Album Review – ‘The First Time’ Proves that Kelsea Ballerini is Another Pop Singer Trying to be Country

My first post for Country Perspective was my opinion on who could replace the gaping hole left by Taylor Swift after her official move to pop music. Included on my list were names like Kellie Pickler, Brandy Clark, and Sunny Sweeney as I was hoping, and still am hoping, to hear more classic sounding country coming out of the female side of the spectrum. However, Music Row seems to have an answer for that void in the name of Kelsea Ballerini. This newcomer is already off to a strong start in mainstream country, and wouldn’t you believe it, she has Taylor Swift on her side as well.

That tweet by Taylor Swift only helped Kelsea Ballerini gain some momentum in her country career. Country Perspective has been calling Kelsea Ballerini the female equivalent to Sam Hunt. Kelsea’s debut single is just in the top ten, and now she has a debut album called The First Time ready with more pop garbage to infect country radio.

Why do we call her Sam Hunt’s female equivalent? Well allow me to present Exhibit A: the lead track on The First Time called “Xo.” Before you get your hopes up, this isn’t some cute pop country ode to a Trisha Yearwood hit. This is 100% pop/rap/dance crap that has no business being anywhere near country music. This song is about how Kelsea’s out with her man, but his ex girlfriend is at the same place, and Kelsea can tell there’s still sparks there. “You’re still in love with your ex, oh, and I ain’t one to be nobody’s second best, no” she sings in the chorus. Kelsea also makes it very clear that while she’s blonde, she’s not dumb. But she’s only smart enough to notice where her man’s attention is, not take the next step to kick the guy to the curb.

“Peter Pan” is a bit friendlier with a more natural pop country production. Here she compares her boyfriend to Peter Pan as he won’t grow up and be a man. The fairy tale references work well here and aren’t overdone. I have no problems with this song. Following this is another song where Ballerini doesn’t want to put up with boys. The lead single, “Love Me Like You Mean It” shows Ballerini wanting to get with the bros, but she’s annoyed they can’t commit. As Josh wrote in his great review of the song, “These lyrics are confusing and quite frankly shallow in terms of depth. This is bubblegum pop meant to appeal to radio and casual listeners. In a world with common sense this is on pop radio. But we live in a world where pop music being passed off as country music is the norm.” I couldn’t have said that any better.

Kelsea Ballerini continues to prove she belongs in pop more than country with “Square Pegs.” This is pop song where Ballerini does a sort of pseudo-rap encouraging people to be themselves regardless of whoever may criticize you. It’s a good message, but delivered poorly with fluff like “Everybody gotta be themselves, everybody gotta dream out loud, everybody gotta be themselves, square pegs make the world go ’round.” This is not a country song by any stretch of the imagination. “First Time” is a ballad about how Kelsea was stood up, again, by an ex-boyfriend. She sings, “goodbye should mean goodbye the first time” while she believes he’s out with some other blonde saying the same things to the new girl that he said to her. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. She at least realizes that old adage is true and vows to stick to her guns next time. And as if this pop album couldn’t get worse, Kelsea Ballerini records a song that’s just like a bro-country love song in the field, only from the female point of view. Here’s how the chorus to “Looking at Stars” begins:

So baby pick me up, I’ll be in the drive
Take me where the moon’s hanging in the sky
We can park it by the river, get out and throw the tailgate down down down

Really? I guess it’s no surprise seeing as in “Love Me Like You Mean It” Kelsea sings about wanting the boy with the hat back. But this overdone, clichéd story is now being sung by females. Seriously, how is no one in Nashville sick of writing these songs yet?

Remember that time in “First Time” where Kelsea Ballerini thought Mr. Stood-Me-Up might be different and she was proven wrong? Well in “Sirens” she hears warnings about some douche guy coming to town. You know, the guy who’s reputation for being trouble is so big that it crosses county lines. And does she listen to those warnings? Hell no, he’ll be different for her. WRONG! This little pop rock song finds Ballerini cleaning herself up again after yet another failed fling. However, Kelsea Ballerini has one song on The First Time that is actually pretty good. “Secondhand Smoke” is a ballad about how a girl who grew up in an angry home. The parents fought all the time and implanted the idea in her head that fights end in goodbye. But Ballerini doesn’t want to be the same way; she wants to get over those demons so she can have healthier relationships. The story is quite similar to Taylor Swift’s “Mine,” but the delivery of the song couldn’t be more different. I hope this gets released as a single over the rest of the pop garbage on this supposed country album.

The pop production continues with “Dibs.” Here’s Kelsea Ballerini calling “dibs” on some hot guy she sees at a bar. And she makes it very clear in an annoying spoken word breakdown about what she’s calling dibs on:

I’ll calling dibs
On your lips

On your kiss

On your time

Boy, I’m calling dibs

On your hand

On your heart

All mine

Kelsea Ballerini tries to prove herself as a girl power icon with “Stilettos.” Hearts are broken, she’s feeling sad, but she won’t let her confidence be shaken. She will walk tall in her stilettos and hold herself high. This is great, but, again, it’s another pop song that very much isn’t country music. The production of this song, from the music to Balerinni’s vocals, sounds a lot like Taylor Swift to me. With that said, I’m not sure if Taylor would ever sing, “so you can take your new blonde out to get your drink on.” This is at least the third different song to call out blonde girls as the other girl. I can’t imagine its a slight against blonde girls in general seeing as Kelsea is blonde herself, but it’s interesting that she makes that detail quite clear.

