Song Review: Chris Young & Kane Brown, “Famous Friends”

There’s a reason we’ve never heard of these “Famous Friends” before: Judging from the song, they’re not worth knowing.

Chris Young may well be the Barbara Mandrell of our time, because while everyone is jumping onto the same-sounding Blandemic trend right now, Young was boring before boring was cool (seriously, I’ve been running this Korner for four years now, and he’s earned a 5/10 every flipping time he’s popped up on my radar). I didn’t expect him to break that streak when I saw that he and Kane Brown (another artist whose star has waned recentlyhe’s topping the charts, but he’s not driving the country conversation the way Thanos is) had joined forces for the presumed third single off of Young’s presumed eighth album (it’s been nearly two years since “Raised On Country” came out; that album’s got to be coming out someday…right?). Spoiler alert: He actually did manage to break his streak…except he did so in the worst possible way: I hate everything about this track, making it the perfect closer to this tire fire of a year. (Editor’s Note: There are still some songs that need to be reviewed before the year-end lists come out, but this may be the last song to get a full review.)

To say this is the same stupid guitar-and-drum mix everyone else is using is giving it too much credit: The song opens by smashing you in the face with several barely-distinguishable electric guitars (the only one you can really pick out is a slicker, higher-pitched one borrowed from Jake Owen) and a run-of-the-mill drum set, creating a toneless, relentless wall of noise that the mix just beats you over the head with for the entire song. (There are some keyboards buried deep in the background, but they contribute nothing to the overall feel of the arrangement.) The volume level, darker guitar tones, and frequent minor chords give the song an ominous and even slightly aggressive feel, causing it to clash badly with your subject matter—the song comes across less like a celebration of their “famous” friends and more of an opportunity to shove them in the listener’s face for no apparent reason. While Jason Aldean would be proud of the result, everybody else is repulsed by the unnecessary attitude and seriousness of the sound (this isn’t fun, it’s just annoying). This is about the worst possible mix that you could use to back a song like this, and the audience is heading for the exits before the second verse is complete.

We all might like to name-drop important people we “know” to feel special by association, but nobody likes to listen to other people do it, and unfortunately that’s pretty much all Young and Brown do here. There aren’t any technical issues here (both artists are capable singers who breeze through the song’s minimal range, flow, and power demands), but no one sounds like there’s actually having fun here. Instead, the vibe I get from the singers is smug self-importance, flaunting their connections to “important” people to make themselves appear above the city folk they’re addressing. There’s a defiant, holier-than-thou edge to both artists’ vocals, and it puts listeners on the defensive instead of bringing them into the narrator’s camp: Instead of the reaction being “Oh wow, it’s super cool that you know these people!” it becomes “F*ck you, I know some important people too, unlike the two-bit hacks you hang out with!” It reminds me a lot of Robert Counts’s “What Do I Know,” as there’s a strong undercurrent of “us vs. them” exclusivity in the deliveries of both men. (And don’t even get me started on the fact that there’s no reason this should be a duet: Having two singers here brings adds absolutely nothing to the trackit’s just an excuse for Young to try and use Brown’s star power to jump-start his stagnant career.) Instead of elevating the track, Young and Brown actively drag it down with their vocals, making the narrators unlikable and the song unlistenable.

My biggest problem with the lyrics is that completely fail at their main task: Framing the narrator’s not-actually famous connections as people we should respect and care about. Instead, the song reduces them to a laundry list, and we get throwaway lines about preachers and teachers and some brief mentions of people who frankly aren’t worth celebratingwhy should we care that someone is ” the life of every party” or holds a local football record? (The attempted bragging about the narrator’s police officer connection really irritates me, as it smacks of undeserved privilege, and it’s more than a little twisted that the line is given to Brown, a biracial man who knows all too well how police officers would view him and that they wouldn’t just let him go.) You could potentially make these characters into interesting figures, but the writing leaves them as one-dimensional cardboard cutouts and relies on the listener to fill in the details. (Think you can’t flesh out characters like this in the span of one song? Randy Travis begs to differ: He took “a farmer and a teacher, a hooker and a preacher” and turned in into one of the best songs of the 2000s.) Throw in the fact that these are the sort of generic roles and professions that everyone name-drops on a track like this, and the writing winds up feeling more lazy than anything else (and no, randomly tossing in the county you grew up in does not make the song feel personal). As I mentioned before, there’s a reason these “famous friends” aren’t actually famous, and the writers completely fail to convince us that they should be.

“Famous Friends” is a complete failure on every level: The production is dark and edgy instead of warm and celebratory, the lyrics are bare-bones and run-of-the-mill instead of descriptive and unique, and Chris Young and Kane Brown make the narrators less instead of more likeable. Much like with “What Do I Know,” there was a possible way forward with a track like this, but everyone involved did the exact opposite of what they should have, and we’re left with this monotonous, aggravating drivel that has no place on country radio, pop radio, ham radio, or any sort of radio. Brown still has enough clout and popularity to survive this misstep, but is this is what Young is going to drop on us after several years of putting us to sleep, then it’s time to let Brett fill our Young quota in Nashville, and put Chris on a shelf (next to the elf) for a while to make him think about what’s he’s done.

Rating: 3/10. Get that garbage outta here!

Song Review: Kane Brown, “Worship You”

I’m gonna need some wine to go with all this cheese.

Has the window for country superstardom already closed for Kane Brown? Where once he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Florida Georgia Line and Sam Hunt as one of the most polarizing figures in the genre, he now seems to be at risk of sliding into irrelevance, with his most-recent single “Cool Again” getting shut out of the Mediabase top spot by Lee Brice and having to settle for a #3 peak on Billboard’s airplay chart. Now, Brown is back with an official follow-up single from Mixtape, Vol. 1 (“Worldwide Beautiful” didn’t receive a full push to radio) called “Worship You,” and good grief, if Boyfriend country hasn’t jumped the shark already, it has now. This thing is the most cheesy, over-the-top, sticky-sweet love song I’ve heard in a long time, going so far out on a limb with its declarations of love that they’re more laughable than believable.

For someone who used to make traditionalists’ blood boil with their genre-fusing mixes, Brown’s production has become much more safe and predictable over time. The song leans on an acoustic guitar to carry the melody and a restrained, inoffensive drum machine keeping time behind it. Outside of the slick electric guitar solo, this is pretty much all you get here: Despite experimenting with classic country instrumentation on tracks like “Homesick,” the steel guitar and fiddle are barely used here (with the former pushed so far into the background that it’s barely noticeable), and the real drums that jump in are completely overshadowed by their synthetic counterparts. The instrument tones seem very neutral here, and while the resulting atmosphere is serious, it’s not especially romantic and doesn’t do a great job conveying the depth of the narrator’s feelings. It’s an arrangement that just kind of exists, and it fails to offer adequate support to the lyrics and vocals.

Of course, part of the reason that the production struggles in its role is that the lyrics completely fail in theirs. We’ve seen other Boyfriend country tracks fall all over themselves professing their unending affection for their partners, and we’ve seen other tracks rely on religious imagery to express their romantic conviction, but this track cranks the cheesy dial up to eleven and lays it on extra-thick: They compare the other person to an entire religion, saying that they “might have to worship you” if that were the case. I mean, I get that love can be a spiritual experience, but putting them on par with a god? Yeah, that’s going a little overboard (and frankly, it strikes me as a pretty dumb comparison). What’s worse, however, is that the argument behind the comparison is based purely on physical attraction, with lines like “Your body, baby, it’s divine,” and “Sleeping next to you is heaven.” It makes the relationship feel incredibly shallow, and makes the narrator sound like they’re speaking from their penis rather than their heart. Combine this with the fact that there’s only really half a song here (we only get one-and-a-half verses) and that most of the chorus is wasted on meaningless statements about what the narrator would do if their partner actually was a religion, and we’re left with a mess of a song that doesn’t convince anyone that this is really about love.

Thanks to the track’s lyrical deficiencies, Brown is left with a gargantuan task: Can he make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what and turn this into a heartfelt love ballad while keeping it from careening into the gutter? He only half-succeeds here: He’s mostly able to keep the track from sinking into the mud, but he doesn’t make the audience feel the love. Technically, it’s a solid effort: The range and flow demands are minimal, and Brown breezes effortlessly through the track. On the charisma front, he offers enough emotion and charm to both feel kinda-sorta believable in the narrator’s role and keep the track’s darker insinuations from bubbling to the surface (at least during a cursory listen). Unfortunately, he isn’t to sell the narrator’s outrageous claims of love, and he doesn’t let the audience share in his good feelings, leaving us to feel like bystanders as he gushes over his partner. It’s just not an interesting or engaging performance, and given the sheer number of these tracks that have been dumped on us over the last few years, it’s not enough to make the track stand out.

