Five Burning Questions: Morgan Wallen’s ‘Don’t Think Jesus’ Debuts in the Hot 100’s Top 10

Five Burning Questions: Morgan Wallen’s ‘Don’t Think Jesus’ Debuts in the Hot 100’s Top 10

While Morgan Wallen had as commercially successful a 2021 as any popular artist with his Dangerous: The Double Album set — the top-performing album of the year, according to the Billboard 200 year-end chart — it was a disastrous period for his public image. In February, the country superstar was filmed using a racial slur, leading to him getting suspended from his record label and pulled from most radio stations, and largely retreating from the spotlight.

A year and a couple months later, and Wallen’s career seems to have mostly picked up where it left off. The singer-songwriter is once again touring arenas and topping Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart, and now he’s launched his first top 10 Hot 100 hit since Dangerous‘ release week — with the emotional ballad “Don’t Think Jesus,” his first new release as a solo artist since the 2021 incident, and a No. 7 debut on the Hot 100 this frame (chart dated April 30).

Is Wallen’s career officially back to where it was? And if he’s back there, does it feel earned? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.

1. “Don’t Think Jesus” debuts at No. 7 this week on the Hot 100, Wallen‘s highest-charting song on the Hot 100 since “7 Summers” debuted at No. 6 in August 2020. Given that the song is his first new solo release since he was caught on camera using a racial slur in early 2021, and may not even be an official single for him, how surprised are you on a scale from 1-10 at the song’s strong debut?

Jason Lipshutz: A 2. If you’ve been paying attention to the charts over the past year, you know that the appetite for Morgan Wallen’s music remains enormous in the country music world: his Dangerous album is still in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 chart 15 months after its release, and when he’s dipped his toe back into the public, whether at a performance or with a collaboration like Lil Durk’s “Broadway Girls,” he’s found a ready and willing audience. The top 10 debut of “Don’t Think Jesus” is slightly surprising – not many overtly religious, Good Friday-pegged non-singles are cracking the upper frame these days – but Wallen’s continued popularity is not.

Taylor Mims: My surprise is at about a 2. The country music community has rallied around Wallen like he is their fallen martyr. He may have been pulled from radio stations and streaming playlists and asked not to attend certain award ceremonies, but that was about the extent of the “backlash” since he was caught on camera using a racial slur in February 2021. That same month, sales of his album skyrocketed, demonstrating the demand for country music’s newest “bad boy.” The success of “Don’t Think Jesus” sends two distinct messages from the country music community – that it whole heartedly supports Wallen, and that if that’s an issue for you, this isn’t the community for you.

Melinda Newman: My answer would be 1. I am not at all surprised. Wallen debuted a rough, live acoustic version on Instagram in October and gave the story behind it (three hit Nashville songwriters wrote it with him specifically in mind). That post has more than 2.2 million views. As the son of a Baptist minister, Wallen has always been very open about his faith and this is another way for him to address the slur in a way that shows contrition, but also stresses forgiveness. It sets the perfect tone. And it’s no coincidence that it came out around Easter.

Jessica Nicholson: A 5. Earlier this year, he earned a No. 1 song on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart with “Sand in My Boots,” and is currently in the top 15 on that chart with “Wasted on You.” Both of these songs were included on 2021’s Dangerous album, so I think his audience is primed to hear new music from him.

Andrew Unterberger: Really can’t be much higher than a 2 for me. Though Wallen hadn’t released a new song as a lead artist since Dangerous in early 2021, he’s still managed to be an unavoidable presence on the charts in 2022 — “Don’t Think Jesus” is one of five Hot 100 entries this week bearing Wallen’s name, tied with Doja Cat for the most of any artist. Oh, and lest we forget, well over a year past its initial release, Dangerous is still No. 2 on the Billboard 200 — perhaps just a Tyler, the Creator vinyl shipment delay from returning to No. 1 this week for the first time since March 2021, for the 11th total frame. You could make a pretty credible argument that if the song’s No. 7 debut is in any way a surprise, it’s that it wasn’t even higher.

