Country

Breland on His Ambitions as a 'Cross Country' Artist: 'I'm Trying to Be a Cultural Bridge'

Breland
Jimmy Fontaine

Breland

There are two things Breland doesn’t play around about: his truck and his vision.

The New Jersey-born country-trap singer, rapper, and songwriter exploded onto the scene in early 2020 when his debut single, “My Truck,” gained traction on TikTok leading to over 800,000 videos on the platform using the official “My Truck” audio.

The video for the song, which peaked at No. 28 on Hot Country Songs and No. 92 on the Hot 100, has garnered over 40 million YouTube views. In September, Breland, 25, launched his weekly Apple Music Country radio show, “Land of the BRE” where he plays music and talks with artists helping push country music forward. “My Truck” was a marquee moment for Breland, but his past and his roadmap for his future seek something even greater.

Breland’s ability to adapt and push boundaries are what make him and his music so arresting. His self-titled EP, released last May, featured collaborations with Chase Rice, Lauren Alaina, and Sam Hunt. Before “My Truck,” Breland landed cuts on albums from alternative R&B singer Elhae and rapper-singer YK Osiris. For Juneteenth 2020, he released Rage & Sorrow, a two-track set inspired by his feelings surrounding the murder of George Floyd (“So many brothers that we lost to the violence/ Lean upon your neck is how they check for compliance”) and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. The emotional songs touched on the complexities of race and masculinity, providing another glimpse into how wide-ranging Breland’s artistic skills are. Breland has continued to expand his musical portfolio by collaborating with artists like Tiera (“Miles”) and Keith Urban (“Out the Cage”).

From Nelly and Florida Georgia Line to Sam Hunt, the convergence of the worlds of hip-hop and country is nothing new. With roots in a cappella and gospel and a foundation of songwriting for artists including Justin Bieber and Chris Brown, Breland is seeking to turn these cross-genre collaborations into a larger movement he has coined “cross-country.” Off the success of “My Truck,” Breland entered into a partnership with Chevy and TikTok that had the platinum-selling artist delivering a Chevy-specific version of “My Truck” along with multiple commercials to help launch the car brand’s TikTok debut.

Playing off the branding, “Cross Country” is also the title of his latest track. The new single marks a change of pace from the high-energy trap-influence of “My Truck,” with Breland taking a more stripped-down approach with a focus on his smooth vocals. Despite the clear country influence and sound, Atlantic Records West Coast president Kevin Weaver says there is “not a country radio plan for the song,” but that “as the song grows and develops, [Atlantic has] the intent to do everything appropriate to utilize radio to take the song all the way.”

For Breland and “Cross Country,” it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Breland is working towards releasing a full-length project before the end of the year, but Atlantic Records West Coast senior VP of marketing Brian "Busy" Dackowski says that Breland will “drop a couple more singles before the album.” In terms of continuing to push Breland and his upcoming music, Weaver added that “seeding sounds out early to TikTok and allowing them to organically bubble” is a strategy that they will continue to incorporate. 

Talking to Billboard in a conversation that spans his getting a COVID-19 drive-thru test and arriving at an airport, Breland seems ready to launch the next phase of his post-“My Truck” career.

"Cross Country” feels like it skews more traditionally country than "My Truck." Was that a conscious choice?  

Yeah, so “Cross Country, initially, was more of a concept for a movement or a genre or a sub-genre of country music, even before it was a song. I had this idea that it crossed countries. It’s my classification for all of the music that intersects, country and other genres like R&B, hip-hop, dance, whatever. So, “My Truck,” theoretically, would be a cross country song. A lot of the stuff that Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt, Kacey Musgraves [are] doing I think is cross-country. There's people outside of the traditional country barrier that also fall within cross-country, like a Leon Bridges or an Alabama Shakes

I wanted to write a song that incorporated cross-country into the title, and then I was like, “Yo, it would be really dope if I use this as an opportunity to tell my story.” Because I think when you have a big hit single that comes out of nowhere on the Internet, people don't really get a chance to know you. 

What's your relationship with TikTok and having a song blow up out of nowhere and trigger this rapid increase in engagement? 

I didn't have a TikTok [account] before I put that song up. I put the song out in September of 2019, and TikTok wasn't what it is now, right? It was just literally a button that I clicked on the website I used to put the song on iTunes and the streaming platforms. I was like, “Okay, yeah, I've heard of TikTok, I'll put it on there.” So, when it started to blow up on TikTok, I was like “Okay, I need to figure out how this works and what this even is.”   

How did the Chevy deal come to fruitionWhat was it like working with them? 

It was amazing. The Chevy team is so dope. I think my song showed them that there's a much younger audience of people that appreciate trucks and are a part of the truck community -- as well as a much more diverse group of people who vibe with the song, and could hopefully see themselves driving a Chevy. There's a few more installments of these commercials and they're all so fun. I didn't want it to end. I was like, Yo, we need to shoot like 12 commercials so we can just keep doing it. 

Despite the range of your EP, some people may only recognize you from “My Truck,” and may be quick to write you off as a one-hit wonder. Does that worry you? 

