not leave her alone. We need her!

Carmichael: She is living her life; she's doing her thing; she's ruling the world. I would love to hear a soundtrack to her ruling the world. Maybe we can get this Rihanna album in 2020.

Ann, for you: Hail Mary joint?

Powers: Kesha. Come on, girl. She's coming. She's going to give us the anthems we need. I know it's going to happen. And Lady Gaga. Come on, Lady Gaga.

Let's just end the segment with begging.

Powers: Seriously, what else can you do? Give us a new album.

NPR's Dave Blanchard and Sarah Handel produced and edited the audio of this interview. Cyrena Touros adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.