decolonize country music with priscilla renea’s bold album ‘coloured’

June 25, 2018
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As early record labels realized in the 1920’s that there was a buck to be made off segregation, the often blurred lines between genres like blues, folk, hillbilly, and string band music gradually became a lot more rigid. On a good day, the lines between genres are sort of arbitrary, but get capitalists and good old fashioned American racism in the mix and those lines firm up quick. Great string band players like Lonnie Johnson and Brownie McGhee switched to blues at the insistance of industry players, and that legendary West African instrument the banjo became wholly gentrified. Within a few years, the label lines were clear: country music was marketed to white folks and made by white folks.

It’s not so surprising that in 2018, the only commercially successful black country singer is maybe the safest singer in the history of the genre. (Look, no disrespect Darius, “Let Her Cry” is an amazing song, but can we all agree to come together and just retire “Wagon Wheel” once and for all?) It’s even less surprising that when there’s any attempt to integrate country with hip-hop or R&B, it’s either a cringe-worthy attempt to declare “look, I’m not racist because I have black friends!” like Brad Paisley’s ill-advised “Accidental Racist” or the even more cringe-worthy cultural appropriation of acts like Kid Rock and Colt Ford. All that history is what makes Coloured from Priscilla Renea so surprising. It may be the first country record in the history of the genre that could be described as unapologetically black.

The opening song “Family Tree,” kicks off with a classic country guitar line, and that most timeless of country themes: a story of a broken family. Slowly electronic flourishes and R&B vocal touches creep in, and the song gradually morphs into something totally unique. “Jonjo” melds a blues stomp with a trap beat and a hillbilly hook, before launching into the album’s clearest statement of intent: “Gentle Hands.” Like the best of anything new, the building blocks are clear, but it turns them into something entirely its own.

Given Priscilla Renae’s songwriting chops (she’s been a songwriter for hire for artists like Rihanna, Mary J Blige, Mariah Carey, and basically everone else for the past decade), it’s not surprising that the ballads tend to be where she shines brightest. “If I Ever Loved You” and “Let’s Build A House” don’t boast much by way of bold genre experiments, they’re merely great songs.

The album closes with the most surprising track “Land Of The Free.” It’s a song precision-crafted to piss off the country fans with “Blue Lives Matter” stickers on their F-150s who once upon a time chased the Dixie Chicks out of the industry for having the gall to have opinions. With lyrics like “slavery is abolished but it’s still around today” and “ain’t no sympathy when you’re living while black in the land of the free,” the song holds nothing back. Maybe that 2 minute long Hendrix homage is a little on the nose, but like the album itself, it’s what Priscilla Renae is going for that matters most. And when she’s firing on all cylinders, Coloured’s sincere emotion, and bold experimentation makes it one of the most exciting country records in years.