I think that the advantage that I have is that I'm a songwriter first and foremost. It's not like I lucked up on “My Truck.” It wasn't an accident, you know. I've written with Florida Georgia Line, Chris Brown, Justin Bieber, Trey SongzKeith Urban, and Sam Hunt and people across a lot of different genres and given them songs that they're really excited about. I don't see why it would be different writing stuff for myself.    

There's been conversation recently about artists making a song "for TikTok" in terms of lyrics, choreography, production, etc. Do you see TikTok having an impact on your, or other people’s writing process? 

I talked about this with Keith Urban before and he put it really brilliantly... "I'm in service to the song." I don't go into anything selfishly like, “Oh, this is going to be the single, this is going to be the TikTok smash, etc.” I think, “What does this song need to be? What do I need to be saying on this song? Who needs to be performing the song? Is it going to be me? Should someone else do it?” All of my decisions in the creative process are based around that. 

Now, if there's a really fun or quirky beat and I feel like there's some space for me to get a little bit more experimental with some of my cadences and lyrics, I'll do that. I definitely understand, from a business perspective, how that might gear it toward TikTok, but I'm not over here just trying to make songs for any one demographic. I'm just trying to make the best song possible.  

Sam Hunt appeared on the remix of “My Truck,” and you're on Keith Urban’s new record. What was it like working with them?   

It was amazing, dude. Both of those guys are incredible, really smart, thoughtful, true artists and creatives in every sense of the word. Sam really takes all of his lyrics very seriously. He will go back and rewrite a verse 10 times, and there might only be like four words different, but, for him, every syllable matters and every word matters. 

Getting him on “My Truck” was really dope because he's someone that I think really pushed this idea of cross-country forward with all the music that he was dropping. Keith also similarly has a lot of fusion -- maybe not as much from a hip-hop perspective, but with classic rock and his pop sensibilities. He knows so much music and really pays attention to sounds and how they evolve, which is why us working together was also such a natural fit. 

Watching both Sam and Keith make songs so deliberately and intentionally helped me with “Cross Country,” and it's part of why my approach on it was a little different. I definitely wouldn't have been able to come up with this -- or do any of the songs that I have coming after this -- if it weren't for the things that I learned from Sam and Keith.  

You are making music that is explicitly rap and explicitly country. So, who do you look up to in the industry for guidance?  

I look up to NellyMickey GuytonSam HuntFlorida Georgia Line... me and Tyler [Hubbard] are very close. I look up to Keith. Outside of the genre, Trey Songz is somewhat of a mentor, a big brother figure to me as well. 

I'm a new artist, so anytime I can catch a jewel or a life lesson from these artists who have been doing this for so long, especially with Nelly, Jimmie Allen, and Mickey Guyton being Black in this space and owning it and doing their own thing, it really inspires me to continue blending sounds and genres and to stand firm in what I want to accomplish. I'm trying to be a cultural bridge between the hip-hop and R&B world and the country world. 

Did you try to get signed to a Nashville label 

I never officially tried to get signed to a Nashville label. I met with a lot of different labels in both New York and Nashville. The response from the Nashville labels was really positive and I'm on Atlantic now, so we do partner with Warner Nashville in terms of strategizing how to put some of the music out.  

How do you think labels and country radio can be better partners moving forward?  

I think just broadening our definition of what country music is will help a lot of that support come to be. With songs like “My Truck,” there were a lot of people who might've said, “Hey, this isn't necessarily a country song.” But I think with the parameters of cross-country, which is -- Is it telling a story? Do the lyrics relate to the concept? That's really all you need. I think the more we redefine what genre and country music are, the easier it will be for people to support artists who play on the periphery of traditional country music.  

Do you see yourself going further down the political road in your lyrics like on Rage & Sorrow or is it going to be a bit more lighthearted? 

I think it's going to be a mixture of both, man. I have a lot of different stories to tell. I think balance is important.  It felt really good to put [Rage & Sorrow] out. I just had so much energy surrounding the whole George Floyd situation and the protests that followed it. I wanted to express the rage aspect of it because a lot of people were feeling enraged, but I also wanted to express the sorrow and show that balance is important. A lot of times as men, we don't allow ourselves to do that.

What’s next?  

I really want to give people some more music before we delve into a whole album, so we've got some singles mapped out. A couple have features, potentially from some of the people that I've mentioned. We might have a country twerk song, we might have just a straight-up ballad, and we might have like a country “Uptown Funk” type of song.  

You recently put out the song "Miles" with Tiera. What was it like working with her?  

It was amazing, man. She's such a young superstar. She's got so much talent and so much potential. When she reached out to me, she already had the song with an open bridge and was like, “Hey, would you want to hop on this?” I was like, “I love this song. I would love to get on something with you.” We both have radio shows at Apple Music, so it just felt like a really good pairing. 

I think the more collaboration that we have between artists in country musicBlack, white, or otherwiseI think the more unique perspectives we're going to be able to hear and be able to rally behind. Tiera has an important story to tell. I have an important story to tell. And us getting on that song I think tells a much larger narrative about the future of country music.  

Would you really let someone scuff your Jordans? 

I would rather let someone scuff my Jordans than to touch my truck. But I don't want them to do either. [Laughs.]