REVIEW: Kane Brown (Self-Titled Album)

14695554_665798330261509_3881672831219138452_nIs there a more polarising performer than Kane Brown? The guy who is the antichrist to the traditionalists and a hero to his 2.7 million social media followers. He has just released his debut full-length studio album that will no doubt receive a mixed reception.

Brown’s back story is well documented. The YouTube sensation who looks a rapper but sings like Chris Young. The covers of popular and classic country records and the gradual but significant build up of interest, followers and hype. The fundraising campaigns and the eventual release of two EPs, one of which contained the single ‘Used To Love You Sober’ that sold over 300,000 copies.

It’s all been dissected and pored over. He is an artist of his generation. His clever manipulation of Facebook led almost directly to him obtaining a recording deal. The videos on his YouTube channel were viewed by thousands before that deal. His cover of Lee Brice’s ‘I Don’t Dance’ was published in July 2014 and has had over 750,000 views.

Those numbers were bound to attract the interest of the mainstream record labels and it was inevitable that Brown would move onto the next level. That next level was a recording contract with Sony Music Nashville although he actually records under their RCA Nashville division. Their first collaboration was the ‘Chapter One’ EP that was released in March. It’s difficult to assess the popularity of an EP based on sales, but the subsequent single releases have not matched the levels attained by ‘Used To Love You Sober’.

The spotlight falls on Kane Brown’s debut album therefore. Will his legion of fans continue to support him now that he is following the mainstream path to stardom? The 11-track album contains two tracks that Brown has released as singles. ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’ and ‘Thunder In The Rain’. He has co-written 7 of the 11 tracks. Other songwriters include Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley, otherwise known as Florida Georgia Line. Chris Young is also credited. He co-wrote ‘Comeback’.

It’s difficult to pigeon-hole Kane Brown. He is the country music chameleon who is happy to embrace all of the current trends, innovations and styles. He has described himself as the “Justin Bieber of country music” which is often used to denigrate him.

He can emulate Sam Hunt’s rapping. He could become a third member of FGL. He even goes all Jason Aldean on us in his worst moments. However, despite all of the comparisons there is one thing that Kane Brown can rely upon. He has a baritone voice that was made to sing country music. He was born and raised in northwest Georgia and spent his formative years in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The album is hugely autobiographical. He isn’t afraid to air his dirty linen in public and it’s significant that his mother has recently commented upon the lyrical content which isn’t complimentary of her child rearing.

The opener ‘Hometown’ was Hubbard and Kelley’s contribution, no doubt conceived whilst they all spent the summer touring together. It’s a fairly typical FGL sounding song that relies upon the pop-country sing-a long chorus that sounds just fine on US country radio. Nothing ground-breaking or challenging. “We are still that same old southern boys singing the same song”. Well almost.

School friend Lauren Alaina helps out on ‘What If’. Another pop-country song that contains the Sam Hunt traits but also a banjo riff that sets it apart from the norm. That’s the thing about Kane Brown. You are never too far away from a traditional country instrument.

Things get a little personal on Brown’s ‘Learning’ which chronicles the child abuse that caused his mother’s recent reaction. It’s a song that encapsulates Kane Brown. The guy who looks like a rapper who actually raps but also the guy with the hugely likeable voice who embraces slide guitars and banjos within his music. Whilst the song deals with the negative aspects of Brown’s upbringing, the actual message is forgiveness and his determination to move on.

His latest single ‘Thunder In The Rain’ is probably the most radio-friendly track on the album yet it hasn’t been embraced by commercial radio. As a result, it’s barely broken into the top 30 US Country charts and Brown’s critics will be quick to point out that his Facebook friends seem to have abandoned him. Let’s see. Trends come and go but the quality of the voice remains.

He doesn’t always get it right. ‘Pull It Off’ strays too far into Jason Aldean territory, and is a song that is far too formulated into the pop-rock format that even the token banjos are so far back in the mix that they become irrelevant. This territory isn’t where Brown should be heading.

‘Cold Spot’ is the album highlight, His great Grandfather owned a store that he called the Cold Spot. It’s obvious that the times that Brown spent in the Cold Spot were his formative years. He “learnt about life, learnt about girls and learnt about living in this cold, cold world”. He wrote this song with Allen Shamblin and Tom Douglas who wrote Miranda’s ‘The House That Built Me’.  If there was a song that would silence the sceptics, this is it.

‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’ is more Florida Georgia Line than anything on their ‘Dig Your Roots’ album, if that’s possible. The only surprise is that Hubbard and Kelley didn’t write it.  Are we tiring of the bro-country styles? Do lyrics like “We’ll be trippin’ rollin’ with the top down, southbound. Little bikinis and white sand” actually resonate anymore? Or maybe “Got The Chevy going 70, all the girls looking heavenly”. It seems not, bearing in mind the fairly lukewarm response to the single. There are better songs on this album. Chris Young’s ‘Comeback’ or Brown’s ‘Better Place’ will have far more sustainability and allow him to showcase his vocal talent.

The album’s autobiographical theme continues on the final cut ‘Granddaddy’s Chair’. “I hope one day I’ll be the man you used to be”. It’s the song that Brown describes as a tribute to the man he calls “his best friend”. It’s also a song that the detractors wouldn’t expect Brown to sing.

That’s also the thing about Kane Brown. There is so much more than the image. He may need to adapt. He may be entering the fray when the bro-country band wagon is about to leave town. But don’t underestimate him. You don’t manipulate social media quite like he has without knowing the way the wind is blowing. There are more strings to his bow and that voice can sing country. Real country. We may not have heard it yet but we will. There are enough catchy melodies and hooks on this album to satisfy the fans. He won’t convert the non-believers but he might become your guilty pleasure.