Country Rating: 0/10
Pop Rating: 6/10
The above rating discrepancy perfectly sums up what is wrong with mainstream country today–you can sing anything and have it be labeled country, never mind the definition or roots of that genre before now. Make no mistake, Kelsea Ballerini, although she did have some more pop country stuff on her debut album, has released, in Unapologetically, the most blatantly non-country thing I’ve heard in 2017 operating under that title. Thomas Rhett’s album is more country than this. Kesha’s album, though correctly labeled pop, is more country than this. This is like a complete “f you” to country music and all it stands for.
And this is arguably an even worse offense when you take into account the industry’s systematic discrimination of women, and factor in that Kelsea is not only pretty silent on the issue, but continues to take advantage of it for her own success. She was in the right place at the right time when Keith Hill made the infamous tomato statement, so she became country radio’s token female. Never mind that she’s got not one shred of country anywhere on her sophomore effort. It’s a pop record through and through, and for better or worse, mainstream country has demonstrated with alarming firmness that there are only so many slots for females, so Kelsea Ballerini becomes in a way even more polarizing than some of her male country counterparts as she mercilessly hogs one of the precious few slots to release immature pop music. When you think of all the talented and systematically overlooked women in country music, both of the more traditional and the more pop country persuasions, it’s hard not to cringe every time you hear “Dibs” or “Yeah Boy” gracing your radio dial.
But in this complicated era of country music and all things being marketed as such, some difficult situations sometimes arise. It’s easy to hate stuff like the aforementioned “Dibs” and write off Kelsea Ballerini as an immature pop princess, but what happens when she shows personal growth on her second effort? You could see glimpses of it even on her debut, though except for “Peter Pan,” her maturity wasn’t allowed to show in her singles. It doesn’t often happen, but how do you judge the music when it is so obviously mislabeled, yet it’s pretty decent music for its own genre?
In a just world, I wouldn’t be making assessments of albums so blatantly pop as this because they’d be in the correct genre, but the fact is, Ballerini called this country, and I have to call it out for not being country in the slightest. That said, music always comes first before genre lines, and Kelsea Ballerini has made a pretty decent pop album. I’m sorry she didn’t label it as such, but from now on, I’m going to review it as such, as that does more justice to Kelsea Ballerini and her music.
The most encouraging thing about this new record is Kelsea Ballerini’s obvious search for more depth and maturity. You’ve got songs like “High School,” where she sings of a guy who’s still stuck at seventeen, still driving his high school car, still calling his high school sweetheart, because he can’t grow up and move on. The girl continues to ignore his calls because she’s not looking for a relationship like this. It’s a much more realistic way of portraying high school than much of mainstream country, and Kelsea, in her twenties, is writing songs about growing up while men in their forties still sing about trucks and tailgates and cell phones like they’re still teenagers. She also shows maturity and vulnerability on “In Between,” which details all the ways she’s living in between a child and an adult; “Young enough to think I’ll live forever, old enough to know I won’t.” Again, a song like this shows a lot more self-awareness from Ballerini than we might have imagined she possessed after listening to stuff like “Yeah boy.”
She’s still exploring relationships for much of this record, just as on her debut, but again, the writing and themes go deeper. In the opener, instead of some bright, upbeat pop song, we get the dark, moody “Graveyard” that is comparing this guy to death essentially, as he takes the hearts of “hopeless, broken girls” and casually breaks them one by one, all to end up in his graveyard. It’s an interesting metaphor, and the production works well here. “Roses” is the more developed version of “Legends,” which, by the way, is slightly more bearable in the context of the album, but still remains pretty empty and shallow. “Roses” explores the same theme but compares the relationship to roses in that they are beautiful for a period but eventually die. “Miss me More,” although it suffers from some annoying production, is a pretty clever take on the aftermath of what seems to have been a controlling, abusive relationship. The narrator has lost friends and dressed differently than she would have, all for the sake of this guy, and now that it’s over, instead of missing him, she misses herself, the person she used to be. Another clever moment comes in “I Hate Love Songs,” as it makes fun of all the clichés associated with falling in love. She still loves her man, but it’s not a cliché. This song would be better if it weren’t sandwiched between two love songs, but taken on its own, it’s quite a cool piece of songwriting and one of the standouts.
There are still some major problems with this record, production being the worst. There’s some overproduced, annoying stuff going on in the chorus of “Miss me More” which serves to distract from an otherwise thoughtful track. “Machine Heart,” which is also one of the worst songs here in terms of writing, just sounds lifeless. This song really adds nothing at all to the project. “End of the World” isn’t a bad song and actually demonstrates Kelsea’s knack for melody quite well, but it’s underdeveloped lyrically, as we never really figure out why the narrator was at the end of the world in the first place. We hear that she found new love in a very dark place, but when you say things like, “gotta go through hell to get to heaven,” it leaves me wondering what hell entailed. “Unapologetically” is just forgettable, as well as being rather unfortunately placed after “I Hate Love Songs.” “Get Over Yourself” is a bit hard to decipher because it’s hard to tell whether she’s really over her ex, as the song states, or whether it’s meant to be an obvious lie, and we’re supposed to get that she’s lying to herself. I tend to go with the latter, which would make the writing better, but the writing ultimately isn’t quite clear enough, so it’s just kind of confusing. And “Legends” is still empty, bland, and boring, and absolutely the worst single to release for this and the worst way to close the album.
But there’s nothing here to make you cringe like many of Kelsea’s radio singles from her debut album. “Legends” is the worst offender here, and that’s just bland and uninteresting. It actually shows quite a bit of growth from Ballerini, and there’s definite improvement in her songwriting. There are some terrible production choices on this record, and fixing those might have even made this rise to a light 7. The parts that Kelsea Ballerini is responsible for aren’t bad at all, even if sorely mislabeled. It’s not fair to ignore the fact that this is not country in any universe, and I’ve made that perfectly clear. But it’s also unfair to overlook the improvements made by an artist, and Kelsea has shown improvement, as well as the ability to listen to her critics. A pop album through and through, but not a bad pop album by any stretch.