Album Review: Kane Brown, Mixtape Vol. 1

Kane Brown

Mixtape Vol. 1

Kane Brown’s Mixtape Vol. 1 learns all the right lessons from nineties country and contemporary pop, effectively positioning him as an artist rooted in the history of the genre with the skill set to take it beyond the restrictive boundaries placed on mainstream male country artists today.

With a run time of seven songs and a little over 23 minutes, Mixtape feels like a throwback to when country albums could be enjoyed in one listening session, start to finish.  The songs are efficiently constructed, each one exploring their core ideas and emotions in under four minutes. With each song limiting its instrumentation to a handful of elements, Mixtape has none of the clutter and overall loudness that have become so common in recent years.

As a result, he doesn’t have to strain to be heard, and his talent as a vocalist is showcased.  He has a warm tone somewhere south of Keith Urban and east of Clay Walker, with a smooth, conversational phrasing perfectly suited to deliver his well-crafted lyrics.

As a writer, Brown has a distinctive point of view that is inherently masculine, and its consistency across all seven songs reminds me of the clarity of Shania Twain’s seminal work three decades ago.  Brown loves and respects women, seeing his partner as an equal.  When times get rough, he turns his reflection inward, holding himself accountable for his own actions and recommitting himself to the relationship with humility and determination.

For me, the keystone of the entire project is the unassuming love song, “Didn’t Know What Love Was.”  The idea doesn’t break new ground – “I didn’t know what love was until you” was sung twenty different ways by Doug Stone alone back in the day.  But the context in which this realization is placed is revelatory:

Never saw it work out, just drama
Started with my old man and my mama
Figured that’s just the way it works
Someone always ends up getting hurt

The epiphany gives added potency to the discovery of true love, as he’s experiencing something that he didn’t know was possible:

I didn’t know what love was
Thought it was just a word that people used
Until they say goodbye
‘Til they go and find someone new

Thought I could live without it
But baby, I was wrong and so confused
I didn’t know what love was, love was, until you

There’s a gratitude for true love that permeates throughout the album, expressed to both his partner and to God, resulting in the dogged determination to make the relationship work.

A pair of ballads express this sentiment powerfully.   “Worship You” uses southern Christian imagery to capture the depth of his devotion to his partner:

Don’t get me wrong
I’m a God-fearing Christian man
But if you were a religion, then damn
I don’t know what I’d do

Yeah, I might have to worship you
I might have to sing your praise
I might have to go to church, yeah
Every single night and day

Yeah, I might have to hit my knees
‘Cause you lay it on me like the truth
And you love me like hallelujah
I might have to worship you

The album’s emotional peak comes from the other ballad, “Last Time I Say Sorry,” which is one of those rare songs that grows in potency every time that I hear it.  A collaboration with John Legend, the song captures the aftermath of a big fight:

The first time I slept on the couch, was our first New Year’s Eve
I heard words come out my mouth, that I still can’t believe
Broken hearts and shattered champagne
We both don’t wanna feel that again

The second I apologized you said, “Boy, I don’t know”
I said it ’cause I meant it, but you still wouldn’t let it go
So I swallow my pride, see it from your side
I promise I’ll do the best I can do

I won’t say I’m sorry over and over
Can’t just say I’m sorry, I’ve gotta show you
I won’t do it again, I’ll prove my love is true
I hope the last time I said sorry
Is the last time I’ll say sorry to you

Brown has an ability as a songwriter to articulate the impulses that can lead to destructive behavior in a relationship – “I said it ’cause I meant it, but you still wouldn’t let it go” – then immediately check himself and recommit to doing the work – “I swallow my pride, see it from your side, I promise I’ll do the best I can do.”

It’s a refreshing antidote to the toxic masculinity that has poisoned the genre in recent years, and a return to the monogamous virility of the best Conway Twitty and Ronnie Milsap records, where a woman’s worth drives the desire to be the man that she deserves.  The women in Kane Brown’s songs are fully formed and thoroughly human, and there will be a sense of palpable loss without them there.

