Album Review: Beyoncé – COWBOY CARTER

[Parkwood/Columbia; 2024]

What can anyone say about Beyoncé at this point? Her status is clearly that of an icon. Twenty-six years into her music career, she finds herself as the biggest topic in music with a new release shows a level of longevity unmatched among her peers. And, singularly, it’s a longevity she didn’t achieve by catering to a core audience. Beyoncé’s commitment to never making the same album twice since her first step from radio-darling-hit-factory to once in a generation auteur with 4 has kept her a fresh presence in the music world.

Two years ago Renaissance, a hard pivot into house music, saw her most energetic and lively album cycle in a long time. The album, and its adjacent tour, were masterpieces of pure joy with which Beyoncé made the whole world dance. It would be hard for anyone to follow such a towering achievement. But she said from the start that Renaissance was just Act i of three.

Beyoncé’s approach to Act ii has thus been quite the statement of power: a hard pivot, one more time, now into even more contentious territory. Unlike the flamboyant, diva loving, still ostentatiously Black genre that is house, country music was fertile ground for anti-Beyoncé backlash – something that was seen years ago after her performance with The [Dixie] Chicks at the 2016 CMAs (Country Music Awards) that spawned a backlash that reportedly inspired all this. Cowboy Carter thus arrives with heavy baggage. It’s not a country album – she has no interest in fitting that establishment – but a Beyoncé album; a work of American iconography elevated by one of the few divas with the gravitas to steal the show from the famous stars and stripes flag.

Even coming off a full album cycle’s worth of house music, Beyoncé puts on a strikingly maximalist show. Opener “Ameriican Requiem” hits the listener with mesmerizing harmonies and a bold statement of purpose. She delivers the lines “Used to say I spoke too country / then the rejection came, said I wasn’t country ‘nough” with pure confidence atop a combo of guitar and drums that more than anything evokes the American rockstar swagger of Bruce Springsteen. These associations don’t stay subtextual for long though. “Blackbird” reinterprets Paul McCartney’s classic tribute to the Little Rock Nine with a perfectly Beyoncé production sheen that fits the composition magically well. The second half is taken over by Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kenney and Reyna Roberts, female Black country singers Beyoncé brings in as a reminder that the plight of black artists in the country industry goes beyond her.

A side effect of this soft and sentimental moment is it makes the single “16 Carriages” work considerably better than it did as a standalone. It’s a tune that speaks to Beyoncé’s talent of presenting her struggle in a compelling, relatable way that comes across as sincere even with her billion-dollar net worth (something many others try and fail to do). Again, on “Protector”, one of the most private stars of her level makes the audience feel close to her with a soundbite of her youngest daughter asking for “the wuwaby”, followed by an understated acoustic tune of maternal sentimentalist that makes the Queen Bey human for a moment. That sentiment continues into the brief interlude “My Rose”, which amounts to a harmony-intensive and high quality morning affirmation. It is a well crafted showing of Beyoncé’s talent to sing from the heart and connect to the audience even from within her ivory tower, without ever sounding insincere.

Intimate earnestness, however, can hardly be said to be the intent of this album. “Smoke Hour Willie Nelson” makes that most clear as the sound of Black country hitmakers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Chuck Berry make brief appearances before Wille Nelson welcomes you to the KNTRY radio with a blunt (pun non-intended) but lightly delivered “And if you don’t wanna go, go find yourself a jukebox”. The message is clear: Beyoncé is here to deliver country bangers according to her vision, and if you don’t like it, don’t listen.

Following that invitation is the album’s biggest hit (as of yet) “Texas Hold ‘Em”. It is Beyoncé’s line dance moment, a showcase of just how fun she can still be, and a great opener for the ‘fun’ portion of the record. Beyoncé’s Smoke Hour (actually around 35 minutes in the midst of this 78 minute opus) is all manner of catchy. The sunshiny lushness of “Bodyguard” is a flavor of organic smoothness that almost approaches indie rock. Her rendition of “Jolene”, meanwhile, thrives in tension, with rewritten lyrics making a pleading classic into a monument to her regal self-possession. Changing the lyrics to such a staple will remain one of the more controversial decisions Beyoncé ever made, but the “Dolly P” interlude preceding it reminds us that taking herself seriously is hardly Dolly Parton’s M.O., so why not. At any rate, Beyoncé and her team made sure the rendition sounded excellent, with a passionate performance and a gorgeous bridge that show they got Dolly’s message to “taking my little songs and make them like powerhouses.

