Kelsea Ballerini - kelsea
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kelsea (Black River, 2020)

Kelsea Ballerini

Reviewed by Jeff Lincoln

Once unheard of, more than a few of today's country queens don't necessarily stick to their own genre. Kelsea Ballerini's most streamed track by far is her collaboration with The Chainsmokers, "This Feeling." That's not to say the rest of her catalog did poorly. Ballerini scored a top five country album out of the gate with her debut in 2015. "The First Time" had great flavors of R&B and sounded very assured for a come-out roll. Sophomore effort "Unapologetically" in 2017 was more of a mess, uneven and shaky. As shown in the Deluxe edition, the throwaways were better than a lot of what made the record.

This third release is a return to musical confidence. For starters, the self-title is no accident: "this album is me," Ballerini writes in the liner notes. All of the tracks are titled in lowercase, emphasizing some of the guard-down vulnerability she explores.

Comparisons to Taylor Swift make sense - Ballerini is a songwriter (though often part of a committee), with success and aspirations country music can't contain. But what really sets Ballerini apart is her willingness to be more revealing. She doesn't hide the fact that she has a charmed life, partying with the famous, and thought of as pretty. But in many key tracks here ("homecoming queen?", "club"), she shows that those advantages don't protect your heart. If anything, insecurities set in that can lead to loneliness and alcohol abuse. Her pop roots are showing - there's a lot of Britney Spears "Toxic" in the chorus of "bragger." And "hole in the bottle" would work better without the layers of production that smother it. One of the much better tracks is "overshare" - Ballerini has incredible flow in her singing, and this shows that off well. Another winner is "la", a warts-and-all ode to Los Angeles, questioning whether she belongs.

It's really easy to like an artist when you know they're being authentic, and that's what this project is all about. Ballerini walks the fine line between whining and crocodile tears to take the full measure of her own real life. It's a breakthrough and a little unifying for the rest of us to know that it's not all smiles on the other side of the VIP rope.

CDs by Kelsea Ballerini

kelsea, 2020 Unapologetically, 2017 The First Time, 2015

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