The Week In Pop: Sam Hunt Brings Hip-Hop-Informed Country To SXSW
It’s gotten to where you can’t read about Sam Hunt without reading about Drake. Hunt — a former college football quarterback and philosophy major turned rising country star — makes the connection explicit, morphing his own melancholy bro-country chestnut “Single For The Summer” into a cover of Drake’s drunk-dial lament “Marvins Room” during live shows. And it’s implied in the way Hunt surges from soft-spoken flirtations to sweetly sung come-ons on “Take Your Time,” his sunset ballad about low-commitment love, or the way the banjo-laden “Speakers” matches moody midnight sonics with lyrics like “I know your body language/ You ain’t gotta translate it,” or in his detailed descriptions of awkward encounters with an ex-lover in “Break Up In A Small Town.” I mean, just read this: “I knew I’d see her around/ I’d be at some party, she’d show up and I’d be walking out/ Or across some parking lot hiding behind her sister/ I’d look up, she’d be at the red light beside me/ In that white Maxima with the sticker on the back/ I’d act like I didn’t see her.” It goes on like that, to the point that I begin to wonder if his name is actually Aubrey Sam Hunt.
Country stars have been hybridizing with hip-hop for years, often in the form of Nelly collaborations for whatever reason (first Tim McGraw in 2004, then Florida Georgia Line in 2013). But more often than not, those crossbred genre experiments have turned out gaudy, bizarre, even monstrous. Hunt does it more seamlessly than anybody before; rather than an awkwardly grafted outside influence, his urban music influence feels natural, as if the backbeats and rhythmic spoken-sung delivery spring from the same place as his massive Nashville choruses. Last year John Herrman wisely wrote at The Awl that 1989-era Taylor Swift embodies that old basic trope, “I like everything except rap and country.” Hunt is the photonegative: He seems to have a deep and genuine love of both rap and country, and each genre powerfully informs his work.
That said, despite the effortless merging of genres inherent in Hunt’s 2014 debut album Montevallo, on stage he still beats a dead horse regarding his obsession with hip-hop. (Though I suppose it doesn’t get much more country than dead horses.) During his set Wednesday afternoon at SXSW’s Spotify House, Hunt relentlessly telegraphed his fondness for urban radio and top-40 pop. He entered to the sounds of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” which segued into his own “Leave The Light On.” Later, bits of “Bump And Grind” and “Niggas In Paris” served as the intro for “Saturday Night,” a tune from Hunt’s acoustic July EP that remains unmistakably country despite a crisp drum machine backbeat and a bridge with rapid-fire singing that verges on rapping. Bits of Miley Cyrus’ Mike Will Made It-produced “We Can’t Stop” emerged as an interlude later on, and a song for which Hunt cited Steve Earle as an influence ended up exploding into something like Coldplay and Avicii’s “A Sky Full Of Stars.” If all mainstream musical genres really are converging, they might be converging on him.
Hunt’s sound represents country moving out of its awkward transitional phase, but he also represents an evolution in terms of lyrics. Country’s depiction of women has become so comically one-dimensional that Maddie & Tae scored a hit parodying it last year with “Girl In A Country Song.” Hunt offers a stark contrast: Working within the same bro-country template, he sketches full, vivid female character portraits. As my colleague Caitlin White points out, the women in “Ex To See” and “House Party” are drawn as real people with real feelings.
One thing Hunt hasn’t mastered yet is live performance. He has plenty of charisma, but his actual musical execution left something to be desired Wednesday. Specifically, on stage at the Spotify House he was rarely on pitch, a problem that was only marginally corrected at the Fader Fort a few hours later. That’s another thing he has in common with Drake: He can’t reproduce the pristine vocal quality of his records in concert, outside the comforts (and technological support) of a recording studio. It hasn’t stopped Drake from remaking urban radio in his image, and though Hunt isn’t near that level of influence yet, it’s not hard to see him putting his own stamp on country.
A few weeks ago this explored the burgeoning phenomenon that is Empire, Fox’s hip-hop dynasty musical soap opera. The show has already become a massive ratings hit, and now it’s a chart success too. Empire’s season 1 soundtrack moved 130,000 equivalent units to debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, besting superstars Madonna and Luke Bryan. The Material Girl’s Rebel Heart enters at #2 with 121,000; as Billboard notes, that means all 13 of her studio albums (and 21 of her releases overall) have debuted in the top 10. That puts her second all-time behind Barbra Streisand’s 33 top-10 albums. Luke Bryan’s final spring break EP, Spring Break…Checkin’ Out, starts at #3 with 106,000. Any of those three would have beat Kelly Clarkson’s Piece By Piece last week. The Fifty Shades Of Grey soundtrack is at #4 with 72,000, followed by Taylor Swift’s 1989 at #5 with 62,000 and Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour at #6 with 61,000. Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late is at #7 with 58,000. Ed Sheeran’s top-10 mainstay x slides to #8 with 53,000, while Maroon 5’s V is at #9 with 48,000. Big Sean’s Dark Sky Paradise rounds out the top 10 at #10 with 38,000.
Over on the Hot 100, “Uptown Funk!” reigns for an 11th straight week; that’s one more than “Happy” and one less than “Blurred Lines.” Billboard notes that only 18 other songs have held the #1 spot for 11 straight weeks. Maroon 5’s “Sugar” supplants Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” at #2, while Sheeran slides to #3. Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” and Rihanna/Kanye West/Paul McCartney’s “FourFiveSeconds” hold at #4 and #5, respectively. The Weeknd’s “Earned It” rises to a new peak of #6, bumping Taylor Swift’s “Style” to #7. Smith’s “Lay Me Down” rockets from #58 to #8, becoming Smith’s fourth top-10 hit. Pitbull and Ne-Yo’s “Time Of Our Lives” stays at #9, while Fetty Wap’s massively annoying “Trap Queen” rises to a new peak of #10.
Much farther down the Hot 100, Billboard points out that Atlanta rapper Silento’s “Watch Me” — a song that combines dance crazes the Whip and the Nae Nae — has made it up to #86 almost entirely on the strength of YouTube streams. A whopping 95 percent of the track’s 3 million weekly streams are culled from YouTube. Can you imagine how high it would be charting if Vine was factored into the rankings?
Meghan Trainor – “Dear Future Husband”
So she’s not a One-Hit Wonder, she’s a One-Note Wonder.
Years & Years – “Worship”
British breakout stars Years & Years are down at SXSW, but I haven’t gotten to see them yet. “Worship,” the lead single from their debut album, Communion, makes me want to rectify that. “My kingdom for your graces” is a killer line, even if it makes me think about Twitter memes.
Of Monsters And Men – “Crystals”
Hey!-folk superstars Of Monsters And Men are back, but without the hooks that ingratiated them before.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Uh oh, Zayn Malik dropped off One Direction’s tour indefinitely due to “stress” and is heading home to “recuperate.” [Vulture]
- Miley Cyrus is among the celebrities playing themselves in Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray’s Christmas special. [The Hollywood Reporter]
- Fun.’s Nate Ruess will receive the Songwriters Hall Of Fame’s Hal David Starlight Award, given annually to “a brilliant young songwriter.” [Billboard]
- Toby Keith and the Eli Young Band are starting a motorcycles-and-music festival in Southern California. [Rolling Stone]
- Spouses and minor British music stars Natalia Kills and Willy Moon were kicked off New Zealand’s X Factor after going on a rant against one of the contestants… [The Daily Mail]
- …But Lorde made him cupcakes, so it’s all good. [MTV]