Where I’ve Been, Isn’t Where I’m Going

In mid-April, after struggling for a decade to find a new intersection between country and hip-hop, Shaboozey released “A Bar Song (Tipsy)” amid the wave of adulation that followed Cowboy Carter, the Black country maypole on which he appeared twice. It seemed like the epitome of a one-hit wonder. A near-universal anthem about despising your job that barely begets survival and drowning in as many rounds as the bartender can summon, it became a near-universal sensation, streaming three million times in 24 hours and charting all around the world. After all, how could a whistle-out-loud interpolation of a 20-year-old J-Kwon smash that nodded to the Black roots of Jack Daniels while towering atop the lily-white country chart not be a flash in the pan, some glitch in the Music Row matrix? This was surely Shaboozey’s “Achy Breaky Heart” and “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” his mainstream introduction and farewell all at once.

But Where I’ve Been, Isn’t Where I’m Going does not feel like a mere receptacle for one of the year’s most unlikely hits. Shaboozey’s remarkably assured third album is a sophisticated self-help journey that only occasionally masquerades as a good time. He has spent a long while trying to find some space where the sounds of hip-hop and country could overlap, where the defiant swagger, nostalgic circumspection, and quivering heartbreak of both genres could fuse together. The parties of “A Bar Song” and “Drink Don’t No Mix” offer the same sort of escapes that he suggests in “East of the Massanutten” or “Let It Burn,” where the Great American West becomes the frontier for fleeing, respectively, the persecutions of the South or an abusive relationship. Shaboozey seems to always be asking how we can last a little longer and live a little better in this strange place, even as he’s grinning while reaching for another shot.

If you’re the type of listener who writes off the last dozen years of mainstream country music, especially its best-selling bro-country core, as bullshit, Where I’ve Been will at first sound like a tough hang. He uses Auto-Tune to exaggerate the contours of his drawl during cowboy-coopting opener “Horses & Hellcats,” a trick he nevertheless smartly returns to. He favors processed, billowing harmonies that emphasize his epiphanies, as on “Highway,” the frustrated testimonial of a traveler almost broken by the choices that make him alone. And he inches toward rap, his voice oozing over the second verse of “Vegas,” where he stares into the bottom of his emptied cup and empty life with deep shame. “Came out of the gutter, covered in dirt/Got it all over me,” he offers, each brief pause landing like another jab into his own ribs.

Wait: Songs about the wrong end of the bottle and the weary traveler far from home, plus references to the mighty strides of beautiful Palomino horses and Dan Post boots? Indeed, Where I’ve Been is, in some regard, a wildly reverent country album, from its opening sonic triumvirate of whistling wind, pedal steel, and acoustic guitar through its banjo-traced closing trot complete with a fiddle solo. Every song here hinges on the acoustic guitar, whether it’s the rhythmic R&B-style loop that anchors “Drink Don’t Need No Mix” or the massive, major-chord strums of “Anabelle.” Shaboozey purportedly wrote an entire country album before Lady Wrangler, his chimerical 2018 major-label debut that flopped in part because he could not decide how its constituent pieces cohered; Where I’ve Been works so well because he starts clearly with country, then rearranges it to fit his needs.

Those needs almost invariably involve what’s next and better. This forward gaze is the true hip-hop element of these 12 songs. “East of the Massanutten” is a remarkable piece of work. He alludes to the Confederate king of guerilla warfare, John Mosby, to justify his drive to head west and seek out “a land full of dreams/With milk, gold, and honey/Just waitin’ for me.” It’s an emancipation song, as are “Anabelle” and “Let It Burn,” overdue goodbyes to lovers who will not stop wrecking your life. “My Fault,” his gorgeous duet with Noah Cyrus, is a radical counterpart to Waxahatchee’s “Right Back to It”; rather than return to a relationship’s welcoming stability, both parties seek it by striking out separately to escape a cycle of “bar games” and blackouts. “Last of My Kind” first offers a whiff of retrograde nostalgia (and Paul Cauthen’s Kid Rock-lite cameo does not help), but its unique brand of survivalism ultimately promises a kind of readiness for whatever shall come. It also reads, gloriously, like a Black rejoinder to the dog-whistle paranoia of Hank Williams Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive.”

Where I’ve Been ends with “Finally Over,” a bedraggled riff about the battles between perseverance and forfeiture, self-doubt and belief, heaven and hell. Is this album, he seems to wonder, his music-industry exit, the last gasp of the label deals? This is terra firma for country, where the paradox of rural folk seeking big-city fame has long created compelling existential tension. It’s astonishing that he wondered aloud on this track if he should sell his soul for “another viral moment” just before “A Bar Song” soon made him very famous. But this, thankfully, is the work of someone with more to give than a mere viral moment. Rooted in the past but keyed to the idea of finding a better future by whatever means necessary (leaving, burning, boozing, fighting), Where I’ve Been, Isn’t Where I’m Going epitomizes not a one-hit wonder but a songwriter who has found both his mode and his moment at the exact same time.

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Shaboozey: Where I’ve Been, Isn’t Where I’m Going