In December 2017, Willie Jones was in a recording studio in Los Angeles, freestyling about his family. Jones had just spent his holidays at home in his native Shreveport, Louisiana, and at a family reunion in Tulsa and had been touched by the occasions — by how much his cousins from childhood had grown up, how close he’d felt to relatives he hadn’t seen in years.
Jones and his producer Sean Cook had been toying around with a beat when the singer decided to go into the vocal booth and start improvising about what he was feeling: “Me and my fam/go ham/go hard in the paint/we laugh, we party, we drink,” he sang. Jones stopped himself, delighted.
“Yo,” he called out to Cook, “this could actually be a song.”
Less than six months later, it was. The first line that Jones had adlibbed ended up becoming the first line of “Runs in Our Blood,” a song that was one part “anthem for family,” as Jones puts it, and one part tailgating ode to “front porch chillin” and “back yard grillin’.”
“Runs in Our Blood” is one of several tracks Jones has released in advance of his as-yet-untitled debut album (4 Sound), due later this summer, one of the most audaciously innovative mainstream country releases in years. Despite being steeped in the diction, delivery and aesthetic presentation of hip-hop, it sounds entirely like commercial country: full of clever wordplay, heavily processed banjo and down-the-middle Nashville subject material.
As such, Willie Jones, 24, who spent his high school days in Shreveport simultaneously freestyle rapping for friends and winning grade-wide talent shows by singing country ballads, is poised to become the first genuinely hip-hop-minded country music star of color, a singer whose music exists at the precise midpoint of the tongue-in-cheek country trap of Lil Nas X’s megahit “Old Town Road” and the Nashville pop of contemporaries like Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen.
Country music has been undergoing a shift toward beat-driven production and vocal cadences that, as evidenced by Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line, have clearly been shaped by hip-hop but sometimes fail to acknowledge its influence. Jones’ best songs, on the other hand, openly integrate hip-hop without ever making a point of their genre-collapsing innovation. “Right Now” is an R&B power ballad that scans as a country-radio future hit, with Jones ending each gently rapped verse in an exaggerated deep twang. His latest single “Down for It” is a crooning come-on that exists somewhere between T.I. and Billy Currington, interpolating portions of the former Atlanta rapper’s 2008 megahit “Whatever You Like.”
“My whole thing is that it’s the delivery, what I’m saying and singing, the swag and the inflection,” says Jones. “It’s not that I’m outwardly trying to be something so different. I’m just coming in and doing what feels normal.”
“What Willie’s doing is what all the white guys in Nashville have been trying to do,” says Eric Hurt, formerly the creative director of Black River Entertainment, the Nashville entertainment company that signed Jones to a publishing contract. Hurt now works at Empire, a music entertainment company that’s helped foster the careers of Kendrick Lamar and Migos and will distribute Jones’ album.
“It’s dope to just see black people in country, expanding the genre,” says Jones, citing artists like Priscilla Renea, Kane Brown and Blanco Brown as examples, in addition to Lil Nas X. “That’s what I wanted to see from the jump, so it’s cool to actually be coming up and see younger black people telling their stories.”
In his live show, Jones, who performs alongside a hype-man named Kermit Young, posits a space where country and the club can co-exist. “He can actually bring rap into country without making it the whole song,” says Young, a fellow Shreveport native who knows Jones from the city’s nightclub circuit. “At home, I DJ almost every party, all the hot clubs. So when I see Willie, I get him turnt.”
Willie Jones sings in a rich baritone that recalls Southern crooners like Randy Travis and Josh Turner, whose song “Your Man” made Jones a sensation when he showed up on The X Factor in 2012. As a 17-year-old with a flat-top and a denim vest, he wowed Simon Cowell and company by showing that a man who looked like him could belt old-fashioned country music. After his short-lived stint on the reality show, Jones became the musical entertainment on a social-media influencer tour called MAGCON (where Shawn Mendes also got his start), traveling with the group on-and-off for two years. Jones was still testing out his artistic parameters around this time, posting Don Williams and Meghan Trainor covers and Randy Travis/Taylor Swift medleys online.
Country, though, was just one small part of Jones’ upbringing in Shreveport. The Louisiana city nevertheless felt like a small town to Jones, who soaked up everything he heard as a kid, from hip-hop to pop to country to R&B (“Kanye, [Kid] Cudi, Beyoncé, backpack rap, that whole scene”) to, not least of all, gospel. “I was preaching when I was four years old, straight up,” he says. Jones’ first deep dive into country music came as a result of a 9th grade talent show, in which every student was required to sing a country song. Jones settled on Turner’s 2009 hit “Why Don’t We Just Dance” and won.
Jones attended a performing-arts high school, getting involved in “church choir, community choir, school choir. Man, I took it serious,” he says. Outside of school, he continued to study country music, something that would have surprised most of his friends at the time.
“Willie Jones was a rapper,” says hype-man Young, who, like much of the million-plus fans who have viewed the clip, was surprised at what he heard when Jones appeared on The X Factor. “I thought, ‘He’s going to come with a little rap. My other friends thought he was going to sing R&B,” says Young. “And then, he hits us with the country. It actually sent chills down my spine.”
As a songwriter, Jones brings an improvisational style to the writer’s room derived from the days he spent freestyling in his high school cafeteria. “Melody,” Jones says, “is typically where every good song starts. I like to cut the mic [with], ‘Let’s vibe out, let’s freestyle real quick.'”
Music Row songwriter Jimmy Robbins has written with country stars like Maren Morris, Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert, but he can still recall a line Jones came up with during a recent co-write that blew him away. The two were working on a still-unreleased song called “Even When I Don’t Like Loving You” when Jones threw out a lyric: “You’re saying things you can’t take back/There’s no receipts.”
“I thought that was such a cool way to say that,” says Robbins. “Willie is writing mature songs but with vernacular that’s accessible to kids right now. The way he speaks is very current. There’s a freeform, in-the-moment thought process that happens with him, but he’s never sacrificing what we love in Nashville, which is the craft of songwriting.”
Jones’ debut album is loaded with of-the-moment parlance (“Netflix and chill,” “emojis”) and can feel, at times, like focus group-tested millennial marketing. “She ain’t catching feelings/But she catching bouquets,” he sings on “Bachelorettes on Broadway,” a delirious, playful depiction of Nashville’s tourist-driven nightlife that finds Jones unwittingly caught up in one of the city’s ceaseless bachelorette parties.
“I got off the plane one time and was like, ‘Let’s go to Broadway,’ and then I saw all these bachelorettes,” Jones says of the song’s rather literal inspiration. “I was like, ‘This is crazy. Let’s write about this.’”
On the verge of releasing his debut, Jones, who recently performed at his first-ever CMA Fest, is ready to bring his vision to country music rather than the other way around.
“I have gotten people try to say, ‘The record needs to sound more Nashville, more country radio,’ but it’s like, ‘Naw, dawg, this is what I’ve been doing, and this is who I am,’” says Jones. “A lot of people in Nashville, they chase radio. We just chasing the vibe.”