Sam Hunt records his first full-length LP, makes an argument about genre, and is still problematic about women.
Remember when "Blurred Lines" was huge? It was such a catchy, beautifully constructed song that you were never quite sure what was going on. Was it a song about mutual cat and mouse games, a song about a lothario who might not have gotten what he wanted, an ode to a dude who was too convinced of his own dick’s power, or a song that might be an apologetic for that power? Or all of those things, or none of those things. Plus, Robin Thicke's voice was so gorgeous, smooth, edging towards the oleaginous. The lack of self awareness kind of complicated the whole mess. The think pieces affected how you felt about it blaring from the corner stores. The parodies became intractable in relation to the dancing that happened in the clubs. Then the whole thing collapsed, along with his marriage and his record sales.
Sam Hunt’s new album, after a brilliant EP, is as big on the country charts as anything in 22 years. He has the biggest album on those charts, and the single charts as well. He has had the biggest debut since 2011. I mean these aren’t Taylor Swift numbers, but they are impressive, and they are mostly impressive because I think that he’s playing the same games as Thicke. I mean there is less writing about this than that, because there is less writing about country then there is about this kind of pop-R&B, but this is as much of an R&B album as it is a country album. That much is clear from the hand claps and gospel infused breakdowns of "Ex to See", the spoken word introduction to "Take Your Time", or the John Legend piano of "Make You Miss Me".
All of the things that "Blurred Lines" was about, you could say about it as Hunt. The vocals that smoothly transition between singing and speaking, is here. The convincing of a woman to have sex with them, the tension about what is consent and what is not, and the controversy about what that possible means. The production might as well come from Los Angeles or Houston or New York, as it could from Nashville. Sam Hunt is handsome, and he does not need to be convinced of the power of his sexual charisma. He is not as begging or needy as some of the blue-eyed soul singers working on the charts. He is also a fantastic writer. It is not only about delivery, but about the lyrics of what he says. But every time I listen to the album, I admire the craft of the metallic grinding beat of Single for the Summer, and how good he is at pilling up his vocals on top of that, mattress on a bed spring style. I love how clever the line "private school daughters/never get in the water/keepin’ their hair just right" is. But the whole thing is filled with weird negging, and less weird arrogance.
That arrogance continues. On the roughed up, growly production of "Text to Me", a recording of Valley Girl phone messages is barely audible over a bed of synths. That seems to be a symptom of the whole mess. He knows what she’s doing, she has no idea, and you can miss it with clever wordplay, and smarter production.
All of this makes me wonder what makes it country.Sure, he sings well about small towns. He has the recent trend of drinking in fields situation, and the nostalgia for working-class masculinity that no longer exists, but they deeply want it to. But much of this sounds like window dressing. There are a couple of deeper reasons why this complicates genre.
The first argument, that like most genre signifies, there is less of a space between genres that people think that there is. This can especially seen in the sloppy space between the melodrama of R&B and country, though mostly it works in the other gendered direction. Listen to Dolly Parton and tell me that her church and Aretha Franklin's church didn’t give the same inspiration, or listen to Tammy Wynette at her most countrypolitan, and tell me that doesn’t sound like Motown or make you think of Dusty in Memphis, where those categories were just kind of erased entirely. Sam Hunt isn't close to most of those examples, but the formal and social history of R&B singing and country music singing are much closer than purists from either genres think they are. The album is problematic, and often quite dull in how it keeps pressing the same sexual politics, but it’s interesting to see evidence of how a genre can collapse and be reborn only to collapse again.
This narrative of collapsing and rebirth can be seen in the songs he writers, as well as the songs as he performs. He wrote "Cop Car", and it’s on this album, though it was recorded by Keith Urban before that. I have gotten trouble for saying this out loud, but Hunt makes difficult choices in the works that he performs. How he speeds up, how he swallows some words, how he slows down. The narrative seems to be somewhere between a panic and a romp, between a good time and something close to genuine danger. The girl in the back of the cop car, almost seems like a metonym for being young and reckless. What Hunt is doing to those who seek to save country music is young and reckless. There is this interesting slippage about the failures of genre and a good time against the cops. Keith Urban doesn’t work the text as well as Hunt does. The sepia toned nostalgia, and the blankness that settles on even the most of the dangerous of his works, makes Urban’s version doubling down on a country music that seems to be on the edge of out of fashion. Nothing has to be new, country music isn’t new, R&B isn’t new, but Hunt is making choices that Urban seems to be unable to make.
Again, I don’t know if these are the right choices, and how he works against women is worrisome, and I don’t know how he will ride out the death of Bro-Country, but maybe if Taylor Swift can give everything up, maybe Hunt can play similar games.