2. Does the song’s top 10 Hot 100 debut mean to you that Wallen is officially back to where he was commercially before the backlash to his video last year, or do you think we need to see more about how this and subsequent releases do before coming to that conclusion? 

Jason Lipshutz: Wallen was so red-hot prior to last year’s backlash that it’s hard to fathom that he’s fully recovered from the incident, both in terms of commercial appeal and the mainstream opportunities he was receiving. That said, a non-single like “Don’t Think Jesus” crashing the top 10 indicates that he’s still in the very upper tier of popular country artists – aside from Luke Combs, there aren’t many country performers launching singles near the top of the Hot 100 these days, and I’d expect that, whenever Wallen returns with an official new single to follow up Dangerous, it will follow the same path.

Taylor Mims: I don’t believe Wallen is back to where he was before the backlash. He is much bigger now, even before the new hit. Prior to Wallen getting kicked off Saturday Night Live for breaking COVID-19 protocol and then using a racial slur, most people outside of country music listeners didn’t know his name. Now, after all his controversies, Morgan Wallen is a household name and everyone has an opinion about him. Regardless of the music’s quality, I think Wallen will do big numbers with his next string of releases immediately (even hate listens count for streaming). If his upcoming material stays on the charts, then I think he will officially be back and bigger than ever. 

Melinda Newman: He never left in the minds of his fans and the Billboard 200 and Country Albums charts, so commercially the backlash was non-existent — except for the airplay he lost when radio chains and CMT pulled him. If anything, his fans began to see him as a martyr and doubled down on their support for him through streaming and snapping up concert tickets the minute they went on sale. Additionally, many of his fellow artists, including his idol Eric Church, quickly welcomed him back into the fold, while never condoning his actions. He is back and more popular than he ever was, because many of his fans felt like there was an overreaction to his drunken slur and those who felt like he needed to do penance largely feel like it is time to move on. Also, regardless of what happens with the song from here on, he’s already set a new record by debuting three songs atop Billboard‘s Hot County Songs chart.

Jessica Nicholson: In addition to his recent No. 1 Country Airplay hit and his current top 15 hit, he launched a sold-out headlining arena tour this year that included three sold-out concerts at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena — and recently announced his first stadium show, set for October. He also accepted the Academy of Country Music’s album of the year honor last month for Dangerous. Yes, he is back to where he was commercially prior to his incident and the backlash.

Andrew Unterberger: He’s back, and it’s hard to imagine he won’t end 2022 bigger than ever. The country community has thrown their arms back around him, and the listeners have followed. Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, while certain opportunities may remain at a distance for Wallen — he may not be asked to perform at Coachella or do an NPR Tiny Desk anytime soon — they’re not the kind that will materially impact his career or bottom line, which should continue to be about as profitable as for any other figure in popular music right now.

3. Beyond its splashy debut, do you see “Don’t Think Jesus” becoming a long-lasting hit for Wallen, or do you think it’ll ultimately be a stopgap until his proper return single?  

Jason Lipshutz: The emotional, quiet-to-loud ballad suits Wallen well, and I could see “Don’t Think Jesus” becoming a fan favorite for its tale of redemption through religion. Its subject matter may limit its long-term appeal as a crossover bid or radio hit, but as a stopgap song until Wallen officially returns with a new single, “Don’t Think Jesus” certainly serves its purpose.

Taylor Mims: “Don’t Think Jesus” is certainly a poignant song to release as he works his way back into the spotlight and makes amends for his myriad controversies. But, to put it plainly, it’s not a fun song. I don’t see it getting a ton of airplay somewhere like Kid Rock’s rowdy Nashville bar, where Morgan was thrown out of and then made his stage return months later. This latest release feels like an apology note to go along with the $500k he has donated so he can get that out of the way, and the subsequent songs can forget anything ever happened.

Melinda Newman: It feels like a stopgap, but one that could become a highpoint in his live shows and a very meaningful song for his die-hard fans. Big Loud is still working “Wasted on You” to country radio, where it stands at No. 15 on Country Airplay this week, so that song remains the priority. We don’t know if this will show up on an album or be a one-off, but it feels like an important song for him and one that will be a historical marker that will be forever tied to the racial slur, but will also have significance to anyone of faith who is looking for a little grace.

