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.