This Isn’t Shaboozey’s First Rodeo

This Isn’t Shaboozey’s First RodeoDaniel Prakopcyk
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From where you’re sitting, Shaboozey might look like an overnight success. Since logging not one, but two featured-artist credits on Beyoncé’s world-stopping foray into country, Cowboy Carter, released in March, the 29-year-old singer-songwriter from Virginia has been everywhere: hitting the red carpet at the Academy of Country Music Awards, making a surprise appearance with Jelly Roll at honky-tonk Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth, rounding out his first string of headlining shows, and even appearing at the top of the Billboard country charts with his hit single “A Bar Song (Tipsy).”

“It feels like a switch was flipped,” Shaboozey tells Harper’s Bazaar of his guest spots on “Spaghettii” (joining Black country icon Linda Martell) and “Sweet Honey Buckiin’.” “As an artist, you get fans, you try to grow your community, but if someone like Beyoncé comes along and shines a light on you, it’s different. It turns into fame. All of a sudden, millions of people were tuning into me and to everyone else highlighted on [Cowboy Carter].”

From where he’s sitting—poolside in L.A., a few hours before rehearsal for his next show—it has all been a blur. In a matter of months, Shaboozey has been in rooms with country-music icons, gotten his first gold-record plaque, and heard his songs playing when he’s walked into a bar. Just as he’s trying to distill all these experiences, and make some sense of them on our call, he is momentarily derailed by a new friend walking past in the background.

“Sorry—that’s Yung Gravy saying hi,” he says with a laugh.

On the heels of all this, Shaboozey is preparing for the release of his third album, Where I’ve Been, Isn’t Where I’m Going, out today. Along with solid yeehaw party anthems like “A Bar Song (Tipsy)” and “Drink Don’t Need No Mix” (featuring rapper BigXthaPlug), the singer also delivers a range of raw and wistful tracks, like the scornful “Annabelle.” It’s classic country, with songs about heartbreak and regret, but it’s not cloying or cliché. Shaboozey walks the line, working within the genre while delivering something wholly new.

The idea behind the new album’s title, and how he settled on it, has been lost to the chaos of the last six months. But reflecting on it now, he says it feels almost like a harbinger—something even more true to him in the present than it was when he first chose it.

“It’s almost like the title manifested itself into my life,” he says. “I’ve just been working at this for so long. I’ve been signed to major labels, and there’s been a lot of people waiting for something like this to happen to me. For some of the people on my team, it’s been four years, 10 years—but for me? It’s been all my life.”

Daniel Prakopcyk

To understand Shaboozey’s aims in country music, you first have to know where he comes from. Born to Nigerian parents in Woodbridge, Virginia, about half an hour south of Washington, D.C., Collins Obinna Chibueze was raised on the music of Usher, J.Lo, and Ja Rule, along with the classic country-western that served as the soundtrack to his dad’s household projects—a constant stream of Kenny Rogers playing as his father tinkered around outside.

It was a mostly quiet place to grow up—not exactly rural, but sheltered enough from the bustle of the nearby metro area for life to feel slower. Even there on the border of Maryland, Virginia felt decidedly different. That part of the United States is where the North bleeds into the South, a cultural nexus that has birthed a long line of musical talents, including Pharrell, Timbaland, and Missy Elliott, but also the Carter Family, Patsy Cline, and Emmylou Harris (an alumna of Shaboozey’s high school).

As a teenager, Shaboozey hoped to be a novelist. Back then, music was just a hobby for him, not something he saw as a viable career.

“My parents thought there was no way to make it in that world at all,” he says. But by the time he’d graduated, his early gigs were bringing in a few hundred bucks here and there, and he started to take it more seriously. At the same time, he was supporting himself by shooting music videos and doing photography.

“I was always telling stories, always trying to find ways to create something,” he says. “Maybe that was a short film with my friends, or writing, but I was always drawn to telling stories.”

It’s not hard to find cinematic inspiration in Shaboozey’s work. From the beginning, the artist has been involved in every facet of his music, overseeing the production of his records, writing the treatments, and directing most of his videos. In his lyrics and his visuals, you can find tinges of filmmakers like Sergio Leone, Martin Scorsese, and the Coen brothers—just a few of his idols—auteurs who tell gritty, sweeping stories of betrayal, revenge, and the pitfalls of pride.

The third track on Where I’ve Been, “Last of My Kind,” is a blazing stomp-clap song featuring Texas country singer Paul Cauthen, fit to play in a stadium or on the next season of Yellowstone. And the yearning “East of the Massanutten” feels like it should play over the pivotal scene in an old western, when the hero decides to leave his hometown in search of something bigger.

