Rated R Miami

Sam Hunt made country music feel more like rap. But now the seams are showing. – The Washington Post

Keep listening and Hunt’s voice will keep changing the song’s meaning. He goes from presumptuous and overconfident to candid and self-aware, the subtle patience in his phrasing neutralizing the impatience implied by his sweet-talk. He wants to show us who he is by showing us where he stands — in his bloodline (the kinfolks), in his social circle (the old friends), in society (the house), in the ecology (the pines). On top of that, his ace melodies make self-exposure feel like fun, allowing Hunt to cannonball into the superficiality of the dating pool as his truest self.

That’s a neat little metaphor for Hunt’s big-time stardom, too. Scolds and squares continue to dismiss this guy as the most vapid pretty boy in Nashville, a town that certainly knows how to transform fleeting puffs of vapid prettiness into towering piles of cash money. But here’s the truth: you won’t find a more skillful syncretist working in country music today.

Hunt’s 2014 debut “Montevallo” stands as the most imaginative mainstream country album of the previous decade, as well as the first to cross-pollinate country with rap in a way that felt more like a spiritual practice than a marketing strategy. Whenever Hunt toggled between singing and speaking, he was plucking the secret cosmic thread that connects Conway Twitty to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. And while his phrasing made “Montevello” feel legit, the sturdy softness of his voice made it feel genuine. Then and now, his vocal cords sound like a pair of two-by-fours upholstered in velveteen.

Nearly six years have passed since “Montevallo,” and Hunt has finally returned with “Southside,” a follow-up album that sounds heavily toiled-over, for better and for worse. There are a few songs like “Kinfolks” where Hunt’s lonely-man lyricism is as painstaking and perceptive as his singing. On “Downtown’s Dead,” he rues a nightlife that’s gone lifeless: “There ain’t no way that I can paint a ghost town red.” During “Breaking Up Was Easy in the ’90s,” he artfully laments the digital proximity he has with his ex without using the words “lurk,” “swipe” or “u up?”

But there are too many production misfires on “Southside,” the worst of which goes bang during “Hard to Forget,” a dreadfully midtempo thing that incorporates a stuttering sample of Webb Pierce singing “There Stands the Glass” way back in 1953. The seams are showing here, and Hunt ends up sounding like the country-rap sandwich artist that his skeptics accuse him of being.

All in all, this album is a lot messier than it needs to be, but “Sinning With You” might help wipe your mind clean. It’s the most humane piece of music to ever float from Hunt’s lips: a ballad about how no one should be made to feel guilty for their physical desires, or for who those desires are aimed at. The only gender mentioned in the song is God’s. “His grace and your grace felt like the same thing to me,” he sings. “I never felt like I was sinning with you, always felt like I could always talk to God in the morning.”

As personal as “Sinning With You” feels, it’s ultimately more generous than intimate. Hunt is singing his truth, but still creating enough room for others to live inside it.

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