The Week In Pop

Country Innovator Sam Hunt’s New Southside Was Worth The 6-Year Wait

Montevallo was prophetic. On a macro level, Sam Hunt’s 2014 debut album altered the sound of modern country music, incorporating hip-hop influences with a nuance rarely seen in the Nashville mainstream. The likes of Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan had been recently scoring big hits by hybridizing bro country with trap music, but those songs were as garish as the novelty EDM-rap that was ruling the airwaves early last decade, a country counterpart to Flo Rida and LMFAO. Such was often the case when country artists toyed around with rap. But Hunt seems to have internalized his hip-hop influences. Hearing him slide between spoken word and singing over a moody chord progression was a eureka moment: Post-Drake country music not only exists, it can be great! Not since Nelly and Tim McGraw’s “Over And Over” a decade prior had someone so intuitively blended the two genres, and Hunt had cooked up a whole album on that wavelength.

Inevitably, once Montevallo began spinning off hit after hit, the rest of Nashville scrambled to catch up. At this point, a full year after “Old Town Road” took over America, Hunt’s approach no longer even seems novel. That’s one way his first album foretold the future. Here’s another: One of its biggest smashes was basically a social distancing anthem before anyone had ever heard that phrase, an ode to hunkering down at home with a loved one instead of going out. “We’ll have a house party, we don’t need nobody,” Hunt sang, his joy reverberating in every barrel-chested note. “Turn your TV off, break that boom-box out.” Perhaps most poignantly, though, Montevallo’s biggest crossover hit “Take Your Time” presented Hunt as a guy who was willing to patiently win over a love interest rather than succumb to the accelerated pace of modern romance.

Just such a scenario played out in Hunt’s own life, which is part of the reason he only just now released a second album, six years after becoming one of country’s biggest stars. According to a recent New York Times profile, after two years of touring behind his debut, Hunt refocused his efforts on winning back Hannah Lee Fowler, the old flame he’d parted ways with in pursuit of fame. Montevallo was named after her Alabama hometown, and their relationship was threaded throughout the album. That’s why a SoundCloud loosie released on New Year’s Day 2017 (Hunt is the kind of country star who releases SoundCloud loosies) began with this hyper-specific apology: “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.”

The song, titled “Drinkin’ Too Much,” was this Drake obsessive’s very own “Marvins Room.” The difference is that “Drinkin’ Too Much,” which now serves as the closing track on Hunt’s new album Southside, left the door open for a happy ending: “I know there ain’t no way we’re through.” By the time the song went online, Hunt and Fowler had reunited; that’s her pecking out the Christian hymn “How Great Thou Art” at the end of the track. Per the NYT, he had tracked her down in Hawaii and vowed to give up his career if that’s what it took to preserve their unity. Within a year they were married, content, and taking a temporary break from alcohol, which left Hunt with a new conundrum: What to write about now that the tumult behind hits like “Break Up In A Small Town” was behind him?

Little by little, he figured it out. Since 2017, Hunt has been trickling out new music gradually and touring intermittently, maintaining a presence at country radio at a pace of about one single per year. One of those songs, “Body Like A Backroad,” was such a massive hit that it arguably rendered a sophomore album irrelevant, remaining atop Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart for a then-unprecedented 34 straight weeks. That one was as conventional a country song as Hunt tends to write, an upbeat ditty built on a brightly twangy guitar melody and the requisite references to blue jeans, cars, and carefree Southern living. In fact, the song adhered to country radio’s implicit standards so faithfully that it was easy to miss the DJ Mustard-indebted drum programming woven into the finger-snapping beat. Even when ostensibly playing by Nashville’s rules, he was subtly subverting them.

Southside includes “Body Like A Backroad” and everything else Hunt has released over the past few years — 2018’s twilit “Downtown’s Dead,” 2019’s smitten “Kinfolks,” the aforementioned “Drinkin’ Too Much” — which lends the album a scrapbook feel, emphasizing that this collection was carved out over many years. The album covers a fair amount of stylistic ground as well. It’s the sort of tracklist on which “2016,” an acoustic ballad buoyed by weepy pedal steel and a poetic mea culpa, is followed by “Hard To Forget,” which matches trap drum programming with a ghostly sample of ’50s honky-tonk star Webb Pierce and smirking narration that mines a breakup for laughs.

Hunt’s formidable charisma and world-building ability are the through lines that hold the album together. Whether goofing off or pouring his heart out, he maintains an easy conversational presence, the confident charm of a former star quarterback (Hunt started two years at UAB) matched with the skills of a classic country craftsman. Many great songs in his genre stand out for their distinct sense of place. Like Montevallo before it, Southside expands that experience to album length. Hunt presents portraits of big-city nightlife bustling with interpersonal drama, of chance encounters at church and lovestruck day trips to a hometown. They might not add up to one coherent story, but they cohere into an environment you can almost step into — a series of scenes from some TV drama about the dating lives of beautiful young Southern people, to be binged like a season of Nashville or Hart Of Dixie.

Southside is addictive, but it’s by no means a perfect album, especially in its middle stretch. The maudlin power ballads “Young Once” and “Nothing Lasts Forever” blur a little too readily into Nashville’s morass of soundalike radio filler. The blasé trap hoedown “Let It Down” is proof that infusing your country song with rap production does not automatically qualify as inspired. As a character sketch, the slow jam “That Ain’t Beautiful” succeeds wildly: “You can fly to Turks and Caicos/ In a seat you can’t afford/ ‘Cause some girl you met six months ago asked you to be in her wedding/ Get pissed at your plus one/ Even though he’s just a friend/ For lookin’ up the girl from LSU on Instagram.” Yet its condescending tone toward its struggling protagonist is a reminder that Hunt shares Drake’s flaws as well as his strengths.