In the end, “Worship You” is just not a good song: The awful writing drags it down like it an anchor, and the ambivalent production and a merely decent performance from Kane Brown just aren’t enough to bring this mess back above water. This is subpar even by mediocre Boyfriend country standards, with declarations so outlandish that no one could really take them seriously. I get the sense that Brown is looking for a moonshot here to re-energize his suddenly-stagnant career, but I don’t see that happening with this single. He’s officially just another country singer now, and unless he can find some better material, he’ll be stuck in that position for the foreseeable future.

Rating: 4/10. Skip it.

Song Review: Kane Brown, “Worldwide Beautiful”

It’s about time this genre stepped up to the plate.

Country music’s first reaction to the turmoil of 2020 was to double down on mindless partying reminiscent of the Bro-Country movement a decade ago (hence the ‘Cobronavirus’ term I keep throwing around), but a few artists are starting to reflect the seriousness of our times in their material. Luke Combs and Dolly Parton tried to offer reassurance in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Mickey Guyton asked us all to consider the perspective of people of color in America, and now Kane Brown is doing a little bit of both on “Worldwide Beautiful,” a surprise single release who proceeds are being donated to the Boys and Girls Club of America. While it can be a bit awkward and repetitive at points, the message here is still a thoughtful one that emphasizes our common humanity, and it’s capped off by perhaps Brown’s best performance to date.

The production here is pretty standard for Brown’s work, but it succeeds in setting a suitable tone for the song. It opens with the typical slick electric guitar and prominent drum machine for the first verse, sticking with this sparse arrangement to emphasize the lyrics. Starting with the first chorus, some more-conventional guitars and real drums jump in to add some punch and volume to the mix and help it build momentum as it goes (although it makes the mix sound a lot more generic as well). The final piece is the backing choir, which slowly gets more lines during the choruses and are the primary “instrument” featured on the bridge solo (the guitar drops a mediocre solo as well, but all the attention is on the choir), giving the song a spiritual feel and helping it close on a high note. The regular minor chords and dim-but-not-dark instrument tones impress the seriousness of the matter on the listener, and the increasing volume and spacious feel of the sound are what convey the hope and optimistic the producer was shooting for. Overall, it’s a well-constructed arrangement that does its job well.

I usually criticize artists who try to pull a Sam Hunt and half-sing, half-speak their way through a song, but I think having Brown recite the opening half of the first verse was brilliant, as it made the message feel more direct and personal (and it let him use his distinctive lower vocal range, while the rest of the song traps him in his upper register). His technical skills remains sharp (good range, solid flow, enough power to get the job done), but it’s charisma that this song really demands (after all, you’re asking people to reconsider potentially-longheld beliefs), and that’s exactly where Brown shines on this track. His opening statements come from the heart, and despite the vague, generic platitudes that characterize the rest of the track, the listener can feel Brown’s passion and emotion behind it, and it moves them to line up behind his message of equality. Unlike his disappointing performance on “Cool Again,” Brown brings his A-game to the table here, and the song is much stronger for it.

The lyrics here are really the tale of two songs: The first verse, and basically everything after it. A wise man once told me to “put the punch line first,” and that’s exactly what happens here, as the former is easily the stronger of the two pieces. Despite the awkwardness of using death as a way to show our common bond, the message still gets through: We’re all human, we’re all equal, and we’re all beautiful (hence the “worldwide beautiful” hook). The verse is simple yet powerful, and it begs the question “If we’re all equal, why doesn’t the justice system see it that way?” Beyond this verse, however, the song weakens considerably: There are vague calls to come together, the hook isn’t really that strong, and the “one love, one God, one family” and “Thank God” chants get really repetitive really quickly. (The reliance on religion as a uniting force seems like a questionable choice as well, given how much blood has been spilled across history over the debate about exactly who that “one God” is, or whether they exist at all.) Thankfully, the recognition of the inherent beauty within all of us gives the song a more reassuring and optimistic tone, which helps tie the two pieces of the song together. On the whole, however, I’d like to have seen this song go through a few more drafts to make the latter portion as strong as the opener.

“Worldwide Beautiful” isn’t the defining song of this era (that would be “Black Like Me”), but it’s a great addition to country music canon, and is a far better than “Cool Again.” While the writing it inconsistent, its gets its point across, and Kane Brown and the producer do their part through expressive vocals and a well-constructed arrangement. This song contributes far more to the genre than the plethora of Cobronavirus tracks that preceded it, and with any luck it will be songs like this that stand the test of time when the history books look back on 2020.

Rating: 7/10. Check this one out.

Song Review: Kane Brown, “Cool Again”

Sorry Kane Brown, but just like our post-coronavirus society, nothing’s going to be “Cool Again” without some serious effort from all parties.