The playful “Cool Again” hints at this, as Brown is missing the fun of the previous summer, not because of the drinks and partying, but for that level of comfort that comes when you’re with just the right person.  He’s retracing his steps, and true to form, wondering where he went wrong.

But the theme is best explored in the standout track, “Be Like That,” which captures the tension between wanting to walk away when it gets hard, and not wanting to live without the person you’d be walking away from, as well as any song that I’ve ever heard:

I might be better on my own
I hate you blowing up my phone
I wish I never met your ass
Sometimes it be like that

But I’m not myself the nights you’re gone
There ain’t no way I’m moving on
I’m not afraid to need you bad
Sometimes it be like that

Brown is joined on the track by Swae Lee and Khalid, and it’s a feature song done right, with Brown, Lee, and Khalid all riffing off of the chorus in an individual verse.  Brown fits in just a seamlessly with them as he does with Chris Young on their latest collaboration, a testament to his versatility as a singer and his authenticity as an artist.

Perhaps that’s why “BFE,” with its pure nineties production and Alan Jackson interjections made me feel a wave of nostalgia that other attempts to recall that era haven’t made me feel.  The sound of the record is part of it, for sure.  John Michael Montgomery or Wade Hayes could’ve sang over this exact backing track in their early days.

But beyond its sound, nineties country felt like an invitation for everyone to come on over to country music, as the human experience that we shared in common transcends our geographical differences.  Country music in recent years, on the radio at least, has been the inverse:  we’ll borrow sounds and styles from other genres, but we’re country and you’re not.  You don’t belong.   Brown’s got the fiddle and steel that’s been MIA, but he’s also got the collard greens on the stove while he’s grillin’ in the backyard.   You get the feeling that everyone’s welcome at his cookout.

Brown has cultivated positivity and inclusivity so effectively throughout Mixtape that it gives added power to “Worldwide Beautiful,” which was written and recorded in the wake of protests following the murder of George Floyd.  The spirit of the track fits in perfectly with what came before, but Brown’s call for brotherly love doesn’t trivialize the stakes, kicking off with a cutting spoken word introduction that recalls the incisive “American Bad Dream” from his Experiment LP:

White churches, black churches
Different people, same hearses
It’s kinda hard to fight with each other
Laying down in the ground, six under

Brown utilizes his point of view from the stage, which perfectly complements the inclusivity of his music:

At every show I see my people
They ain’t the same, but they’re all equal
One love, one God, one family

You’re missing every color
If you’re only seeing black and white
Tell me how you’re gonna change your mind
If your heart’s unmovable

We ain’t that different from each other
From one to another, I look around
And see worldwide beautiful

It’s easy to write this off as a “We are the World” – type platitude, but to do so would overlook just how revolutionary it is for this message to be delivered within the context of mainstream country music, which has been increasingly insular and regressive over the past two decades.  Brown is uniquely positioned to be an agent of change within the genre, and he is embracing that role in a way that challenges the audience that has embraced him.   To borrow from Rhiannon Giddens, in Kane Brown’s world, “there is no other.”

I didn’t hear Kane Brown’s Mixtape until months after its 2020 release, but since I’ve discovered it, I haven’t stopped playing it.  It gives me renewed hope for what contemporary country music can be with Brown as an ambassador.  I can’t wait to hear what he does next.

 

 

10 Comments

  1. My niece, who was visiting for a few days, purchased this album. She likes it a lot and I didn’t hate it, so she played it several times, during her stay.

    I do not think Kane Brown is that great a vocalist, although his voice is pleasant enough. I do not know why, but the sound of the first song “Worship You” reminds me of Old Dominion, a group I have little use for.

