For as much as artists like Margo Price and Brandy Clark are basking in the critical acclaim for their retrograde take on country music, the most daring female artists in the genre these days are those that are singing songs of empowerment and self-reliance within the trappings of a radio-friendly sound. And right now no one is doing that better than Kelsea Ballerini.
The 24-year-old’s second album Unapologetically has the patina of modern pop, with programmed drum beats and attention grabbing bombast. It’s more country by reputation—and the artful twang in Ballerini’s voice—than in sound. But within the album, the songs eschew lovesick notions and bitter revenge fantasies. Instead, Ballerini looks at the wreckage of an old relationship, and the blooming of a new one, with something like bemusement and relief. “I forgot I had dreams, I forgot I had wings,” she sings over the undulating beats on “Miss Me More,” “I forgot who I was before I ever kissed you.”
Unapologetically gains in strength as it goes along, mirroring Ballerini’s push away from a particular lover and towards the welcoming arms of a new beau. There’s a softening as she heads that direction, and an eroticism that she bathes in on “Music,” but it feels entirely earned. She’s been through the wringer thanks to a gent still holding on to his past (“High School”) and, as she declares on “End of the World,” coming out on the other side of the heartbreak with the sun still rising and her head held high.
The self-awareness extends to where Ballerini finds herself in her career. She’s collected plenty of airplay, award nominations and album sales to earn her a Gold Record. But she’s yet to reach the cultural ubiquity of her peers like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. Which is why when she sings on the glistening “In Between” of being in this valley that connects her youthful days and her adulthood, there’s a note of frustration just beneath the surface of her voice. She wants the stadium-sized success but isn’t quite there yet. Unapologetically may be the album to get her there. We just have to wait and see how well she plays the promotional game and how easily the suspicious tastemakers in country radio take to this strong album of defiant ear candy.