It wasn’t that long ago that Brown was a provocative, genre-blending superstar-in-the-making, enthralling his audiences and infuriating his critics. In the last few years, however, he seems to have faded into the background, becoming just another country artist trying to get their name onto the genre A-list (a list that currently only has Thanos‘s name written on it ten times). Now, looking to reclaim some of his lost hype, Brown and RCA have closed the book on the Experiment era (which never felt that experimental in the end) and introduced “Cool Again” as the presumed leadoff single for his eventual third album. Unfortunately, while the song is a return to the synthetic Metropolitan style that Brown rode into Nashville on in the first place, it’s no more interesting than his last offering, featuring a nasty sound/subject mismatch and a narrator who isn’t terribly keen on self-reflection.

If there’s one thing I got wrong when thinking about what COVID-19 would do to country music (at least so far), it’s my prediction that artists would return to more serious topics in their music. Instead we’re getting upbeat romps like “One Margarita” and “No I In Beer,” and while “Cool Again” isn’t a party song, you’d never know from the production, which has the same bright, beachy vibe and the above singles. It’s also a return to Brown’s previous slick, synthetic Metropolitan style: The melody is primarily driven by slick, sharp electric guitars and a drum machine, with only an effected dobro and some hand-played drums giving the song any real texture. The bright tones, faster tempo, and summery flair of the mix make this feel happy and upbeat, which is the absolute opposite of what the writing is trying to say. (There are a fair amount of minor chords here and the verses feel a slight bit dark, but they seem to be minimized by the volume and energy of the chorus and  don’t add a ton of seriousness to the atmosphere.) All in all, this sound makes the song feel like it’s trying to be both happy and sad, and it winds up being neither.

I feel like I’m one of the few people who actually thinks Brown is a charismatic singer, but I’m not terribly impressed by his performance here. The song does him no favors by keeping him in his decent-but-nondescript upper range, giving him no chance to show off the deeper vocals that caught peoples’ ears in the first place. He’s still got decent range, but I’m not really feeling his performance as a narrator who’s hoping to hit rewind on a relationship that went wrong. His delivery strikes me as more stoic than serious, and it lacks the heartfelt commitment that we saw from Old Dominion’s “Some People Do” (the lyrics admittedly deserve some blame for this as well). The listener doesn’t get the sense that the narrator is ready to do whatever it takes to make the relationship work this time aroundthe vibe is more “hey, let’s hook up again so I can have fun again!” (Also, whoever decided to cast the Transformers as backup singers here needs to be locked out of the control room for a few months.) Brown has the skills to pull off a song like this, but he chose not to use them here, and the track suffers as a result.

As bad as I found the lyrics to Parker McCollum’s “Pretty Heart” to be, they did one major thing that the lyrics here do not: They at least considered (in the shallowest way possible) their own culpability in the breakup that occurred. There’s no such reflection in “Cool Again”: The narrator is in full-blown nostalgia mode, reminiscing about all the fun things they did with their partner (which apparently was just drinking and having sex) and wishing they could just go back to doing them all again. I mean, I’m sure you enjoyed all that, but there’s probably a reason the relationship ended, and it’s probably because the other person wanted more from their partnership. Just hitting rewind on a failed relationship isn’t going to work; you need to go beyond saying “Where the hell did we go wrong?” and actually figure out where the hell you went wrong, or at least pledge to change whatever needs to be changed when you figure it out. Beyond this, there really isn’t a whole lot to the song: There are many questions, no answers, and even fewer scenes to collect evidence towards these answers (and the hook gets really repetitive really fast). “Pretty Heart” may have needed a lot more drafts, but this song would have benefited from another round of editing itself.

“Cool Again” is actually an apt metaphor for Kane Brown’s career at this point: His initial buzz is gone, and he’s going back to basics in an attempt to reclaim it. However, it’s going to take more than lukewarm radio filler like this to pull it off: The writing needs more detail and depth, Brown needs more charm and charisma in his delivery, and the producer needs to realize exactly what kind of song they’re making a mix for. Without better execution in the studio, Brown’s once-red-hot career could wind up ice cold before long.

Rating: 4/10. Not cool at all.

Song Review: Kane Brown, “Homesick”

Is it just me, or has Kane Brown gone from controversial to conventional in the span of three singles?

