A Little Bit Country, a Little Bit Everything Else

If you ask Americans about their favorite genre of music, the top pick tends to be classic rock. But if you ask them which genre is “most representative of America today,” you get basically a split: 36 percent say country, while 37 percent say rap/hip-hop, according to a 2023 poll from the research firm YouGov. (Participants could pick more than one answer from a long menu of genres.) These findings would seem to support various preconceptions about a red/rural America and a blue/urban America, united only in affection for “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

But what if these genres needn’t be all that separate? What if hip-hop and country merged into something that felt like classic rock? The idea sounds like it would be profitable for the record industry—and it might be what’s happening now.

At least, that’s one theory to explain all the ragged-voiced dudes on the Billboard Hot 100 recently. Although women such as Taylor Swift and Beyoncé have dominated much of the public discourse about music this year, nine of the 10 most popular songs in the nation this week were made by men. Most of those men—aside from Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, and the funky TikTok sensation Tommy Richman—employ guitars and big, gruff vocals. Some of them are or used to be rappers. They also tend to bend genre lines without seeming particularly experimental. From some angles, these guys signal that rock is back; from others, they’re a result of the country surge; from still others, they constitute a new phenomenon (… gruntry?). But they’re also, definitionally, pop, a meeting ground for many different constituencies.

To understand the vibe, start at the top of the chart, where Post Malone’s “I Had Some Help,” featuring Morgan Wallen, has reigned for three weeks straight. Its twanging guitars scan as country, but its punchy drum beat could be pop-punk, and its melody just feels bubblegum. This is a sing-along suitable for anywhere; I recently heard it at an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, hardly a honky-tonk atmosphere. And it’s the result of a collaboration that, on paper, might seem odd. Wallen has, for most of the 2020s, been the most popular musician in country music. Malone has, since 2015, been one of the most popular musicians in rap.

Their team-up represents the intersection of two trends. Hip-hop and R&B, the most listened-to genres of music in America since 2017, have slipped a bit in market share over the past few years. Meanwhile, country has soared in the 2020s, popularizing tracks such as Luke Combs’s cover of “Fast Car.” These developments have fed into an oppositional narrative—country is dethroning rap!—but the truth is probably that both genres are just undergoing the same technological transformation at different times. Hip-hop’s audience started embracing streaming platforms years ago, country’s a bit more recently.

But country is, in some ways, riding hip-hop’s coattails. To country singers seeking to project a modern edge in a tradition-obsessed genre, rap’s techniques have offered a helpful sonic toolbox. Wallen, for example, makes slick, sultry songs with drum machines and Drake-ish vocal cadences. The recent country breakout Jelly Roll first spent years trying to succeed as a rapper. In retrospect, the success of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” now seems less like a fluke and more like a harbinger, showing how the internet encourages artists and listeners to embrace genre-blending.

Raised partly in Grapevine, Texas, Post Malone has long understood the power of hybridity. Packed with references to Bud Light and AC/DC, his pop-rap hits over the past decade reflect the penetration of hip-hop aesthetics into blue-collar, white America. His part-belch, part-purr voice moves between singing and rapping, allowing him to switch sounds on a whim. His 2023 album, Austin, features him playing guitar on every song, and has an indie-rock edge. Now he’s courting the country audience at a time when it seems especially profitable to do so. In addition to duetting with Wallen, he also worked this year with Taylor Swift—that Nashville veteran—and with Beyoncé on her banjo-drenched Cowboy Carter.

Malone’s trajectory suggests what differentiates the present convergence of country, rap, and rock from the most infamous “hick hop” tunes of the 2000s and 2010s. Back then, country-native artists such as Big & Rich and Jason Aldean seemed to be joking when they broke into rhyme; the rapper pose, bound up with stereotypes about criminality and toughness, was a metaphor for cowboy masculinity. By contrast, Malone and Wallen just seem to be drawing on their own lingua franca. These days, hip-hop’s influence is clear in the speech and affectations of most young Americans, including white men. This helps explain why both Malone and Wallen have been caught in similar scandals: using the N-word when talking to their buddies.

As those offenses would suggest, country and rap’s intermingling has hardly had a racially equalizing effect. Only one Black man, Shaboozey, has had recent success riding the same cultural currents as Wallen and Malone, and he blew up with major celebrity help. The 29-year-old Virginia musician has been rapping and singing over country instrumentation for six years, but many listeners first encountered Shaboozey’s gravelly voice on two songs from Cowboy Carter (his rowdy verse is part of why the absolutely bonkers “Sweet Honey Buckin’” is the album’s best song). Shortly after Cowboy Carter dropped, he released a single, “A Bar Song (Tipsy),” that became a near-immediate hit. It’s currently No. 4 on the Hot 100 and looks likely to stay in rotation all summer.

