In December 2016, when Kane Brown released his self-titled first album, it debuted at Number One on the Billboard country chart. But to hear him tell it, its true watershed moment came almost a full year later. In October 2017, after the album was re-released as a deluxe edition, Brown was completely caught off-guard to learn the LP had not only returned to Number One on the country chart but also moved up to Number Five on the Billboard 200.
“It totally blew my mind,” the “Heaven” singer says now, reflecting on that career-defining moment. “I mean, it had been out practically a year! So yeah, you could say I was shocked it was back up the charts.”
When Brown calls up Rolling Stone on a recent afternoon, it’s a week before he’s set to release Experiment, his second full-length album. And he’s feeling decidedly optimistic. “For this one,” Brown says of the 13-track album that arrived days after his first-ever sold-out headlining performance at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, “we’re going to try and hopefully stay at the top of the charts for awhile.”
It’s safe to say he’s off to a good start: Experiment not only topped the Billboard country chart in its first week of release, but more impressively, the album debuted at Number One on the all-genre Billboard 200. It’s a feat only accomplished by two other country artists this year in Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood. Brown also became the first male country artist to top the Billboard 200 with his sophomore album since Tim McGraw’s 1994 LP Not a Moment Too Soon.
Still, it all begs the question: how did a relatively fresh-faced artist like Brown accomplish such a massive feat? And even more so, for a talent that has yet to be fully embraced by Nashville? (See his snub at last week’s CMA Awards, where he was neither nominated or given a performance slot.)
As Brown will explain, it’s his new-age savvy and adept understanding of his fanbase that’s helped punch his ticket so soon.
Having first blown up via social media after posting country covers on Facebook and YouTube and then attracting a major-label deal with Sony Music Nashville, Brown speaks of his listenership not as some distant entity or even in praiseworthy and glowing terms, but rather as a wide-ranging group with broad musical interests. Brown, who is biracial and sees himself as something of a Nashville outsider, says he recognizes that his fanbase, like him, is young, diverse and, in many cases, relatively new to country music.
“That’s what I keep telling everybody,” he says. “A lot of people that only like country music, they’re not fans of mine. My fans love everything. You can find my fans at a Drake show; you’ll find my fans at Post Malone all the way to Pink. They just love music in general.”
It’s why Brown, who appeared earlier this year on a remix of Camila Cabello’s “Never Be the Same” and helped push that song into the Top 10, says when crafting Experiment he was highly conscious of striking a balance between the traditional Nineties country music on which he was raised and the R&B, hip-hop and pop music that many of his closest friends gravitate toward.
“My friends are real with me,” he says of using them as a sounding board. He recalls playing them the more classic country-sounding “Short Skirt Weather,” a song he says he “tried to make for traditional country fans,” but they weren’t feeling it. “Most of them were like, ‘Eh, I dunno if I really like that song.’ But then I show them ‘One Night Only,'” he says, referencing one of the more poppy tracks on Experiment, “and even though most of them don’t listen to country music they like that song. Does that make sense?”
It does. Today’s listenership — especially the youngest contingent — is far more fluid in their tastes, and an artist like Brown, who says he was “definitely more confident” on this album and, to that end, found himself catering equally to traditional and progressive country fans within the course of a single album, is primed for crossover success.
“This album was definitely different,” he says. “For me I just love music, so that’s what I was trying to really get at with this album. Nothing sounds the same. Everything is in a completely different sonic direction from each other.”
But Brown acknowledges there remain listeners who are more dead-set in their tastes and are resistant to genre fluidity. As a prime example, he recalls the reaction of some pop music fans to him appearing on the Cabello remix. “Some of the pop fans will be like ‘Who is this guy?’ because they supposedly don’t listen to country music,” he says. “But I feel like every artist just wants everybody to love every type of music. Because artists love music. They don’t just put themselves in one room when there’s six rooms to choose from.”
Even choices long thought of as safe — like including traditional country instrumentation on Experiment, as Brown does with fiddle, steel guitar and harmonica on songs like “Baby Come Back to Me” and “Short Skirt Weather” — can be dicey, according to Brown. “That kinda gets iffy,” he says. He admits that he worried some of his younger fans who appreciated his pop-leaning material might be turned off by the old-school country of some of the new tracks. “It’s just something you’ve gotta risk,” he says. “You might lose some fans, but hopefully you pick up some more along the way.”
Brown ponders his audience’s listening habits intently, and says it directly impacts not only what he creates but also where and how his music is released. The singer is quick to discuss the impact of streaming on his career and, more specifically, the way he enters a project like Experiment anticipating how some of its more outré songs may never have a chance at country radio but will still find a home on streaming services.
Like the aforementioned “One Night Only.” Brown describes the R&B-flavored standout as “almost like a Khalid song when it comes in. It’s like if you were just strumming an acoustic guitar with a little bit of techno to it. That one is not a country radio song by any means,” he offers. “That’s a song I’d love to see blow up on Spotify or Apple Music. I feel like that’s going to be one of my biggest streaming songs.”
Now armed with a Number One album, Brown hits the road in January on his Live Forever Tour, the singer’s first headlining outing. The live show, he notes, is just one more way he caters to his audience. Especially when it comes to what’s happening behind Brown onstage.
“The production is your baby,” he says. “If you ain’t got good production then it’s not going to be as good of a show as if you’re going to a Drake show that costs $700,000 a week to put on.”
Honestly,” he adds of giving his fans a major dose of excitement each night, “it can make or break a show. No matter if you’ve got the best voice in music.”