Breland Is Country. Breland Is Hip-Hop. Can Breland Go Pop?

In the video for Breland’s breakout single, “My Truck,” the twangy sung intro is mouthed by a stoic Marlboro Man type. But then comes Breland, wiry and enthusiastic, shoving him out of the frame to take over the singing, providing an object lesson in genre and racial expectations. “My Truck,” one of the year’s most beguiling singles, is a fluent amalgam of country verbiage and vocal texture with hip-hop bluster and cadence. “Wood-grain dash with the matte-black finish,” Breland sing-raps, “and it match my shawty with the big ol’ butt.”

Breland made the song last September, in between writing R&B demos, as both an exercise and an inspired bit of strategy. “I’ve had a Billboard Pro membership for years,” he said recently in a FaceTime interview from his Atlanta home, wearing a shirt that read GODFIDENCE. “I was aware of the fact that the biggest record of all time is a country-trap song by an unknown artist from Atlanta and now no one else is putting out songs that sound like that. Wide open. Why on earth would I not give it a shot?”

“My Truck” — his first attempt — manages to be playful without being kitsch, earnestly embracing the truck culture of the South while sprinkling in some frisky lyrics and arched-eyebrow meta-commentary about being a black performer in a traditionally white space: “Scuff these Jordans/You can say you hate me.” It’s a little bit of a dare from someone gleefully divebombing into rural aesthetics.

“I’m the fourth-wall breaker,” Breland said. “It is impossible for me to exist in this space and not acknowledge the fact that it’s a little weird.”

This was the future promised by “Old Town Road,” which went from holy-wow phenomenon to were-we-ever-so-silly memory, becoming the longest-running No. 1 in Billboard Hot 100 history along the way. Country and hip-hop had been fraternizing for years, formally and informally, but in the wake of “Old Town Road” there was curiously little action (apart from “The Git Up,” a genteel trifle by Blanco Brown).

Breland — a 24-year-old genre-fluid pop-minded talent with a lithe singing voice and an instinctual ability to mimic Young Thug-esque flow patterns — savvily jumped into that vacuum. On Friday he’ll release his self-titled debut EP (on Bad Realm/Atlantic), full of breezy, intuitive songs that make light work of the borders between country, hip-hop, R&B and pop, including country-themed trap (“Horseride”), country-textured R&B (“Wifi”) and hip-hop-accented pop country (“In the Woulds,” with the country singers Chase Rice and Lauren Alaina). It’s a huge swing, and also utterly logical.

Breland’s approach is a successor to both the country rap tunes that dominated the South in the 1990s and 2000s and also the hip-hop-inflected country that’s been a persistent presence in Nashville in the 2010s, best espoused by Sam Hunt (and less impressively by umpteen of his peers).

Yet Breland, born Daniel Breland, wasn’t raised in either of those traditions — he grew up in a New Jersey household of gospel singers, and sang and arranged a cappella with a group called the Phantoms when he was in college at Georgetown. He started making his earliest inroads as a professional songwriter then, too, and during his sophomore year, he found himself working in Far Rockaway, at the home of the French Montana affiliate Chinx (formerly Chinx Drugz). One night, Breland recalled, “He left and said, ‘I’m going to go do this show.’”

He never came back: Chinx had been murdered. “That let me know that hip-hop probably wasn’t going to be for me,” Breland said. “I don’t think that I’m really cut out to be in the trenches like that.”

After graduation, Breland moved to Atlanta and began writing predominantly R&B songs, around 2,000 in three years, he estimates, with only flickers of success. But he was diligent, and also impressive enough of a singer that when he posted Chris Brown covers, Brown would sometimes repost them. He got used to sharing snippets of new work on his Instagram story, which is where he first posted the “My Truck” hook, and received encouragement to release it on his own.

“‘My Truck’ can be a very polarizing song,” Breland said. “The question for me to answer was, ‘Do I believe that I could pull this song off?’” And then the answer that I had was: ‘Why not, right? Why not me?’”

Since then, he’s doubled down on the sound. He worked with the Nashville-based Sam Sumser and Sean Small, who’ve written and produced for Lizzo and Usher, and also Mitchell Tenpenny and Walker Hayes.

“You don’t know if it’s a joke, playing off the current craze, the country-trap thing; we went into it hoping it was more sincere than just a one-song thing,” said Sumser, who along with Small worked on two songs on the EP, “Hot Sauce” and “In the Woulds.” “This kid is way more than a quick meme.” (Charlie Handsome, who has produced for Post Malone, Kanye West and Khalid, produced on two songs as well.)

Breland also caught the ear of Hunt, Nashville’s pre-eminent hybridizer. In late February, they wrote music together in Hunt’s producer’s studio in Nashville, and they have plans to reconnect in June. (The two have developed a strong rapport — Breland coaxed Hunt into his first Instagram Live session.)

“I really knew from hearing ‘My Truck’ that he was talented, but being in the room with him, it was another level,” Hunt said in a phone interview. One of the ideas they kicked around was a “My Truck” remix with Hunt on it. Over the next few weeks, Hunt wrote several verses, and settled on two, including lyrics that are, Hunt said, “as far into rural country as I’ve ever gone”: “Toolbox full of dirty dove-shot empties, muddy old clodhoppers and a Mossberg pump/Pull up on you at the red light, homie, throw some Bone Thugs on and make your loose change jump.”

For the video, he bought the kind of pickup truck he had in mind when writing the verse, a 1993 Chevrolet C/K 1500 4×4. Part of the excitement of the song — in addition to hearing Hunt sing Breland’s boast, “Young, rich and I’m pretty” — is hearing Hunt, a syrupy country singer, lean into the melodies and patterns Breland established, a proof-of-concept for more aggressive blends of country, R&B and hip-hop on the horizon.

The original “My Truck” had early support from 97.9 The Box (KBXX-FM), Houston’s influential hip-hop station. “This sounds like Houston, it sounds like our station,” said Terri Thomas, its program director, who had reached out to Breland via Instagram direct message within minutes of hearing “My Truck” in early February. When they spoke later that day, Thomas said, “I told him, ‘By the end of the day, you’re going to be the new priority at the label.’” The song has since been played widely throughout the South, where truck culture is gospel.

Credit…Mike Belleme for The New York Times

Thomas has also given some spins to the Sam Hunt remix, but as of yet, Hunt’s presence on the song hasn’t helped it crack the notoriously conservative country radio ecosystem. According to information provided by the radio tracking service Mediabase, “My Truck” has been played on only a handful of country music radio stations a handful of times. (It has rural fans, though — the song soundtracks plenty of muddy truck and ATV videos on TikTok.)

Much of the balancing act for Breland moving forward involves courting both sides. He has two managers — one from the world of hip-hop and R&B, one from country. The coronavirus pandemic led him to cancel his promotional tour, a frustration for John McMann, Atlantic’s senior vice president of pop and rhythmic promotion, who was keen to get the effervescent Breland in rooms with radio decision makers: “He’s the textbook built artist to do the promo game, go from market to market and break down the doors,” McMann said.

Instead of a tour, Breland did Instagram Live performances for more than 50 radio stations while locked down with his family in New Jersey, where he was originally quarantining. And he opened up a contest for songwriters to contribute verses to “In the Woulds.” He posts comedic videos on TikTok, including “How to Make a Drake Song in 1 Minute” and one, for “Horseride,” in which he stands on his father’s back as he crawls across the living room floor.

“The one thing that I didn’t want to do was lose steam,” Breland said. “You know how music is — the sounds change every six months, for real.”

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