Six years ago, Sam Hunt seemed like the biggest thing on the planet. His Grammy-nominated debut album, Montevallo, produced hit single after hit single, and his Drake-esque hip-hop-inspired take on modern country was bold and refreshing. It was almost biblical that Montevallo shared a release date with Taylor Swift’s first official pop album, 1989. For the past decade or so, Swift had been country’s premier crossover star, but post-1989, she was officially classed with the Katy Perrys and Lady Gagas of the music world as opposed to the Miranda Lamberts and Carrie Underwoods. With Montevallo, Sam seemed poised to be the genre’s next big crossover star, but lengthy gaps between releases and social media disappearances negatively impacted the hype for Hunt’s sophomore album. Back in 2017, Sam released a country crossover smash that has yet to be surpassed. “Body Like A Back Road,” a 6x Platinum Billboard Hot 100 Top 10 hit, pushed Sam’s hip-hop-inspired sound to new heights. The song featured lyrics that likened the curves of the road to his lady’s hips, and the production borrowed DJ Mustard’s trademark “hey! hey! hey!” chant and a healthy dose of 808s. “Body,” which appears on Southside, is the defacto lead single for the album despite it predating the record by three years. The next year, 2018, Sam put out Southside‘s second single a solid anthemic number titled “Downtown’s Dead,” and weirdly, that was his only musical release for that year. In fact, the real album campaign for Southside did not really start until the release of “Kinfolks” last year. All this is to say that Southside has been a long time coming and, thankfully, the album does not crumble under the hype. At just under 40 minutes, Sam delivers more traditional country cuts with his signature hip-hop flair. Moreover, the record is brimming with maturity and perfectly crafted singles.
Southside opens on a somber note with a track titled “2016.” A singular strum of a guitar introduces Sam softly crooning about turning back time. He retains and intensifies the brutal honesty that accented the lyricism on Montevallo, but he also exercises a certain carefulness and maturity that comes with age. Sam sings of putting “whiskey back in the bottle” and putting “smoke back in the joint”; liquor symbolized partying and debauchery on Montevallo, but on Southside the substance is more sinister. If Montevallo was Sam’s big breakup album, Southside is the album on which he tackles the unfortunate impact his new fame has had on the ex-girlfriend who inspired his debut album. There are a few striking connections to Montevallo on this album, the greatest of which is Southside‘s penultimate track, “Breaking Up Was Easy In The 90s.” The rousing country-pop track is, in a way, a sequel to Montevallo‘s “Break Up In A Small Town.” While the latter track focused on the post-breakup suffocation that Montevallo enforced, “Breaking Up Was Easy In The 90s” is more focused on how social media and the 10s decade have made forgetting and ignoring exes much more difficult. It’s quite fitting, and a bit cheeky, that both of these songs are standouts on their respective albums.
Southside also houses several stellar pop numbers like the hip-hop infused “Young Once” which employs an enjoyable rapid-fire cadence in the chorus. There’s also the stunning ballad, “Sinning With You,” which is arguably the best song of Sam’s career. “Sinning” is a sweet and tender ode to a love that’s so wrong it just has to be right. This track also features some of the strongest songwriting on the album: “Your body was baptized, so disenfranchised/I was your favorite confession” is a brilliant line. “Let It Down” is another strong country-pop track, as are the previously released singles, “Downtown’s Dead,” “Body Like A Backroad,” and “Kinfolks.”
In Sam Hunt’s absence, there were a number of hip-hop/country fusions that garnered mainstream success. The brightest among these were Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up” and of course Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ record-obliterating “Old Town Road.” As aforementioned, Sam’s talk-rapping and use of 808s and standard hip-hop production had been apart of his repertoire since 2014. Nonetheless, he develops that sound into something a bit more layered on Southside. On the album’s latest radio single, “Hard to Forget,” Sam loops a sample of Webb Pierce’s 1953 hit, “There Stands The Glass,” and flips it into a summery uptempo with devastatingly sad lyrics. The production is reminiscent of The College Dropout/Late Registration-era Kanye West and the way he warped samples of classic soul tracks. Placed directly after “2016,” “Hard To Forget” is the true foundation of Southside in the way that it captures the loneliness, guilt, and melancholy of Sam’s psyche without sacrificing the classic energetic bounce of country-pop. The hip-hop influences also come out to play on the album’s best track: “Drinkin’ Too Much.” Although Sam originally released this track back in 2017, it still holds up. He really leans into the Drake comparisons with this “Marvin’s Room”-inspired stream of consciousness track. “Drinkin” is a direct and explicit apology to the ex he put on the worldwide stage thanks to the success of Montevallo. The brutally honest lyricism and Sam’s off-kilter and slightly slurred talk-singing leave this track, and by extension, the rest of the album, almost overflowing with raw emotion.
He’s been gone for a minute, but Southside proves that Sam Hunt is still country’s reigning prince and the genre’s greatest bet for a genuine crossover artist. This new record showcases real growth without discarding the musical elements and fun that made Montevallo work so well. It’s an earnest, reflective, and enjoyable record — what more could you ask for?
Key Tracks: “Sinning With You”; “Breaking Up Was Easy In The 90s”; “Drinkin’ Too Much”; “2016”