“It’s all very organic,” Shaboozey says. “I just see things that inspire me, and I don’t think too much about why—I just follow my response. Whether it’s a vintage magazine, a movie, a pair of jeans, or a classic car, I just pay attention to what it makes me feel, and somehow that gets translated into music.”

Even his early songs have a flair for the dramatic. His debut single, “Jeff Gordon,” a sparse trap song with a stealthy piano beat, begins with overlapping audio from a Nascar race. And his 2018 collab with Duckwrth, “Start a Riot,” was on the soundtrack for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

By the time the latter song came out, Shaboozey had moved out to L.A. and just released his debut album, Lady Wrangler. It wasn’t yet “country,” but the influences were there, and even now, it still sounds undeniably “Shaboozey”—which is to say it’s a blend of genres: part trap and part pop, with a Southern bent. It was also initially intended to be the first installment of a trilogy, but he ended up scrapping the idea. Shaboozey had spent enough time reflecting on the sounds that inspired him to know he wanted to put his own mark on country music, but, he says, he wasn’t yet certain how he wanted to do it.

“Believe it or not, there was an album before Lady Wrangler that was all country,” he says. “I started it, and then for whatever reason, I felt like the world, or the culture, or even I wasn’t ready for it yet. I wanted to do something first that would ease me in.”

He was introduced to his co-manager Abas Pauti by mutual friends in 2019, when Pauti was new to Los Angeles. A musician himself, Pauti knew Shaboozey was trying to create his own sound, a mix of rap and country, and at first imagined something like Lil Nas X’s then-nascent blockbuster “Old Town Road.” Then Pauti heard an early cut of “Why Can’t Cowboys Cry?” (The track would eventually close out Shaboozey’s second album, 2022’s Cowboys Live Forever, Outlaws Never Die.)

“This was something that no one was doing,” he says. “I felt like he was building something special. It was something fresh and new, and I knew if he leaned into it, he would be a superstar.”

Earlier this month, in an interview with the BBC, Lil Nas X discussed his 2019 hit and the firestorm sparked by its removal from Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. Five years later, Nas says he’s happy for Shaboozey and Beyoncé’s history-making runs on the country charts, but wishes he’d received the same support. “I wasn’t even able to experience this,” he says.

Shaboozey makes it clear that while he can’t speak to the rapper’s experience or interest in country music, he knows the impact “Old Town Road” had on the industry at large.

“At the end of the day, it’s one of the biggest songs of all time,” he says. But when it comes to what he wants to do in the country space? “I want to continue to be in this world, and evolve here,” Shaboozey says. “I want to make music like this for the next couple of projects, and tell stories from this point of view. I’m going to keep picking up a guitar and figuring out how to get better at crafting and telling this story, which is what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years.”

Daniel Prakopcyk

To get to this point, the singer adds, “I had to learn to embrace being different, embrace being my own artist. I just had to start making the music I would want to hear.” A few years ago, he and Pauti came up a tagline for his sound: “music for the modern cowboy.”

It’s the perfect encapsulation of Shaboozey’s ambitions, and the reality of his life, especially now that he’s been introduced to a massive global audience.

“Country music is evolving and becoming more exciting for the artists and the audiences, because they’re changing too,” Pauti says. “Shaboozey and Beyoncé are part of that movement, carving out a lane, while also paying homage to the people who came before. It matters that he’s climbing the charts, not looking like a stereotypical country guy, not making stereotypical country music, and still seeing success, because he’s a gateway for people to get excited about the genre.”

For Shaboozey, the accomplishments he’s racked up are just a manifestation of the space he’s cultivated for himself within the country ecosystem. He’s built long-lasting relationships with friends and collaborators who see the genre as fluidly as he does. “I tend to lean toward outlaw music,” he says. “In Nashville, that’s who me and my friends are: We’re the rebels, the outlaws, the outliers. So seeing my success and the success of my friends, we’re happy to be a part of this more alternative community, because we’ll always support each other.”

With so many eyes on him ahead of this release, he’s not daunted. In fact, Shaboozey says, he’s excited to surprise people with his range. The last few months have changed so much about his life, but they haven’t shaken him enough to make him forget just how long he’s been working toward this moment.

“I’ve been going to all of these places I’ve never been before, and every day that I wake up, it’s something new,” he says. “It feels like I’m finally here. There were a lot of challenges, places that I could’ve stopped or given up, but it was all part of the journey. And now I’m just looking forward.”

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