Ever since she walked away with the fourth season of American Idol in 2005, Carrie Underwood's strength has been her steeliness. Even at her tenderest moments, there was a sense of remove, as if Underwood were reluctant to let her guard slip, which is what makes the emotional frankness of 2018's Cry Pretty startling. Underwood is self-aware enough to address this shift at the very beginning of the record, which opens with a title track containing the confession that she's "not usually the kind to show my heart to the world," and then she proceeds to spend the next 50 minutes allowing herself to open up to emotions she has usually kept in reserve. "Cry Pretty" is the rallying call for the album, a cry of confidence that can be heard not just in the lyrics but also within the album's musical ambition. Without abandoning the sweeping, cinematic diva-pop that's her signature, Underwood buttresses her country roots while fearlessly threading hip-hop and R&B within her music, going as far as to invite Ludacris in for a verse on the triumphant closer, "The Champion." Perhaps this fist-pumping affirmation isn't as successful as the smooth R&B rhythms holding "Backsliding" together or the rapid rhyming on "That Song That We Used to Make Love To," but the audacity of the Ludacris guest spot underscores how Underwood is taking risks for the first time. Nearly all of them pay off. "The Bullet," an anti-gun-violence ballad that feels especially potent and poignant in the wake of the 2017 Route 91 Harvest shooting, is nervy and affecting in a way Underwood never has been, and it finds a counterpart in "Southbound," a party tune that's as effervescent as anything she's ever cut. These two songs show how Underwood's deliberate maturation doesn't come at the expense of what she's done before. Instead, it deepens and enriches what was already there -- as any good maturation would -- and the result is an album as satisfying as it is surprising.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine