"Why do we need you? There's already a Taylor Swift." So said a Nashville record executive to a teenage Kelsea Ballerini. It undoubtedly stung at the time - but she was still in high school and had only travelled from Knoxville. Now that same executive is likely pricing a self-kicking machine. Ballerini's self-titled EP released last year scored big with a Top Ten Country single, "Love Me Like You Mean It." "The First Time," her full-sized debut, has now settled into the top five of the album chart. It contains all the EP tunes and seven more.
The key thing with the expanded EP model is that the extra music has to mean a fuller effect: use that plateau of the artist's initial introduction and go higher. This one does it, big-time.
Last year's songs like "Yeah Boy" and "Dibs" are unabashed teenage fun, but anyone could suss they were written by a relative kid. Ballerini, now 21, has developed quickly. No better evidence can be found than "Secondhand Smoke," an absolutely gorgeous ballad concerning a plea to oneself: do not repeat the cycle of a broken home.
Ballerini's lyrical secret is she can relish her age while acknowledging its limits. Take the closer "Underage," for example, with the deeper consideration of what identity means when your life revolves around a good time. "Our IDs are fake...When you don't know what you don't know/the kind of days that are 'those were the days'." This is a capable songwriter on her own, but she wisely teamed up with others to aim for great.
As a singer, Ballerini does undeniably evoke Swift, especially in the soft-spoken smoky delivery of "Square Pegs." But that's not all: Ballerini can blast a big Kelly Clarkson-style chorus, as with the energetic opener, "XO". The final bit of the recipe is groove. She's a former hip-hop dancer who can summon a tinge of R&B timing in her delivery. You can hear it in "Love Me Like You Mean It," with a chorus built to make hips sway. That's not typical in the country music world, and neither is this artist. And you can tell that to any Nashville executive you meet.