Maren Morris didn't precisely arrive out of nowhere when she delivered her major-label debut in the summer of 2016 -- she racked up three independent records between 2005 and 2011, the first arriving when she was 15 years old -- but Hero certainly felt unexpected and fresh upon its release. Much of this inventiveness reflects Morris' cross-cultural sensibility, cultivated from equal exposure to classic country, modern pop, and hip-hop, an aesthetic that places Hero at the crossroads of a couple of strands of modern country. At her core, Morris is a singer/songwriter in the vein of Brandy Clark, Miranda Lambert, and Kacey Musgraves -- writers with a keen eye for telling domestic details, composing songs that draw upon tradition but address the present -- but the production she developed with Busbee draws sharply from the lithe R&B influences pioneered by Sam Hunt and the colorful crossover pop of Little Big Town. With its stuttering reggae-inflected electronic rhythms, "Rich" recalls "Painkiller" but it's not a re-creation: Morris twists the rhymes, riding the beat while undercutting her boasts with sly wit. Attitude is a big thing with her. She's funny, profane, and passionate, qualities that serve her well on the album's bolder, brighter numbers, songs where she bends and clips her words in a fashion that owes some debt to hip-hop. On the slower numbers, she flips this skill, easing into the sultry, soulful simmer of "I Wish I Was" or the hushed "I Could Use a Love Song" with an elegant grace. One of the pleasures of Hero is how Morris skillfully slides between styles, blurring distinctions between genre and eras. Much of the album takes its cue from its breakthrough single, "My Church," a piece of secular gospel praising the power of the radio: she draws her strength from the power of pop culture. Maybe that's why she can so easily glide between old-school soul, glistening pop, trash talk, and contemporary R&B on Hero, letting each provide an essential element on an album that feels thoroughly modern and thoroughly country. By drawing upon so many cross-currents, Hero belongs to the digital era but it's the songs -- smart, sharp, and hooky -- that make this a great modern pop album, regardless of genre.
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine