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Album Review: Kelsea Ballerini’s Self-Titled Album

kelsea is out March 20.

Album Review: Kelsea Ballerini’s Self-Titled Album
Kelsea Ballerini; Photo credit: Piper Ferguson

Kelsea Ballerini takes an introspective look at herself in her new album, kelsea.

With her third studio installment, Ballerini creates a millennial guidebook of sorts. Whether she’s encouraging us to remove our masks in “homecoming queen?,” is put off by the idea of nightlife culture at the “club” and wishes her significant other could offer emotional support like her female friends on “love me like a girl,” the 26-year-old singer displays her insecurities like a badge of honor on the self-aware project. The journey begins as Ballerini tells on herself in “overshare,” revealing that she often gets anxious during conversations and is intimidated by silence, turning her constant state of self-consciousness into a breezy bop. She rejects the atmosphere of drunken nights and meaningless hookups in the polished production that is “club,” followed by the intimately personal “homecoming queen?” which beckons us to share the vulnerabilities we all walk through life with.  

Kelsea Ballerini; Cover art via Facebook
Kelsea Ballerini; Cover art via Facebook

But she begins to truly flex her pop songwriting abilities on the slick “the other girl.” Ballerini and her pop superstar friend Halsey team up for the edgy duet that finds them trying to determine who “the other girl” is in the relationship with a two-timing man, Halsey’s smoky voice complimenting Ballerini’s soft and sweet tone, making for a convincing match-up. The hit making singer continues to navigate this new sound with “hole in the bottle,” a playful ode to her passion for all things wine. Clever from start to finish, Ballerini sets the tone by opening the track with a clip of a vintage-like soundbite of a smooth-voiced woman who praises those who are able to introduce alcohol into their lives in a healthy way – leading into Ballerini’s musical toast to her ability to polish off a bottle of wine solo. Though she slyly blames the disappearing liquid on a hole in the bottle, she concludes the song with the same voiceover condemning, “she has abused her system and she’s paying for it.”

But the starlet takes on a more serious tone with the observational “half of my hometown.” Holding up a mirror to the East Tennessee town that raised her, Ballerini paints a picture of small town America where a portion of the population moved on after high school while the other half still reminisces about the glory days of their youth. Ballerini isn’t so much casting judgment as she is empathizing with both sides, with fellow Knoxville native Kenny Chesney making for a sound duet partner who helps her deliver the message. “…While the other half / Of my hometown / Was in the crowd / They knew the words / They sang them loud / And all I want to do / Is make them proud / ‘Cause half of me / Will always be / In Knoxville, Tennessee / My hometown,” she sings with a dose of nostalgia in her voice that’s supported by gentle backing vocals from Chesney, making for a standout moment on the expansive project.

While the bop-filled endeavor finds Ballerini chasing a pop-oriented sound, she waves the flag for her native tongue in “a country song.” The track feels like a thank you letter to the genre that has served as a place of solace in times of need, from helping her cope with her parents’ divorce to the growing pains of her first year in Nashville. “Done it my whole life, sometimes you gotta write a country song,” she sings proudly. Ballerini ends the album by revealing that she has a complicated relationship with “la” On the surface level, it seems as though the star is airing out her first world problems, whether worrying if her famous friends will pick up the phone when she calls to feeling insecure in a room surrounded by A-list celebrities. But reading between the lines, Ballerini lets us in on her innermost thoughts. “If I let down my hair / In the ocean air / Will Tennessee be mad at me?” she asks out loud, a simple, but intriguing line that takes you inside her head space. As she walks among the rich and famous, strutting red carpets that match her satisfied ego, she can’t help but wonder what her next step in life is – and if making the glamorized city a permanent residence is a natural move that will ease her soul or disrupt it.  

Ballerini leaves fans, and herself, with this thought-provoking question, signifying her growth. With kelsea, Ballerini sets the stage for the next phase of her career, one that could take her away from her Music City roots. But as she continues to spread her artistic wings, it’s likely that Tennessee will not only understand, but embrace her inevitable evolution.