I listen to her song “Yeah Boy” and think of Billy Currington’s “Hey Girl.” In fact, if Currington walked up to Ballerini and just said “hey girl” she’d probably respond with “yeah boy” and off they’d go to some pick-up truck in a field. This song is yet another song where Kelsea Ballerini simply sings a bro-country song from the female perspective. I’m done. There’s no originality in this one. The album ends with Ballerini’s ode to youthful rebels in “Underage.” It’s about teenage girls acting out: fake IDs, drinking wine, racing cars, etc. It’s a list song about ways teens act immaturely and rebel against the rules. It’s curious, though, that a song called “Underage” would reference R. Kelly as their go-to jam in the car. I can’t imagine this is a coincidence considering the sex crimes R. Kelly has committed. That alone takes all credibility and decency away from this song. Seriously, who thought that was a good idea?

Just like Sam Hunt’s Montevallo and just like Lady Antebellum’s 747, this is pop music. It’s rap and electronic noise try to pass itself as an “evolution” of the country sound. Don’t let yourselves be fooled. Sure you’ll hear various country sounds like banjos shoved in the mix, but that serves no purpose other than to make you think it’s country music. This is a pop album, not a country music album. Kelsea Ballerini can sing well, but she is a pop singer who would be laughed out of the country genre if we lived in a just world. If you ever wondered what it would sound like when you cross Sam Hunt with Taylor Swift, just listen to Kelsea Ballerini’s The First Time. I’m all for getting more female voices on the radio, but not like this. I can think of dozens of female country singers who all deserve a single charting near the top ten before the wannabe pop princess, Kelsea Ballerini.

Grade: 1/10

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46 thoughts on “Album Review – ‘The First Time’ Proves that Kelsea Ballerini is Another Pop Singer Trying to be Country

  1. The main difference of course is that Sam Hunt sold a lot of copies. Kelsea debuted with just over 14,000 units sold in its first week and will surely plunge from there

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    • Yeah, there wasn’t a ton of hype surrounding her album release, if any. Sure she now has a top ten single, but there hasn’t been as big a push for Kelsea Ballerini from her label compared to how Sam Hunt was handled. I’m not complaining though!

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      • Yeah we won’t be hearing much from her. The next single will stall outside the top 25 and she’ll likely disappear. Happens with all the female artists lately unfortunately. Jana can’t even crack the top 45 with her latest

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      • Um false I Got The Boy is currently at #43 and next week looks for it to be in the Top 40. However Jana is the one we might have to count on if Kelsea doesn’t stick her or Cassadee Pope when she returns should be fun.

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  2. Well I’m glad it didn’t get a 0/10. Ok I actually liked XO it was a real clever play on words that is pretty cool. Peter Pan is just amazing to me and it fells sweet and heartfelt. I’ll defend Love Me Like You Mean It till the day I die. A great slice of pop-country that is. Btw Derek it is in the Top 10 it’s at #8. In doing so she becomes the highest solo non Miranda Taylor Carrie female since Jana Kramer Why Ya Wanna. I don’t here the rap in Square Pegs is it in the verses I’m a little confused. I’m confused what’s your problem with the song First Time I really love it. Particularly the line “So now I’m letting you go just like I should’ve tried The First Time.” That line in particular is really solid. Ok you got me on Looking At Stars that one is garbage I’ll give you that. Sirens I found too be decent enough. I thought the production was kept in touched and I found it to be like the lesser version of Jana Kramers Whiskey. Secondhand Smoke is a masterpiece enough said. Dibs I just love because well I don’t know it’s just like I can’t explain it I,love it. I liked Stilettos until the chorus hit way too over produced it’s bad. Yeah Boy is meh I liked the production and the chorus can get stuck in my head. But do check the lyric video out. Don’t listen to it just check it out it’s pretty creative. Ok UnderAge if they’d only just said Kelly like referencing Kelly Clarkson I wouldn’t have a problem cause the song isn’t awful.

    Overall here I’m leaning for a 7-7.5/10 I know you guys disagree but hey looks like for this site I’ll be the Kelsea Ballerini nut. Well good job Derek with the review.

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    • P.S when it comes for ranking mainstream can Kelsea please get a D-. I’ll be fine with that I just don’t want an F.

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    • Thanks Raymond. When I had written this originally “Love Me…” was still at 11, but I’ve changed it now to reflect it’s jump to 8. The verses in “Square Pegs” toe the line for rapping, hence why I described it as “pseudo-rap.” And I don’t really have much of a problem with “First Time,” it just really didn’t stick with me.