After all the buzz surrounding Brown’s rapid rise and radio success, he appears to have been somewhat forgotten in 2019. Sure, “Good As You” eventually became his fourth Billboard airplay #1, but its five-month-long trek to the top was fairly unremarkable, and it lost the hype battle by a wide margin to songs like “Beautiful Crazy” and “Whiskey Glasses.” Now, after a brief foray into pop collaborations with artists like DJ Khalid and Marshmello, Brown has returned to the country charts with “Homesick,” the third single from his Experiment album. While it’s not a bad song by any measure, it’s also surprisingly by-the-book and indistinguishable, and blends in a bit too well with all the lightweight love songs that are floating around the genre right now. If Brown wants to return to the forefront of the country music conversation, it’s going to take a lot more than this track to do it.

The production here is a classic example of how a producer can ruin the mood by over-inserting themselves into the process. There’s actually a surprisingly classic foundation here: An acoustic guitar carrying the melody with dobro support, a light hand-played percussion line, and even a classic fiddle-and-steel combination, with the former even getting some solid solo time. This arrangement gives the mix a rich, warm feel, and while the instrument tones aren’t terribly bright, they do a nice job reflecting the sadness and longing of the narrator as they spend time away from their partner. All of this is great…so why why why did the producer have to drop a snap track in the middle of this thing? It feels completely out of place and sticks out like a sore thumb, detracting from the atmosphere the other instruments worked so hard to create. (The rapid tambourines don’t help matters either.) It’s like sticking a red clown nose on the Mona Lisa: The picture is still beautiful, but you can’t help but focus on the unnecessary blemish. Sometimes a producer needs to know when to get the heck out of the way, and this lack of awareness really hurt the sound here.

It’s too bad the production stumbles so badly, because I think is the best Kane Brown has ever sounded. The biggest difference this time around is that his delivery seems more relaxed this time around, instead of the louder, more-direct style from “Lose It” and “Good As You.” He also avoids pushing the boundaries of his range in either direction, which make him sound a bit more comfortable and makes his flow even smoother than usual. Finally, he uses his distinctive tone to greater effect here, as opposed to his more-generic performance on “Good As You.” The changes suit Brown’s style well, and while he already had enough charisma to sell the narrator’s role, they make him sound even more earnest and believable, and combine with (most of) the production to effectively share his feelings with the audience. It’s a a strong performance that the rest of the track fails to live up to.

The writing here feels uninspired and unimpressive, and doesn’t provide Brown any help is making the audience care about his plight. The narrator is a traveler who longs to be home with the one that they love, which would be a decent-enough sentiment is the execution were a bit sharper. The “homesick” hook is one of the lamer ones I’ve heard this year (it’s got all the cleverness of a “did it hurt when you fell from heaven?” pickup line), and both the memories and language are about as cookie-cutter as it gets. Even the personalized second verse doesn’t feel fresh, as country singers have been trying to reconcile their home life and touring life since the beginning of time. I feel like I’ve heard this song a hundred times before, and as good as Brown’s delivery is here, there’s only so much life he can breathe into a bland ballad like this.

“Homesick” might be Kane Brown’s best single to date, but I’ve got enough issues with it to hold off of truly labeling it a good song. The paint-by-numbers writing and poor production decisions really take the wind out of what could have been a solid effort, wasting Brown’s vocals and the unexpectedly good arrangement. I still think Brown is trending in the right direction, but this song’s got a lot of company in the genre right now, and it’s not going to be enough to put him back on the pedestal with Combs and company.

Rating: 6/10. It’s worth hearing, but it won’t stick with you for long.

Song Review: Kane Brown, “Good As You”

Country traditionalists better make their peace with Kane Brown in the genre, because it looks like he’ll be here for a while.

Brown’s unorthodox rise to fame and his use of sounds and instruments not commonly associated with country music have earned him a sizable number of detractors within the genre, including some fairly prominent names. Try as I might, however, I just can’t bring myself to hate Brown’s output the way some of my contemporaries do. Instead, I see an artist cribbing from the playbook of other successful artists (especially Thomas Rhett) and who seems to be showing genuine improvement over time, even on a song like his previous single “Lose It.” His latest offering, the second from his Experiment album, is “Good As You,” and despite the album’s title, this is probably the least experimental song I’ve heard Brown perform. Instead, it’s a saccharine “wish I was as awesome as you” song, and while it’s certainly more generic than groundbreaking, the sound and vocals are strong enough to give the song some emotional weight and effectively share their good feelings with the rest of us.

