Those who have only heard Kelsea Ballerini’s debut single ‘Love Me Like You Mean It’ blasting out of their radios may have underestimated the singer/songwriter for being another cutesy, Disneyfied “country” diva, appealing to youth and not knowing too much about twang. Certainly the single is extremely catchy and Kelsea looks the part, blonde, 21 years old and all smiles and hearts. The self-titled EP, too, stayed safely within the boundaries of female teen-orientated songs about young love, using the kind of “hip”, urbanized language that is age-appropriate. ‘The First Time’, later taken to be the title track of her debut album, turns to a clearly very real heartbreak and explores the pain of an ex continuing to exploit and manipulate her still-existent feelings. In a swirl of piano, strings, reverb and sparse beats, her solo writing credit and emotional performance make it clear not only that this comes from a real place, but also that she knows how to connect when it counts. Something she proves even further as she advances from an all-smiles EP to an album that exhibits real depth. Kelsea Ballerini is much more than a Teen Pop Queen. She has something to say, a clear talent and a penchant for incredibly catchy and addictive melodies to boot. Sure, this album stands tall at the pop end of the country spectrum, and much of the production opts for light synths and drum loops, but there is no obvious auto-tune, extensive amounts of rapping, moronic lyricism about partying and getting drunk or overbearing levels of sap. What Kelsea has done on ‘The First Time’ is let people know that she’s driving her own niche and identifiable style, and that is how female country stars are made.
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