If you were a country music fan in 2014, you either loved, or loved to hate, Sam Hunt. His unabashed devotion to mashing R&B into country music and his clean cut, city-boy image made for scathing fan debate fodder. Whether you sang along to his clever twists of phrasing out loud or under your breath, Hunt’s music was unavoidable. Nearly every track on his debut album Montevallo became a hit. Then, for the most part, he disappeared. Hunt’s return with his sophomore effort Southside finds him with some explaining to do and with the potential to become even more divisive.
Despite having nearly six years to put it together, Southside is incredibly messy. Following up a massive success is tricky enough, and Hunt’s lack of commitment to any particular direction only exacerbates the problem. The result is a Frankenstein’s monster of an album. Not only are there chunks of country, pop and R&B, but songs released in years past have been haphazardly sewn onto the body of work as well. The project is falling apart at the seams; Southside feels like it’s trying to separate into two different albums.
The album opener “2016” is promisingly subdued. Hunt retraces the choices he made that year, now wishing he could “put the whiskey back in the bottle / put the smoke back in the joint” and devote all of 2016 to his longtime on-again, off-again girlfriend (now wife), Hannah. It’s refreshing. Hunt swaps his cool guy persona and heavy reliance on hip-hop beats for an honest, apologetic country sound. Logistically, “2016” is a useful explanation for why Southside took so long. Hunt has struggled a lot with fame and preserving his relationship — experiences that should amount to a substantive album.
That’s why the next track and current single “Hard to Forget” is such a let down. It’s irritatingly catchy radio candy. Listening through the album, one can’t help but feel duped. For every glimmer of hope that a mature and grounded Sam Hunt will emerge, there’s a song like the patronizing “That Ain’t Beautiful” that dashes it. The potential for a self-aware, growth-centered album peeks through in Southside, but so does an album that’s merely trying to replicate his earlier Montevallo — and Hunt’s indecision leaves him with neither.
One throughline in Southside is that country fans’ genre quarrels have clearly gotten under Hunt’s skin. Traditional country instrumentation has been lathered over top of this R&B-driven record a bit unevenly. On the tail end of the otherwise pop heavy “Young Once,” the listener catches a fiddle solo. “Hard to Forget” samples the 1953 country song “There Stands the Glass” by Webb Pierce. “Let It Down” pulls off the country R&B combination best. Hunt talk-raps until the chorus bursts into a recognizably country riff complete with pedal steel, dobro and banjo.
For all of Southside’s identity crises, the album’s biggest head-scratcher is its inclusion of the track “Body Like a Back Road,” which was a hit two years ago. Alongside “Downtown’s Dead,” another single from 2018, these tracks feel like zombies on a project that’s supposed to breathe new life into Hunt’s artistry. That’s why “Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90’s” elicits a sigh of relief. The social media savvy break up anthem confirms that Hunt still has it. “It” being the ability to smooth-talk his way into an infectious just-barely-country song.
The only forgivable inclusion of an old Hunt song is the album closer “Drinkin’ Too Much.” Like “2016,” this song has shock-value. “I’m sorry I named the album Montevallo,” Hunt confesses, Montevallo being the name of his wife’s hometown. He goes on to detail their rocky relationship, then calls her out by name, even though he acknowledges that she wants her privacy. It’s painful and raw and unfair. Still, “Drinkin’ Too Much” holds the key to why Hunt’s country rap experiment worked in the first place — the genres intersect in brutally honest storytelling.
With Southside, Hunt holds onto his titles: the first mainstream country rapper, the most controversial artist in Nashville and, yes, the “Drake of country music.” But he’s sloppy about it. Hopefully it won’t take another six years for him to get a little more vulnerable.