The production is most impressive for what it isn’t than what it is: Brown’s songs have been heavily reliant on synthetic elements in the past (drum machines in particular), but this one seems to be completely driven by real instruments, with a slick electric guitar carrying the melody, an organ providing some background atmosphere, and a simple drum line from a standard drum set giving the song a solid foundation. While it’s far from perfect (the token banjo returns, and I’m not crazy about the decision to include a wood block and tambourine in the drum line), the resulting mix is a restrained one that supports Brown with a relaxed, positive vibe and a decent groove without getting in the way of his message. Instead of distinguishing itself instrumentally, the mix surprises the listener with its overall tone: Despite all the pieces being in place for a ‘sexy’ sound, there’s really no sexual energy at all here, which suits the high-minded romantic feel of the writing perfectly. Similarly, the mix’s bright feel overwhelms whatever negative energy the frequent minor chords generate, giving the track a unexpectedly-classy sound. It’s a lot more than I expected from a Kane Brown single, and I hope he builds on this sort of sound in the future.

I’m not completely sure how to feel about Brown’s vocal performance here. On one hand, the same range questions I ran into on “Lose It” are still present: The song traps Brown almost exclusively in his upper range, despite the fact that it’s his deeper vocals that really make him stand out from the rest of the genre. On the other hand, however, this is the most earnest and charismatic I’ve ever heard Brown sound, and his brings so much charm to the table that you never even think to question his intentions like you might many others in the genre (I’m looking at you, Michael Ray). Against all odds, Brown comes across as the perfect gentlemen here and sounds genuinely awed by the kindness of his significant other, and when the narrator proclaims that they want to better themselves to be as great as their partner, you’re totally convinced that they will! What’s lost in distinctiveness is regained in sheer likability, and on the whole, I’m extremely impressed with Brown’s delivery, even if he sounds a bit too much like Granger Smith in the process.

The writing is…well, think of it as a less-interesting version of Jimmie Allen’s “Best Shot”: The narrator is in a relationship with a saint of a partner, and they want to better themselves to make sure the relationship never ends. While Allen focuses on his flaws, however, the narrator here sticks to the conventional script of lauding the other person, and outside of the “taking care of your mama” line, there’s nothing here that you haven’t heard a hundred times before. Moreover, while never leaving “‘I love you”‘ left unsaid” is a good place to start, it’s kind of a lousy place to finish when that’s about the only resolution you make (the narrator leaves the door open for the other person to “tell me everything you need,” as if self-improvement were as easy as buying groceries). Additionally, there’s an annoying flaw in the hook that should have been caught in the studio: It falls one syllable short of the beat, which could ave been fixed with one simple word: “I just wanna be AS good as you.” It’s a song that way too reliant on the singer to make it memorable, and while Brown’s performance is up to the task, I wish the writing were a bit stronger to do more of its own heavy lifting.

While I can’t speak for his albums, singles like “Good As You” indicate that Kane Brown is showing some growth as an artist and moving in the right direction. His material may still leaves a lot to be desired, but this time it’s cheesy instead of irritating, and he and his producer make chicken salad out of bland, canned, processed chicken to make something that feels heartfelt and meaningful. Country music may be stuck with Brown for the foreseeable future, but if he continues his current trajectory, that’s not the worst thing in the world.

Rating: 6/10. It’s not earth-shattering, but it’s worth a spin or two.

Song Review: Kane Brown, “Lose It”

Hold up…did Kane Brown just do Jason Aldean better than Aldean does?

Brown might be one of country music’s most polarizing artists, but with his last two singles (“What Ifs,” “Heaven”) topping Billboard’s country airplay charts, even his detractors have to acknowledge his position as an established artist in the genre. I’ve never had a terribly strong opinion either way on Brown, but I have noticed that his releases have drifted towards a more ‘conventional’ sound over time, and that trend continues with “Lose It,” the leadoff single for his eventual second album. It’s a hard-driving country-rock blend that gives off more of a classic Aldean vibe than a Metro-Bro one, and even tosses in a bit of raw sensual energy (much like Aaron Watson’s “Run Wild Horses”) for good measure.

The production opens in a similar fashion to Aldean’s “She’s Country,” with a prominent bass drum, kinda-token banjo, and even some drawn-out notes on a fiddle (!). The big difference, however, is the dark, serious tone of the instruments, giving the song a sense of danger and foreboding that “She’s Country” actively avoids (despite the fact that Aldean’s song features minor chords more prominently than Brown’s). The mix gets a bit more conventional as it goes along (adding some in-your-face electric guitars and a drum machine on the choruses and bridge solo), but that foreboding tone never goes away, coming together with the lyrics to generate the same sort of restrained-but-raw passion that Watson brought to bear in “Run Wild Horses.” The main difference between Watson’s tune and “Lose It” is where the song draws it energy from: Watson himself delivered much of the passion for his song, whereas it’s the production (especially the electric guitars) that provide much of the power on this track. Nevertheless, it’s a nice mix with a head-bobbing groove, and it’s not something I’d object to hearing on the radio.

