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.