    “Be Like That’ was interesting but I would not regard it (or most of the rest of the album) as country, but as decent pop. I would give Mixtape – Volume One 3.5 or 4 stars as a pop or Americana record

  2. Kane Brown is one of those artists that I never like his songs when they first come out, but if I give them a chance they really grow on me. With the exception of some of his earlier songs (What Ifs- that I render unlistenable).

    I think he is a hard act to classify in terms of genre and expectations. He isn’t country, but he is more country than the majority of country radio and falls into the “Country Universe.” However, I do not see any Americana influence, especially on this Mixtape.

    He is still young and I think he has a lot of room to grow as an artist. I am hoping he continues to take steps in the right direction.

  3. Mixtape was the first thing I heard from him, and I was stunned by the sound of his first EP and album once I heard them. It reminded me a bit of Tim McGraw’s early arc, but it in Brown’s case, it wasn’t the material holding him back; it was the production. I’d love to see him tackle the best songs from those two projects again. Experiment, for me, is where the good stuff begins.

  4. So, like you, Kevin, I wasn’t enamored of Kane Brown’s earlier material. I thought there were some good songs here and there, but it was mostly an issue of inconsistency for me.

    ‘Experiment’ was actually the first album I wrote about when I returned to writing, and I remember framing it as something of a defense of the guy. I didn’t love it, but I liked that album a little more and thought Brown was being a bit too harshly criticized by then. I admit I don’t love this album, but I do think Brown remains an interesting figure to have within the genre, and I love that you were unabashedly yourself in describing your love for it. I always love those kinds of honest reviews!

    It’s weird, a few years ago Brown was on something of an even-level playing field with Luke Combs for country music’s next superstars, but it’s like something happened after the Experiment era that held Brown back some. Hopefully he’s at least confident pursuing his own sound now – I remember him receiving a shout out in Randy Travis’ book.

  5. A few months ago someone recommended “Last Time I Say Sorry” to me. Can’t recall who (i’m old) but I see from my i-tunes library that I’ve played it 36 times. I still think it’s the best song on this new album but I’ve only played the other songs twice so that could change.

  6. @ Bob,

    “Last Time I Say Sorry” is my favorite song on the album, for sure. It’s so powerful.

    I find myself playing the whole thing all of the time, start to finish. That’s such a throwback to those 30 minute albums in the nineties. Country resisted CD bloat more than other genres did, but they eventually gave in, and it just became harder to listen to albums in that way because of the time commitment.

    Mixtape doesn’t give me a chance to get tired of it. It reminds me of when I used to listen to Sweetheart’s Dance every other day. I still remember the runtime: 32 minutes and 51 seconds. My subway ride to/from school was longer than that!

    @ Zack,

    I’ll have to check out that Randy Travis book! I’m glad you enjoyed some of Experiment. I have to say, I was girding myself for this review not being well-received, but it’s been nice to read the generally positive vibes about Kane Brown, even among people who aren’t particularly enamored by this collection.

  7. @KJC: my first subway rides on a daily basis began w HS in Sept of 59 from the station at 169th st & Hillside Ave into Manhattan. Tokens were 15 cents.

  8. What a great review! I wish I liked this album more. I like his voice and your analysis of the lyrics are very compelling and I’m all for more mature lyrics, but I just can’t connect to the melodies or even the production. I like that it’s more stripped down as well, but it doesn’t quite work for me still, but I do like the sound of BFE the best.

  9. I’ll be honest, I’ve never really been a big fan of Kane Brown*, and I didn’t even notice this come out. And normally, I probably wouldn’t have given it the time of day.

    But it’s positive reviews on this site, and from you in particular, Kevin, that make me sit up and take notice. I just listened to Last Time I Say Sorry, and it was great, and I’ve just put Be Like That on now, which is also a keeper. I shall queue up the rest of the album in the morning. Thanks for the discovery!

    (*though I have to say, I quite love What Ifs, falling as it does into one of my favourite sub-genres of songs, which is that of ‘two people shouting into each other’s faces from a distance of five inches’. I’ll always have time for that, especially when one of those people is Lauren Alaina.)

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