Kane Brown achieved country stardom his own way — after bailing on X Factor USA’s attempt to shoehorn him into a boy band, the baritone decided to post covers of tracks by Nashville stars like George Strait and Lee Brice online, which led to him racking up numbers that no label could deny. His story, and his willingness to throw any sound into his mix, makes the tattooed, biracial Brown an ideal male country star for this moment; the definition of “country” is expanding, bringing in ideas from hip-pop and synth-EDM and incorporating collaborations with pop stars (in Brown’s case, Camila Cabello) while also remaining true to its storytelling and humanism.
Experiment is Brown’s second album, but it’s rightly being pitched as his breakthrough to a mass audience. Storming stadium-sized drums accompany his opening plea on “Come Back to Me,” but they’re quickly joined by harmonies straight out of the Grand Ole Opry’s playbook and heavy riffing. While big chunks of Experiment, like the come-hither “Lose It” and the Goo Goo Dolls-gone-Nashville ballad “It Ain’t You It’s Me,” revel in that liminal space between stadium-sized country and big-tent arena rock, Experiment also throws a few curveballs. Some are throwbacks: “Short Skirt Weather” is an homage to the line-dancing era, its boot-scooting rhythm accentuated by rollicking pianos and winking fiddles, while the delicately infatuated ballad “Good to You” seems made for wedding entrances, with its pledges of fealty and steady, strolling beat. Others embrace modern pop ideals; the chorus of “Weekend” gets its muscle from mashed synth hits, while “My Where I Come From” combines the sweeping guitars of ‘90s acoustic-pop and the whooping of post-millennial pop with a plea to anyone ready to judge him for his looks: “So if I just won’t turn down on a Saturday night/ And if I never learn how to back down from a fight/ And if I take my hat off for the stars and the stripes/ And If I just can’t seem to shut it down/ That’s just my ‘where I come from’ comin’ out,” Brown declares.
“American Bad Dream” is the album’s emotional center, a minor-key country-rock ballad in which Brown’s baritone is equally stern and desparing. The 25-year-old reminisces about the decade-ish “old days” of being in ninth grade before mass shooter drills and points his finger at “bad cops [who] played the jury” and poisoned the water: “It’s like I just closed my eyes/ Everybody started fallin’ for the Devil’s disguise,” he wails. On an album that, in large part, succeeds because of the way it defies observers’ expectations about “authenticity,” “American Bad Dream” is a particular triumph, Brown’s confusion mirrored by the rumbles surrounding him and amplified by his own delivery. When Experiment channels that kind of musical confidence, which it does often, it proves why Brown has become one of the genre’s hottest up-and-comers — and why he had to forge his own path in order to achieve that position.