Jessica Nicholson: This has the potential to become a lasting hit for Morgan, given his strong streaming numbers. Also, the song’s themes of failure, grace and forgiveness have a history within the country music genre.

Andrew Unterberger: It’s a stopgap. Which is fine for him — he’s gotten the First Song Back out of the way, it’s proven immediately successful, and now he can essentially feel free to proceed as he wishes with the more official first single from whatever his upcoming era ends up being. If it’s another of the hard-living party anthems that stocked much of Dangerous, no one would bat an eye at this point.

4. Obviously the lyrics to “Don’t Think Jesus,” an emotional ballad about Jesus forcing Wallen to confront his life decisions and ultimately forgiving him, echo much about his real-life career arc. What kind of message do you think he’s ultimately delivering about his past year and what he wants for his career moving forward with this song?  

Jason Lipshutz: “Don’t Think Jesus” — complete with lines about “chasing the devil through honky-tonk bars” and how the Lord should “make me pay for my mistakes” — encapsulates the message that Wallen has been trying to deliver for the past year: making amends, showing humility, owning up to mistakes, growing. The sincerity of his overtures has been questioned, but that has nonetheless been the tone that Wallen has attempted to establish, and “Don’t Think Jesus” crystallizes it over swelling, dramatic country-rock balladry.

Taylor Mims: As I mentioned above, “Don’t Think Jesus” seems like an open apology so that he can move forward from drunken antics and racial slurs. Even though his controversies have garnered him a lot of attention, I don’t think Wallen wants all these headlines hanging over his head for the rest of his career. The song lets everyone know he’s hyper aware of the way he is being portrayed, and doesn’t think it’s a good look either. He understands the shaming and accepts the blame, and he’s paid (both literally and figuratively) for his mistakes. The song seems to be stating that he’s gone through the consequences of his actions and he’s ready to move on. 

Melinda Newman: The song, oddly, wouldn’t have likely has as much resonance if he’d written it, but that three outside songwriters (Jessi Alexander, Chase McGill and Mark Holman), were thinking of him and his experience somehow gives it even more poignancy. We don’t know if any of the lyrics got changed, but it’s pretty hard-hitting from the beginning in terms of his turning to alcohol and women to try to deal with the glaring, disruptive onset of fame. It’s something he has addressed himself in songs like “Livin’ the Dream,” which includes the line, “Between alcohol and women and Adderall and adrenaline/ I don’t ever get no rest,” so the confessions here seem real and familiar. He’s looking for understanding, but in some ways, he’s also chiding himself for his failings and expressing gratitude that Jesus’s compassion is there for all who need it and matters far more than any words his fellow man could provide. Wallen’s brand is a bit of the wounded bird — whether in love or in life –and this song plays right into that.

Jessica Nicholson: The song’s lyrics paint a picture of a young singer-songwriter who has a come-to-Jesus moment after making several mistakes, pulled by the lure of whiskey, women and other vices. Though Morgan is not a writer on the song (Jessi Alexander, Mark Holman and Chase McGill wrote it), lyrics such as “I’d shame me, I’d blame me, I’d make me pay for my mistakes/ But I don’t think Jesus does it that way,” seem to appeal to beliefs in forgiveness and grace. It may also indicate that going forward, we could hear more introspective material from Morgan, alongside his string of breakup songs and party songs.

Andrew Unterberger: I think it says that he’s closing the book on this rocky chapter of his career, and asking listeners to essentially do the same. The final chorus even delivers something a parting shot to those who have “throw[n] a few stones” over the past year (“Are y’all sure that Jesus done it that way?”), following his “I ain’t perfect” statement with the implication that no one listening is either, and hey, let’s all live and learn and move on. With emphasis on the last part.

5. If Wallen is indeed back at the center of the mainstream, do you think he’s done enough to earn his way back there? If not, what more would you liked to have seen from him first? 