I’m admittedly a little torn on Brown’s vocal performance on this track. Most of his songs up to this point have used plumbed the depths of Brown’s deep voice and used it as a selling point for the track, and while he never sounded quite as comfortable at that range as singers like Josh Turner, it was certainly something that made Brown’s singles more unique and less generic. “Lose It,” however, keeps Brown mostly in his voice’s upper range, and while he sounds much more comfortable in this area, his voice loses a bit of its distinctive tone and causes him to sound like just another generic male country singer (actually, he reminds me a lot of Granger Smith, except Brown is more believable and charismatic). Otherwise, there isn’t a lot to say here: Brown’s flow is fine, he does a nice job filling the narrator’s shoes, and he comes across as passionate without feeling sleazy or creepy. I’m just not sure he and his team has found the optimal balance of tone and comfort with his voice just yet.

The writing here is very similar to Jordan Davis’s “Take It From Me”: Guy is smitten with girl, guy asks girl about an impromptu makeout session. However, while I detested Davis’s track, I didn’t mind the lyrics here all that much. What’s the difference?

  • Unlike the impromptu meeting between Davis and the object of his affection, the story here places the narrator and their partner in a car heading off towards a party. Setting aside the tired “evening driving” trope, the scene at least indicates that the characters knew each other beforehand and had some prior relationship (perhaps even a romantic one).
  • The “lose it” isn’t the strongest hook in the world, but it’s tolerable, and it helps provide some of the details that set the scene (which Davis’s song lacked): The “little ringing buzzing good-for-nothin’ phone,” the bobby pins in the woman’s hair (didn’t see that coming), etc.
  • While Davis spends the chorus hammering home a message of “let’s go have sex already!”, Brown instead focuses on how the woman affects his mind (i.e., makes him “lose it”). It may not seem like a major difference, but given how often the last few lines of the chorus are repeated, it has an outsized affect on how the song is received.

We should also acknowledge the role of the song’s other pieces: Unlike Davis’s bland production and unconvincing vocals, the sound here has some real bite to it, and Brown demonstrates enough vocal chops to keep the track out of the gutter.

“Lose It” is an interesting example of the fine line between a good song and a bad one. Take a run-of-the-mill Bro hookup song, tweak a few details to move the focus away from the sex slightly, back it with intriguing production with some energy, and hand it to a singer who has enough skill to elevate the song, and suddenly you’ve got a song that’s tolerable, and perhaps even enjoyable. I still don’t have a terribly strong opinion on Brown, but I’m okay with him sticking around a while longer.

Rating: 6/10. Give it a listen and see what you think.

Song Review: Kane Brown, “Heaven”

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Kane Brown must be Thomas Rhett’s biggest fan, because they’re operating from the same playbook.

Despite my ambivalence on “What Ifs,” the seventh time turned out to be the charm for Brown, as the song found some radio traction and eventually became his first No. 1 hit. In an effort to maintain his airplay success, Kane appears to be using Rhett’s career as a blueprint, as Rhett made a masterful transition from a generic Bro-Country meathead to a successful R&B-inspired balladeer. Brown’s latest single “Heaven” suggests that he’s trying to walk the same path, as it eschews the synthetic bombast of his earlier work in favor of a restrained, romantic approach. Amazingly, if this song is any indication, Brown just might be able to pull this transition off.

At its core, the production here is very similar to Brown’s prior work, featuring a prominent mix of real and synthetic percussion (with a heavy emphasis on the latter), and an acoustic instrument (usually a guitar or banjo, but a dobro is used here) carrying the melody. However, the intensity and bombast that usually characterizes Brown’s work is completely absent here: The drum machine is limited to rhythmic snapping and give the real drums more space to shine, and in the in-your-face electric guitars have been replaced by simple chord stabs from a single slick-sounding guitar. While I’d stop short of saying the mix sets the super-sexy mood that Brown is shooting for, the atmosphere here is both romantic and refreshingly relaxed (as opposed to David Lee Murphy’s lifeless “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”), and there’s a nice mix of major and minor chords that conveys the depth of the speaker’s feelings without feeling overly serious. It’s not particularly memorable, but it’s at least a smooth-sounding song that’s easy on the ears.

