On his second album, Tangled Up, Thomas Rhett says fans can expect even more of the funk, soul and R&B flavor of the project’s feel-good first single, “Crash and Burn.”
“In all genres, old is becoming new and old is becoming fresh,” he tells Rolling Stone Country. “It’s been going on in pop for a long time, and I think with songs like (Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’) ‘Uptown Funk’ and the Weeknd’s ‘I Can’t Feel My Face’ — which sounds exactly like a Michael Jackson song — everybody is taking what they learned and loved from their idols and trying to make it into what they do today.”
Citing James Brown as one of his biggest idols, Rhett says the way fans embraced “Crash and Burn” became the catalyst for his new direction. The song is close to breaking the Top 10 on Billboard‘s country airplay chart.
“It was a huge spike in confidence,” he says of the track’s success. “A bunch of people went with our gut on that song, and I think you always feel more confident when you know you went with your gut, and your gut actually worked. It definitely set the tone for the album.”
Over 13 tracks, seven of which Rhett co-wrote, that tone is both progressive for country lovers and a throwback for pop fans. Produced by the Nashville-meets-Motown team of Dann Huff and Jesse Frasure, Tangled Up finds the 25-year-old making bold song selections, borrowing choice trimmings from around the musical universe and pushing the country-music needle even farther toward broad, Top 40 appeal.
“Anthem” starts the album off with a pumped-up country rap, while funk and disco collide on “Tangled” and melodic hip-hop meets pop on “I Feel Good” (featuring “Bills” rapper Lunch Money Lewis). The shuffling beat of “Vacation” bears such a strong resemblance to War’s iconic slow jam “Low Rider” that the band were credited as co-writers, and many of the songs — “Crash and Burn” included — find Rhett pushing his voice to new limits. Rhett says he never had a falsetto before this year, but now uses it in concert every night.
“‘Crash’ is the hardest song I’ve ever sang in my whole life,” he says. “It’s the lowest in my vocal register and the highest in my register, all within 15 seconds.”
One line in particular reveals the bedrock of Rhett’s distinct new sound, and it shows up in “Southside,” a hard driving “shake it” banger he’s been opening his shows with:
“Like Memphis, Tennessee / Got in bed with CDB (Charlie Daniels Band)/ Had a baby / Oh, and when the baby cried / It made this sound / Ain’t no lie it was funkified”
“That’s basically what the record is,” says Rhett. “It’s like this genre got in bed with this genre and had a baby and this is what came out, that’s how Tangled Up got here. That line totally sums up the whole record.”
But for fans of Rhett’s previous effort, 2013’s It Goes Like This, the rising star says about 25 percent of the new album should still feel familiar. Jordin Sparks appears for a duet on the soaring power ballad “Playing With Fire,” “T-Shirt” and “Single Girl” bring back the smoldering romantic from “Make Me Wanna,” and “Learned It From the Radio” delivers a pickup-sized load of dirt-road imagery.