Jason Lipshutz: There’s really no way to answer this except on a personal level, since, as listeners, we all have a different tolerance for what an artist does in their personal lives that will make us stop listening (as well as, what an artist can do to make amends for their transgressions and get us to start listening again). Different artist controversies resonate with each of us, and affect our enjoyment of their art, at varying degrees. For me, Wallen’s actions were damaging enough to remove one of my favorite new country songwriters in years from my regular rotation.

Now, I’d like to see him continue to make amends – keep donating to Black-owned organizations, keep speaking out against coded and overt racism, keep publicly owning up to the mistakes he’s singing about in his new song – even when (and especially when!) the pressure to do so dissipates. It’s not for me to say whether or not Wallen has done enough to earn his way back into the mainstream, but he’s unquestionably back there, and I hope he recognizes the opportunity to do good work even when the spotlight dims.

Taylor Mims: It has been said a million times, but the best apology is changed behavior. Apologizing, donating to charities and having conversations with people outside of your own community are all important steps to growing, but it’s hard to tell if someone has truly grown from afar. On one hand, I believe that the country music industry has used Wallen as a scapegoat so it can go on ignoring the much larger issues of racism in their community. On the other hand, his willful ignorance and harmful language has hurt people and he’s benefitted from that. Until it is clear he has changed his behavior, I would not give him a platform to continue rising especially if he is potentially taking the space that could be filled with people of color who have historically been kept out of the genre.

Melinda Newman: For some people, he will never “earn” his way back, and what he did should be career-ending or at least have ongoing ramifications given the hurt it caused. For others, once he apologized the first time, all should have been forgiven. Each person will have their own feeling on what he did and that will determine their own relationship with Wallen and his music going forward. He may have helped his case if he’d been more transparent about what he had done to make amends:  although Billboard has been able to verify that he did donate $500,000 to Black-focused organizations, met with a number of Black leaders, and has indicated the work is ongoing. Many in Nashville, and I tend to agree, would like to move the focus off Wallen and onto the bigger problems of the lack of inclusion and diversity in the country music community.  That doesn’t mean forget what happened, but it means looking at solutions that make it so that the culture changes enough to not allow something like this to happen again.

Jessica Nicholson: Morgan has taken some steps (some publicized and some not), and there is always room to learn, grow and do better. But ultimately, it is up to his audience and music fans whether he is “back.” The bigger issue at hand is how the industry overall is working to improve diversity and inclusion within country music, both onstage and within the industry.

Andrew Unterberger: As a white listener from well outside Nashville, it’s probably not really up to me to determine whether he’s “done enough.” I hope that he has consulted with members of the community he’s particularly hurt to determine how they feel about the amends he’s made, and that those consultations were taken seriously, and not set up to just to tell him what he wants to hear for the purposes of checking a box. I hope that he continues to do so throughout his career, to demonstrate that the lessons of the past year have stayed with him, even if the commercial ramifications have not.

If there is a way I feel comfortable expressing my disappointment in Wallen’s behavior, it’s in his obvious desire to move on from the backlash and bury it in the past. It’s an understandable and human instinct, given how negative the immediate response and consequences were to an incident he viewed as a “playful” moment between friends — but regardless of intent, the damage he did to his community’s credibility with its Black members (and to those Black members themselves) is real and lasting. Meanwhile, I thought it was highly commendable how upon his original apology, he’d asked his fans to not defend him or argue on his behalf — something not a lot of besieged pop artists with vocal fanbases have had the stomach to do — but now that he’s been adopted as a martyr by so many for the furthering of their ideological agendas, he no longer seems invested in calling them off. Again, understandable from a career (and maybe even from a personal) perspective, but still something of a bummer.

Five Burning Questions: Morgan Wallen’s ‘Don’t Think Jesus’ Debuts in the Hot 100’s Top 10 While Morgan Wallen had as commercially successful a 2021 as any popular artist with his Dangerous: The Double Album set — the top-performing album of the year, according to the Billboard 200 year-end chart — it was a disastrous period for his…