In terms of Brown’s delivery, I would label this his best vocal performance since “Used To Love You Sober.” To fit the mood of the song, he drops his usual rapid-fire cadence in favor of a slower, R&B-styled sound, and the change seems to suit his voice well. On a technical level, he exhibits good range and a smooth flow, and he brings enough earnestness to the track to make it sound sweet and sincere. Just as I noted on “What Ifs,” while his lower range is still his voice’s biggest selling point (a fact the song exploits by plumbing the depth of Brown’s voice during the verses), he still lacks the tone and polish of a Josh Turner or Trace Adkins, and actually sounds more comfortable when he jumps into his upper range for the chorus and bridge. On the whole, however, it’s a decent delivery, and he seems comfortable enough with the song’s style to make future expansion into romantic ballads a real possibility.

The song’s premise is pretty simple: The narrator and his partner have just concluded a night of romantic bliss, and the singer is declaring that it was so pleasureful that “I don’t know how heaven…could be better than this.” There’s nothing terribly clever or original here, and there’s no context given for the engagement (one night stand, or committed relationship?), but there’s nothing offensive or annoying here either—it’s a light, fluffy ballad that relies on the singer’s charisma to keep it from becoming too cheesy or sleazy. There’s enough here to keep the writing from detracting from the song’s mood, and pairing it with Brown’s delivery and suitable production leaves the listener with a (slightly) favorable impression.

Overall, “Heaven” is a decent song that features enough positive signs to leave me surprisingly bullish on Kane Brown’s future in the genre. A lot of singers have made a pretty good living off of sappy romantic stuff like this (again, see Thomas Rhett), and while I wasn’t overly moved by this song, I’m not really its target audience either, and Brown flashes just enough potential here to convince me that he can make this work. I underestimated him once, and I’m not making the same mistake twice.

Rating: 6/10. Give it a listen and see what you think.

Song Review: Kane Brown ft. Lauren Alaina, “What Ifs”

Given his lack of airplay success, one wonders if the target of Kane Brown’s “What Ifs” is actually country radio rather than a girl.

Brown is arguably the first mainstream country performer to rise to prominence through social media, growing his audience via viral videos and Facebook posts rather than radio airplay. Whether or not this approach will actually work in the long run is questionable, however, as only two of Brown’s songs have even cracked the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot Country charts (and neither made it higher than #15), and country radio has continued to ignore him (his airplay peak is a paltry #35). “What Ifs” is Brown’s seventh single release since 2014, and I don’t see it faring any better than the others.

The production for this song is ripped straight from the Florida-Georgia Line playbook: A foundation of synthetic beats and loud, bombastic guitars, with a few token instruments tossed in for good measure. While the producers get credit for letting a steel guitar shine on the bridge, for the most part this is sonically indistinguishable from the dozens of Bro-Country anthems we all got tired of several years ago. I wouldn’t call it bad, but I wouldn’t call it memorable either.

Brown’s biggest asset is his voice, which is the deepest baritone I’ve heard since Josh Turner, and will definitely catch you by surprise the first time you hear it. Unfortunately, “What Ifs” pushes Brown’s voice to its lower limits on the verses, where it occasionally bottoms out and sounds a little rough. He sounds a lot stronger and much more comfortable on the chorus, where he’s free to jump into his voice’s upper registers. His flow on the verses is decent, but the song doesn’t push him with rapid-fire lyrics outside of a spot near the end of the first verse. Overall, Brown sounds alright, but the song doesn’t make use of his full potential.

“What Ifs” also gets credit for actually giving its featured artist a noticeable role, even if it’s only singing harmony with Brown on the chorus. Unlike Vince Gill or The Backstreet Boys, you can actually tell that Lauren Alaina is present on the track, and she and Brown turn out to have some pretty good vocal chemistry. I wouldn’t be surprised to see these two team up for future collaborations.

For all the modern trappings of the production, the lyrics cover a classic country topic—namely, a guy try to win over a girl. While this trope was done to death during the Bro-County era (often with disastrous results), “What Ifs” avoids the usual sleazy pitfalls by acknowledging the woman’s concerns rather than rejecting them outright, and then offering some high-minded possibilities in response: What if this is the start of the love you’ve always wanted? While the possibilities the song offers are a bit generic and are often thrown around by guys just trying to get lucky, Brown has enough vocal charisma to come across as earnest rather than insincere.

Overall, “What Ifs” has a few strong selling points, but it ends up being kind of “meh” in the end. There’s enough here to suggest that Kane Brown might have a future in the genre, but he’s going to have to find some stronger material and better production to make that happen. I doubt Brown will pull it off, but hey, “what if” I’m wrong?

Rating: 5/10. Brown’s style is a bit polarizing, so you’ll want to listen to this a few times and make up your own mind about it.