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      • I understand The First Time song But like I said I now tend to lean in the more pop-country reign. Ok listening to Square Pegs again yeah I see the pseudo-rap. But I do like The Square Pegs. I do wonder stick the pop label on this does it make for good pop music too you Derek. Hey if Kelsea gets the top spot it would be cool to a point. Yeah she’s more pop than country but the fact that she’s from indie label Black River and her debut song has gotten Top 10. Really shows she must stick with radio.

        Ok who’s planning on giving a thrashing on Jake Owens new song cause if you guys won’t I’m gonna destroy that thing myself.

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      • Owen’s will be reviewed in due time. And considering this as pop, I personally don’t think it would be good either way. It’s too immature and bubble gummy for my taste. I think “Dibs” and “Yeah Boy” are terrible songs no matter which way you slice the cake.

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      • Aw man Derek now I want eat cake while listening to the album thanks a lot. But seriously I feel bad for you guys look at the onslaught if new releases there’s Hunter Hayes Billy Currington Gloriana Willie Nelson Jake Owen so many mainstream albums. Wish you guys luck. I’m just gonna eat my cake and listen to this album.

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  3. LOL, I could not believe how immature this album was. Want some more proof that she’s the definition of a woman singing bro-country? She said the word “boy” or “boys” on the album a total of 50 times—even more than FGL said “girl” on Anything Goes (45 times).
    I thought going into this that she might actually put some decent enough stuff on the album, but the only good songs were Peter Pan and Secondhand Smoke, and it was in no way country. 1/10 from me too.

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    • I applaud you for counting the “boy(s).” I didn’t even think about trying that for the review, but I’m glad you mentioned it here!

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  4. great review Derek! I have enjoyed the acoustic version of Love me like you mean it even tough its lyrics suck but I absolutely hate the album version. it’s garbage. This album is pretty much summed up into that song. such a shame, she has a good voice and her acoustic version was great.

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  5. Spot on, Derek. What sucks for Kelsea is I don’t see another song on the album doing as well on the charts as a single than “Love Me Like You Mean It.” Really it’s a miracle she made it into the top ten, as if you’re name isn’t Miranda or Carrie you aren’t really given a chance at radio if you’re a female artist. Kelsea basically got the pass because she pandered to bro themes from the female perspective. But ask Maggie Rose where that got her with “Girl In A Truck Song” last year. You may get a temporary short term boost in stature and the endorsement from T-Swift helps too, but it’s simply not sustainable in the long run.

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    • What’s more impressive it’s from the indie label Black River of all labels. The same label who can’t break Kellie Pickler who haven’t gotten a hit past #13 and yet Kelsea comes in and boom she gets a Top 10. She could become the new Aldean for her label. Speaking of Kellie Pickler she also has a song out.

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  6. I’m typing this on the go, and will provide more detailed thoughts later……………but my initial raw reaction is this.

    For a pop album, it’s actually pretty good. Ballerini actually has a handful of nuanced songs with some fascinating metaphors she runs well with; particularly with “Peter Pan” and “Stilettos”. And while I can’t stand “Love Me Like You Mean It” to this day, “The First Time” also has a better idea of pop production elsewhere.

    We’re talking about COUNTRY music, ultimately, is the thing. And for a country album, this is such a misfire. It deserves the grade it gets as far as reviewing music true to the genre is concerned.

    However, unlike Sam Hunt’s travesty that is “Montevallo”, which is equally as much a failure as a pop album than as a “country album”, Kelsea Ballerini’s “The First Time” is actually not bad at all for a pop album. I’d give it 6/10 as far as pop releases are concerned, and I do hope she crosses over and realizes that’s where she belongs in the first place.

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  7. Another dead-on review of a fake country album. Lately I’m hesitant to say I’m a country fan because of the current “Luke Bryan bro country wanna be” direction of the genre. What’s it going to take to get real genuine artists the attention they deserve?

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  8. I’m with Noah. This album is barely/not-at-all country, but it is a decent pop album. Ballerini’s got a very emotive and energetic voice which adds a lot to these tracks, and she can craft some pretty deft lyric and melodic hooks. I throughly enjoyed “XO”, “Peter Pan”, “The First Time”, “Secondhand Smoke”, and even kind of liked “Dibs” and “Yeah Boy”. Definitely a surprise considering “Love Me…” did nothing for me.

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    • I have to single out “Secondhand Smoke” as the song that most impressed me on first listen.

      It’s quite similar to the subject matter of “Little Toy Guns”, but I’d dare argue the emotional payoff is even better in Ballerini ‘ read. It’s more nuanced and less overwrought a delivery on the topic.

      The title track quite likely is the runner-up. Love the emotional depth to the relationship dissolution reflection.

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  9. I’ll buy her cd next week and I really like Love me like you mean it that song grew on me now.

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  10. I really am done with the whole Kelsea debate. But why don’t you guys go check her out in interviews. She is one of the most humble down to earth people.

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