Country Star Sam Hunt Is Basically A Drake Tribute Act Now
Hearing “Marvins Room” for the first time was an epiphany. By summer 2011, Drake was already sending profound ripple effects through rap and R&B by basically combining the two disciplines, not just singing his own hooks but veering between rapping and singing within his verses. That bridging of genres extended to his content and persona as well — at this point, with Drake nearly eight years into superstardom, it’s easy to forget what a radical prospect he seemed at the beginning, a Jewish Canadian child actor steering rap’s tough-guy mainstream into sensitive emotional territory. “Marvins Room” was something else entirely, though: Here was an A-list star painting a pathetic, embittered late-night drunk dial over synth swells like dissipating clouds and releasing it as a radio single, thereby inventing a vulnerable new breed of rap anti-hero. I’d never heard anything like it and I couldn’t get enough of it, which must have been a common experience because “Marvins Room” went on to become one of the most influential songs of the decade.
Or at least it profoundly impacted Sam Hunt. The college football player turned rising country star’s exceptional 2014 debut Montevallo was striking in its obvious debt to Aubrey Graham. Whereas Florida Georgia Line had talked the talk with a Drake namecheck on “This Is How We Roll,” Hunt walked the walk.
Montevallo’s opening track and pop crossover hit “Take Your Time” — a power ballad about taking it slow and just getting to know each other, girl — presented spoken-word flirtations punctuated by melodic crooning before blooming into a more conventional Nashville chorus. “Break Up In A Small Town” pulled the same trick against booming kickdrums and celestial keyboard sounds out of Drake producer Noah “40” Shebib’s playbook, this time with Hunt detailing the minutia of encountering an ex over and over again — similar to the way Drake raps about his romantic foibles in Toronto, LA, and his other adopted hometowns. “Ex To See” actually prefigured a similar Drake pun on Views track “U With Me?” And at some point Hunt began bleeding his “Single For The Summer” into a “Marvins Room” cover during live performances, plainly stating the influence his music had already strongly indicated.
All of that made for a fascinating case study and a demonstration that Drake’s playbook could be successfully transplanted to basically any genre. What might have passed for a flagrant ripoff in a rap and R&B context (see: Tory Lanez, Kirko Bangz, etc.) felt revelatory in country songs. It helped that Hunt’s music was bolstered by the kind of clever lyrics and knockout hooks that separate Nashville’s elite from the pack. He had a distinct point of view and a sound rooted in his genre’s mainstream but unafraid to venture out into the unknown — quite successfully, too, with a tasteful execution that has long proven elusive among rap-influenced country music. And now, with Hunt’s New Year’s Day single “Drinkin’ Too Much,” we get to see how well his Drake fixation holds up when pressed to the extreme.
In a career that already played like a Drake Pandora station gone country, “Drinkin’ Too Much” still stands out for its devout 6 God worship. Having already covered “Marvins Room,” Hunt has moved on to rewriting it. The track’s entire mood board is mobilized here, from a mirage-like synth background to spare, bass-heavy percussion to the melancholy minor chord progression that vamps through the verses and into the chorus. Don’t forget the dramatic piano epilogue tacked on the end — you know, like the one that plays out “Marvins Room” before the Kendrick Lamar interludes kicks in on Take Care. Behold the essential Aubrey-ness of the first verse, with its hyper-specific anecdotes about the singer’s public career achievements and paying an old flame’s college tuition and interactions with an ex’s parents:
I’m sorry I named the album Montevallo
And I’m sorry people know your name now
And strangers hit you up on social media
I’m sorry you can’t listen to the radio
And drive out to the place we used to get peaches down in Pelham
I know you want your privacy
And you’ve got nothing to say to me
But I wish you’d let me pay off your student loans
To these songs you gave to me
Remember the first time you stayed with me?
Overpacked, and drove up, and went to the CMAs with me
Two years later, it felt like you were a million miles away from me
And I was the one on stage, drunk
Barely holdin’ on, on ABC
Hope your dad still prays for me
That sort of (bitter)sweet talk keeps up throughout the whole song, depicting — like “Marvins Room” — a wistful blowhard’s attachment to a woman who’s long since cut ties, stroking his own bruised ego with delusional proclamations that no one could love her like he does. The end result complete’s Hunt’s embrace of the Aubrey archetype: that charming, talented, insufferable sad sack blinded by his own partially justifiable hubris. Even the “8pm” version of “Drinkin’ Too Much,” which strips back the production and presents the lyrics against a naked acoustic guitar, maintains the same OVO ethos. It is a remarkably audacious bite.
