Kane Brown (Deluxe Edition)
In 2016, country singers of color whose names weren’t Darius Rucker were still facing an uphill climb. Lil Nas X hadn’t unleashed the crossover cultural phenomenon “Old Town Road” yet; Mickey Guyton hadn’t performed “Black Like Me” at the Grammys; and Jimmie Allen had yet to break out. Enter Kane Brown, who bypassed the traditional record-biz route by blowing up on social media first like a true late-millennial. He crowdfunded an EP in 2015, and by the time Music City caught up with him for his RCA Nashville debut album the next year, the 23-year-old singer-songwriter was ready to reveal a fully formed artistic identity. On his self-titled LP, Brown fits old-school influences into a consistently 2010s-sounding framework. There are no overt retro moves here, but Brown grew up on the Randy Travis and George Strait records his mother and grandmother loved, and those ’90s new-traditionalist vibes are an inextricable element of his makeup. Even amid the contemporary production, there are glimpses of those early influences in the way his rich baritone rolls across the tracks with an easy grace accentuated by his Tennessee twang. Sure, he leans into a little hip-hop flow on “Learning,” a poignant piece of autobiography about his hard knocks dealing with an abusive stepdad and growing up as a mixed-race kid in the South. But beyond that, he leaves the country-rap crossovers to others, aiming instead to establish himself as an emotionally unguarded crooner of ballads, anthems, and the occasional country rocker. If anything, the album has fewer hip-hop production touches than a lot of other mainstream country records of the era. That earnestness came through and connected in a big way—Brown’s debut became a double-Platinum No. 1 record on the country chart. And he earned two chart-topping singles: the sweeping, cinematic “What Ifs” with Lauren Alaina and the low-key, dobro-laced love song “Heaven.” Even if that were the end of the Kane Brown story, the album’s impact would be remembered. But it turns out that Kane Brown was the setup for plenty more massive hits to come, from a voice that only got bigger and bolder as it matured.