Mansplaining aside, Hunt is a winsome presence more often than not. His voice is deep and muscular but too agile to be called burly. He knows just how to use it, when to veer from half-whispered banter into some gigantic hook crafted with collaborators like trusty producer Zach Crowell and Shane McAnally, known for his work with other country rule-breakers like Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark. In lesser hands the similarities between “Hard To Forget” and “Breaking Up Was Easy In The 90’s” — two humorous songs about being constantly confronted with reminders of an ex — might have rendered them redundant, but Hunt differentiates the two concepts by teasing out each one in vivid, immersive detail.

Southside presents about the same mix of flirtation, reverie, and heartbreak as heard on Montevallo. That’s surprising given how much Hunt’s life has changed since he made Montevallo, but if he’s treading the same territory, he’s doing it with ever more adventurous packaging and a more seasoned perspective. There are moments on Southside I’m not sure he could have pulled off six years ago, foremost among them “2016,” one of the more traditionalist songs in his catalog. “I’d put the whiskey back in the bottle,” Hunt sings. “Put the smoke back in the joint/ Look up at the sky and say/ ‘OK, OK, OK, think you made your point.'” On he goes, desperately seeking a rewind button for a year he can never get back, depicting his regret with a devastating potency. It’s the kind of hard-won epiphany that only comes in time, kicking off an album that was well worth the wait.

CREDIT: Justin Lloyd/Newspix via Getty Images

CHART WATCH

For the second week in a row, the Weeknd has the #1 album and song in America.

There are five new titles in the Billboard 200 top 10 this week, but none of them surpass After Hours, which rules for a second week partially thanks to a handful of newly unveiled bonus tracks. The album pulled in an impressive 138,000 equivalent album units in its second week after posting the year’s best one-week total with last week’s 444,000 debut. 5 Seconds Of Summer’s Calm came close to beating After Hours but will have to settle for #2. The album technically entered the chart at #62 last week thanks to some CD orders that were fulfilled early, but that didn’t stop it from racking up 133,000 units in its proper debut week. Had last week’s 11,000 units counted for this week, they would have debuted at #1. Sad!

After Lil Uzi Vert at #3 comes a #4 debut for Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia on 66,000 units and 18,000 in sales. It’s Lipa’s first top 10 album in the US. Pearl Jam are up next with a #5 debut for Gigaton, their 11th top-10 album, thanks to 63,000 units and 57,000 in sales. Lil Baby and Bad Bunny are up next, then a #8 debut for PartyNextDoor’s PartyMobile via 50,000 units. Roddy Richh is at #9, and Joyner Lucas closes out the top 10 with a 39,000 units/10,000 sales opening week for ADHD.

The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” holds on to #1 on the Hot 100 for a second straight week, followed once again by Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” and Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now.” Post Malone’s “Circles” climbs back to #4, bumping Future and Drake’s “Life Is Good” down to #5. Harry Styles’ “Adore You” and Doja Cat’s “Say So” both reach new peaks of #6 and #7 respectively. The rest of the top 10 comprises Justin Bieber and Quavo’s “Intentions,” Billie Eilish’s “everything i wanted,” and Lewis Capaldi’s “Someone You Loved.”

POP FIVE

Troye Sivan – “Take Yourself Home”
This was already a compelling spin on that downcast, minimal, guitar-infused sound that’s been popping up on albums like Halsey’s Manic, and then the beat drop came in at the end and ratcheted “Take Yourself Home” up to a whole other level. Now I’m extremely curious to hear whatever else Sivan has been working on.

Bad Bunny – “En Casita” (Feat. Gabriela Berlingeri)
Bad Bunny can’t miss right now even when he’s obviously bored.

Bazzi – “Renee’s Song”
Bazzi’s resemblance to Akon here has me wondering if he’s one well-placed feature away from becoming an omnipresent force on pop radio.

Anuel AA – “3 De Abril”
That beat switch though!

Lindsay Lohan – “Back To Me”
I mean, sure, why not. This could have been much more embarrassing.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • “I can’t say when I’m going to drop,” Rihanna told British Vogue about R9. “But I am very aggressively working on music … There are no rules. There’s no format. There’s just good music, and if I feel it, I’m putting it out.” [Vogue]
  • Normani modelled some of Rihanna’s new Savage x Fenty lingerie. [Twitter]
  • Sam Smith is delaying, and renaming, their new album. [Instagram]
  • Taylor Swift was the first DJ for SiriusXM’s Hits 1 n chill show, and spoke about how she’s spending time in quarantine. [Twitter]
  • Ariana Grande sang “My Everything” backed by her piano player Tommy Brown over video conference. [Twitter]
  • On April Fool’s Day, Jaejoong of the Kpop group JYJ said he had coronavirus, then admitted it was a joke. His fans were not amused. [NYT]
  • Justin Bieber did an impromptu Instagram Live chat with Drew Barrymore, who allowed her face to be used in the pop star’s Drew House clothing line last year. [Twitter]
  • Fall Out Boy donated $100k to the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund. [NBC Chicago]
  • Selena Gomez discussed her mental health with Miley Cyrus on Instagram: “Recently, I went to one of the best mental hospitals… and I discussed that after years of going through a lot of different things, I realized that I was bipolar.” [Billboard]
  • Hailee Steinfeld released a video for her Annie Lennox-interpolating “I Love You’s.” [YouTube]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

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