So why do I love it so much? Partially, I think, because the audacity is attractive in and of itself. Attempting to be the Drake of country music is a ridiculous objective, one that should not work, and to pull it off with any measure of grace is remarkable. We must also consider the inherent appeal of the source material: Drake, for all his warts, is one of the most effective pop musicians of today. Aside from the aforementioned innovations, he’s just exceptionally good at constructing contagious pop singles the world can’t stop going back to. I realize he isn’t close to the best rapper of his time, and that his persona is repulsive in many ways, but I return to his music constantly. I can’t help myself. The man’s got hits. You know it, I know it, and Sam Hunt definitely knows it.
I will spare you my own attempt at a “raindrop, droptop” meme and merely report that “Bad And Boujee” becomes Migos’ first #1 hit this week. Ditto Lil Uzi Vert, who features on the Atlanta trio’s viral track. And the track could tighten its grip on #1 next week partly due to Donald Glover’s shout-out at the Golden Globes. And with Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane’s “Black Beatles” still at #2, Billboard notes that two rap songs comprise America’s top two singles two weeks in a row for the first time since T.I.’s “Live Your Life” and “Whatever You Like” did it in 2008.
Other notable top 10 action: The Chainsmokers and Halsey’s “Closer” climbs back to #3, Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj’s “Side To Side” rises back to #6, Maroon 5 and Kendrick Lamar’s “Don’t Wanna Know” resumes its #7 peak, and Machine Gun Kelly and Camila Cabello’s “Bad Things” rebounds to #10 (up two spots but one position short of its #9 peak). Look out for big debuts from the two new Ed Sheeran singles next week — more about those below.
Over on the albums chart, the Weeknd’s Starboy scores 69,000 equivalent units and 18,000 in pure sales to climb back to #1 now that A Pentatonix Christmas is out of season. (That album, which held down #1 for two weeks over the holidays, plummets to #41 this week.) Also climbing is the Moana soundtrack, now at #2 with 64,000 units. It’s one of four movie soundtracks in the top 10 — along with #8 Sing, #9 Suicide Squad, and #10 Trolls — the most in 18 years per Billboard. Back in Sept. 1998 it was Armageddon, Dr. Dolittle, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and City Of Angels. And if you throw in the original cast recording of Hamilton at #6, that’s a whopping five soundtracks in the top 10.
Ed Sheeran – “Shape Of You” & “Castle On The Hill”
I will have much to say about Sheeran when his album drops two months from now. In the meantime, shall we agree that these songs are both insidiously catchy on a musical level and cringeworthy on the lyric sheet? Whether weirdly possessive Ed (“Your love was handmade for somebody like me”) or bizarrely sentimental (“Me and my friends have not thrown up in so long/ Oh, how we’ve grown”), he’s still the same old dweeb we’ve always known, no matter how significantly he evolves his sound.
The Chainsmokers – “Paris”
On first pass, the Chainsmokers’ bid to continue their chart domination this year is not particularly memorable, but I’m sure we’ll all have plenty of chances to learn it by heart.
Bebe Rexha – “I Got You”
Rexha is the queen of choruses that are too catchy to be ignored but too obnoxious to be appreciated. (See also: “Hey Mama,” “Me, Myself, & I.”) She seems primed to make a proper leap from featured artist to lead artist in 2017, and this song ain’t gonna hurt her prospects.
Sean Paul – “No Lie” (Feat. Dua Lipa)
Dua Lipa is on that Bebe Rexha career track. Meanwhile Sean Paul just went to #1 more than a decade after his last hit. So Sean basically tried to recreate “Cheap Thrills” here and cast Dua Lipa to play the role of Sia.
Snakehips & MØ – “Don’t Leave”
Not the best Snakehips song nor the best MØ song, yet it ingratiates itself with every listen.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Ed Sheeran promised he will do James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke this year. [Capital FM]
- Sheeran also revealed the tracklist for his new album ÷ (pronounced “divide”). [Twitter]
- Drake has been named GQ UK’s best-dressed man for 2017. [GQ UK]
- “Blake Shelton-themed bars” are opening in Tennessee and Oklahoma. [Fox News]
- Fifth Harmony shared their first group photo without Camila Cabello. [Twitter]
- Fifth Harmony will also make their live debut as a quartet at the People’s Choice Awards ceremony next week. [Billboard]
- Aaaand Fifth Harmony’s Normani Kordei mashed up Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “Cranes in the Sky.” [YouTube]
- Halsey confirmed a new album is coming this year. [Twitter]
- Chris Brown and Soulja Boy will apparently take their social media feud to the boxing ring. [WaPo]
- But Brown won’t be training at Life Time Fitness; he’s been been banned for life after fighting with a manager at one of their NYC gyms. [TMZ]
- Zayn was spotted filming a video for Taylor Swift collab “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” in London. [The Sun]
- Katy Perry, Zendaya, and Cher are among the artists who will join the Women’s March On Washington on 1/21. [NBC]
- Jennifer Lopez shared a trailer for her reality dance competition series World Of Dance. [Instagram]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME