Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week's album is the self-titled debut of Breland, a performer that blends country and rap in exciting new ways.
Sometime in the Before, it might have been 2019, it might have been 1492, Lil Nas X caused one of the worst “What is this?” musical existential crises of recent memory, when “Old Town Road” blended Atlanta trap&B with the iconography of outlaw country, and became one of the biggest hit singles of all time, spawned months of memes, and enough thinkpieces to provide clicks for every website on the Internet. But what got lost, in the rush to explain What It Means, is that this sound--the blending of rap and R&B and country--had been percolating at the margins of both country and rap radio for the better part of two decades. Diminutive Nasir Xavier was not the first person to realize the boundaries between rap and country--two musical forms derived from the blues by marginalized communities--were superficial, and challenged by everyone from Sam Hunt to Nelly, Bubba Sparxxx to the long haired guy in Florida Georgia Line, and beyond. Despite "Old Town Road" being given the freeze on the country chart success it deserved, it was all but guaranteed there’d be many artists coming in Lil Nas X’s wake, particularly after he all but abandoned the “Old Town Road” sound on his debut release, 7. Nas X opened the door, but refused to walk through it in other words, largely due to a barricade thrown up by country radio, but also because he seemed to not think country-hop was the end goal; he’s after something bigger.
All of this is throat clearing to say that Breland, the most visible post-Lil Nas X genre-blender, has released his self-titled EP, and it is everything that 7 was not: It’s a deft-blend of R&B and country, an album that makes space for puns about Ferraris alongside Chase Rice, Lauren Alaina and Sam Hunt features. The lead single is called “My Truck” and it’s perfect, in both of the forms it appears here. He’s already viral thanks to TikTok, but Breland might be the guy who takes the rap to country radio, if things break in the way they should for him; there are at least three singles here that would absolutely crush any country cookout they’d be played at, assuming we can have any of those this year. He's got the voice--he's like Swae Lee if he joined Sugarland instead of Rae Sremmurd-- the songwriting and the co-signs to go the distance.
It’s the Sam Hunt feature that sells the Breland sound as much as Breland himself. Hunt is a genuine genre iconoclast in country, anticipating an entire generation of country listeners weaned on Spotify playlists of Garth Brooks and Bone Thugs, and essentially cracking open a foundation where country listeners could be ready for Lil Nas X. Him singing about Mossberg pumps, loose change jumping, and being “young, rich and pretty” on the remix to “My Truck” here is about the most fun moment in country music this year. Breland’s signature track being an open lane for Hunt to drive down is maybe Lil Nas X’s real lasting impact here: Where people were less inclined to collaborate on a song like this in 2019, in 2020, you risk getting left behind.
The EP’s centerpiece is “In The Woulds,” a song that bears country-pun-songcraft--as every lover of pop country knows, the best songs are filled with dumbass puns--and guest turns from lovable lunkhead Chase Rice and Lauren Alaina, someone who also has had a hard time getting the country airplay she deserves thanks to the genre’s backwards-looking gatekeepers. And for his part, Breland floats and dances across the song’s country-fried instrumentation; he’s got a clarion bell register, and can ratatat sing with the best of them; him going toe-to-toe with two county belters cements his bonafides for being at home on country radio alongside them.
But it remains to be seen if Breland can break through on country radio; at times it feels like that format is the Wall, and artists break themselves upon it like so many White Walkers (pun intended), hoping to be the one that can break through. Even if he doesn’t, Breland is a fun first dispatch either way; he’s a guy that can sell a song like “My Truck” alongside a song comparing a breakup to losing a Wi-Fi password (“WiFi”). This is going to get a lot of play on the backyard Bluetooth this summer, a bearably light, fun release at a time that could use more of them.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.