Shaboozey’s success may turn out to be bigger than just one song—his new album is strong—but even so, “A Bar Song” will remain an impressive calling card. It’s the rare example of a hit that first seems like a novelty track but turns out to contain substance. With whistling and stomping production, it reworks the famous chorus of J-Kwon’s 2004 hit, “Tipsy,” transforming a bottle-service nightclub chant into something for a sawdusted saloon. Shaboozey sounds genuinely soulful, his voice deep and full of rasp, as he sings of struggling to afford not just “gasoline and groceries” but also a Birkin bag for his girl. It’s a perfect country-rap shopping list—and, perhaps not coincidentally, a perfectly 2024 encapsulation of the American dream.

The truth is that hip-hop, country, and the very concept of genre are only part of the story of why men with guitars are back in fashion. Other hit singers that fit the mold—Teddy Swims, Hozier, Benson Boone, Zach Bryan—each have their own sound that has little or nothing to do with rap, and isn’t very country either. But nevertheless, it seems as though one tide is helping pull all of them up the charts.

What fundamentally unites these guys is the controlled grittiness of their singing. Swims’s “Lose Control” shows off a spectacular, Motown-inflected wail from a tattooed, rap-fluent artist who’s beloved for his covers of songs from a variety of genres. Hozier’s “Too Sweet” employs the same bluesy, haunted tone familiar from the alternative-ish singer’s 2013 hit, “Take Me to Church.” Boone, a TikTok star and an American Idol dropout, yowls with glam-rock theatricality on “Beautiful Things.” Bryan, an alt-country legend in the making, bellows on his new hit, “Pink Skies,” in a way that sounds like a cross between Bright Eyes and Bruce Springsteen. You hear authenticity in all of these voices, or at least the performance of it. You hear struggle, but not too much struggle.

The trend becomes more obvious when you consider what it doesn’t include. It isn’t just a function of country becoming cool again: Though that genre is doing well, its women haven’t landed any singles as big as the guys’. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter certainly hasn’t turned out to be much of a hit machine past “Texas Hold ’Em”—a song that got radio traction only amid heavy lobbying from fans. The male singers of the moment also cut a stark contrast with what’s happening in female-led pop. Swift and the artists she’s influenced make lyrics-first, sharply personable songs in which singing serves a storytelling purpose, encouraging close, obsessive listening. The men are doing the opposite: communicating big, broad feelings in big, broad ways.

All of these artists have cultivated passionate fan bases—but their music is clearly also doing well with passive listeners, the kind who are being fed music by radio programmers and/or streaming algorithms. Which makes sense: Every few years, the record industry seems to rediscover the latent public demand for tuneful male angst. As I wrote last summer, male country artists today and their rumbling alienation remind me a lot of alternative-rock bands of the early 2000s, such as Nickelback. But this wave has a wistful touch to its sound that recalls another boomlet of largely white, male, rock-ish pop: the early-2010s folk revival exemplified by Mumford & Sons.

Mostly, however, these guys make me think of classic rock. That term connotes virtuosity and importance—but really, it’s a marketing catchall. So-called classic-rock radio stations tend to jumble up historical eras and subgenres, playing the likes of the Eagles and the Rolling Stones next to the likes of Nirvana and Green Day. In doing so, they offer a stream of stirring, respectable songs that sound neither obnoxiously cheerful nor dourly sad. That these offerings are overwhelmingly male speaks to the sexism that has shaped the rock canon—sexism that also leads many radio DJs to avoid programming female singers for fear of annoying a certain segment of their listeners.

Similar logic probably helps explain why we have this group of groaning guys who can be easily stirred into the streaming playlists of listeners whose tastes lean toward country, rock, or even hip-hop. That’s not to say the artists themselves are pandering—each of them is pursuing his own artistic vision. They just so happen to be doing so in a way that suits the highest goal of modern entertainment: getting all sorts of people to not hit “Next.”

*Lead image sources: Brett Carlsen / Getty; Jason Kempin / Getty; Frazer Harrison / Getty; Kevin Mazur / Getty; Frank Hoensch / Redferns / Getty.

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