Shaboozey Subverts Westward Expansion Trope on Terrific Third LP, ‘Where I’ve Been, Isn’t Where I’m Going’ (Critic’s Take)
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Shaboozey Subverts Westward Expansion Trope on Terrific Third LP, ‘Where I’ve Been, Isn’t Where I’m Going’ (Critic’s Take)

“How did all these people find out about Shaboozey?” one audience member could be heard asking at the country star’s headlining show at Brooklyn’s Baby’s All Right on May 17. 

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It’s the kind of question that longtime fans grapple with when their favorite artists have their breakthrough moments, but in Shaboozey’s case, the answer is pretty clear. Ten years removed from “Jeff Gordon,” a piano-inflected trap banger that granted him his first quasi-viral moment, the Nigerian-American singer-songwriter has combined his own self-sourced momentum, the glow of dual appearances on Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter and an authentic understanding of the throughline between outlaw country and hip-hop to arrive at his splendid third studio album, Where I’ve Been, Isn’t Where I’m Going

The months-long build-up for Shaboozey’s third LP has resulted in a series of buzzy moments, each bigger than the last. Despite a third of the album already out in the world as singles – with “A Bar Song (Tipsy)” leading the way, thanks to its No. 3 Billboard Hot 100 peak – Where I’ve Been sidesteps a lack of cohesion by contextualizing those standout singles (“Annabelle,” “Let It Burn” and “Vegas,” among them) within a narrative that subverts the idea of Westward expansion. 

In his May Billboard profile, Shaboozey explained the similarities between “the outlaw Old West and hip-hop” as “talking about the same things: going out and going after what is yours, and having to finesse to make ends meet.” 

“If you listen to some old Western music, especially gunfighter ballads… Marty Robbins is a good one, [he] was a thug! He’s like robbing cattle, robbing trains, [he] knows [his] mom is disappointed,” he said. “It’s the same s–t Bossman Dlow [is] talking about, it’s just painted in a different world. Switch out draco for a six shooter. Switch out Balmain jeans for Wrangler jeans or chaps.” 

The urgency of this middle ground – as well as this particular aesthetic’s preoccupation with moving forward (and westward) while always honoring the past – makes it a natural sonic space for Boozey’s third LP to reside in. 

Where I’ve Been commences with “Horses & Hellcats,” a song whose title immediately synthesizes Shaboozey’s penchants for hip-hop, country and Western aesthetics. “We ride palominos like they’re SRTs/ Once I pick a speed, ain’t no catchin’ me,” he sings in the chorus, employing a cadence that’s firmly rooted in melodic rap, while his raspy drawl plays on the more overt country elements of the song (namely the brooding guitars and the neighing horses in the background.) “Horses & Hellcats” is a song that exalts the common ground between outlaw country and hip-hop. Preying on the shock value of the two genres’ juxtaposition isn’t Shaboozey’s goal –it’s the way those two genres are intrinsically tied together in Shaboozey’s artistic, sonic and personal profile that makes the sound so arresting.

“Last of My Kind,” assisted by East Texas country rocker Paul Cauthen, emphasizes the outlaw feel of Shaboozey’s sound, with Cauthen’s dramatic warble pairing well with the rock influences of the song’s arrangement. “Can’t wait much longer, baby, yeah, it’s my time/ You won’t ever find another like me, uh, I’m the last of my kind,” Boozey closes the song, once again musing over new destinations, both literally and figuratively. Standout tracks “Highway” and “East of the Massanutten” — which finds Shaboozey “runnin’ full speed ahead out West” for his “freedom” and “40 acres” – keep that theme of new frontiers at the forefront of the record, despite occasional detours into poppier, more saccharine affairs. While those tracks do balance out the record’s darker moments, they still feel like surface-level examples of where Shaboozey can take his sound; in those moments, the outlaw cowboy becomes a law-abiding citizen of the country-pop state – a concession that Boozey doesn’t really need to make. 

Advance singles “A Bar Song” and “Anabelle” are still stellar showcases of Shaboozey’s knack for melody, as is the BigXThaPlug-assisted “Drink Don’t Need No Mix,” which finds two of the South’s hottest new stars standing proudly in the legacy of country rappers like Nelly. Boozey and BigX have the best chemistry out of any of the album’s other collaborators; both of their voices effortlessly skate over the trap-inflected beat as they provide a celebratory complement to the escapist revelry of “A Bar Song.” 

Outside of Cauthen and BigXThaPlug, Grammy nominee Noah Cyrus is the album’s only other featured artist. Always a strong duet partner (her past collaborations with Demi Lovato and big sister Miley Cyrus are both absolutely gorgeous), Noah provides a tender upper harmony on “My Fault” that picks up on the emotional fragility of the track’s finger-picked acoustic guitar. Here, the glory and wonder of unfamiliar streets are tempered by grueling heartbreak – a testament to Shaboozey’s ability to embrace and honor the full breadth of what it means to move forward. “But this road you lead me down is too long/ It ain’t nothin’ like the streets I grew up on/ When I beg you not to go, you leave again/ Well, I guess I wasn’t enough in the end,” they croon. 

At a tight 12 tracks, there’s no real filler on Where I’ve Been, Isn’t Where I’m Going. Shaboozey assembled his strongest hooks and smartest arrangements to craft a record that embraces both country music tradition and modernity. A decade into the game, his singular vision of the 21st century urban outlaw cowboy has finally coalesced into something that’s not just coherent, but also plainly irresistible. Whether he’s belting out heartbreak ballads like “Let It Burn” or parsing the consequences of homewrecking on late-album standout “Steal Her From Me,” Shaboozey has delivered a terrific record of songs tailor-made to rock the arenas – which will certainly be where he’s going. 

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