“Daughter” continues the dramatic streak as Beyoncé brings back her Becky With The Good Hair venom to join the long and honored tradition of female country songs about murder. With the incorporation of Giordani’s “Caro Mio Ben”, it is undeniably one of the most theatrical things Beyoncé’s ever done. In contrast with all that tradition comes “Spaghettii”, a song that almost invites you to question its musical direction, as it opens with a sample of the funk carioca tune “Aquecimento Das Danadas” paired with a recording of Linda Martell stating “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?”. Add in the fact that this song has Beyoncé in rap mode, the most hit or miss of her many styles, and is a collaboration with country rapper Shaboozey, and you get such a potent discourse fuel you’re shocked it only clocks in at two minutes. Compared to that, the slow ode to devotion “Alliigator Tears” almost comes across as dull, although repeated listens reveal its emotional qualities as well as its singalong value.

Where the first Smoke Hour interlude introduces Beyoncé’s country skills, “Smoke Hour II” opens up an exercise in hitmaking. In it Willie Nelson states, “Sometimes you don’t know what you like until someone you trust turns you on to some real good shit”, and accordingly this section is populated with collaborations. “Just For Fun” brings in a male Black country singer, Willie Jones, along with a combo of harmonies and clapping that really creates an image of riding into the sunset, appropriate since it is the point where Beyoncé openly acknowledges her status with lines like “I am the man I know”. The mood switches for the album highlight “II Most Wanted”, possibly the most romantic track in the whole project. On paper, Miley Cyrus is an inexplicable choice of collaborator for this album, but one listen will quickly answer any questions: She is here because she is a great vocalist who shows more chemistry with Beyoncé than anyone would expect. The pure lighters-out emotionality means this song alone makes a ticket for Beyoncé’s next tour a worthwhile investment.

Slightly lesser is the following track, “Levii’s Jeans”, the most conventional offering of the whole album. Its saving grace is the fact that marital bliss is probably the sentiment Beyoncé is the most skilled at selling. Post Malone’s inclusion decidedly does not justify itself the way Miley’s did, but he still brings in one of his cleanest performances. Wrapping this section up is the brief “Flamenco”, a minor key excuse for Beyoncé to show us a few vocal flourishes of the kind that reminds you why you’re a fan.

After this comes the portion of the album that warrants the most discussion. “The Linda Martell Show” sees the pioneer of Black women in country introducing the next song as one that “stretches across a range of genres”. It is poetic, the woman that was rejected by a genre and barred from shows is here dismissing genres as the host of her own show. And what a show indeed. “Ya Ya” is arguably the most daring gambit Beyoncé undertakes in this project. It is a recreation of a brand of high energy soul that characterized pop before disco as has made nary a comeback since. Queen Bey seems rather convinced she can bring the sound back however. Beyond textual references like the sample of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” and the interpolation of The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”, “Ya Ya” is above all a Tina Turner homage that sees Beyoncé fully stepping into her role as the performer that carries her legacy. It is glorious.

This energy peak is followed by the two part breakdown of “Oh Louisiana” and “Desert Eagle”, the former being a highly processed bit of blues, while the latter brings in the bass for a classy bit of mid-tempo funk. If Beyoncé wanted to create the energy flow of a quality live set, she succeeded. “Riiverdance” then comes as another fascinating experiment. Its components, the thumping beat, the banjo, the piano, could all fit a recognizable version of country. Yet the final product is an energic bit of country-pop whose genre can’t truly be described as anything other than “Beyoncé”. This is, after all, not a country album.

“II Hands II Heaven” then follows as an equally “Beyoncé” piece of thrill that sprawls for almost six minutes in a light coda to the high energy that preceded. Always one with another trick up her sleeve however, Beyoncé links that song to the next with a clapping beat that sees a quick comeback from her hypewoman Dolly Parton before switching into a fiddle backed trap beat for “Tyrant”. With a fluid melodic performance and braggadocious lyrics, Beyoncé sells the swagger a lot better than in “Spaghettii”. Further outdoing “Spaghettii” is “Sweet Honey Buckiin’”, a second collaboration with Shaboozey that sees Beyoncé singing and rapping her way through multiple beat switches, courtesy of Pharrel Williams. Finally, in one last bit of harmonized swelling drama, the diva closes the show with “Amen”, bringing back motifs from “American Requiem” for a truly full circle, theatrical ending.

Cowboy Carter is a tough album to critique. Not because it is untouchably perfect, but because Beyoncé in all her imperial glory has seemingly already called every critic’s bluff. The album may feel its length in a way the airtight, perfectly calculated Renaissance didn’t, but that’s because she’s “going all out just for fun”. She may be abruptly inserting herself into a new genre she won’t stay in, but she got the approval of Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Linda Martell. There may come discourse about how the personnel supporting her pivot into country comes largely from the pop world, or how she continues to present a working woman image in some of her lyrics while being a billionaire, but she already knows “it’s a lot of talking going on while I sing my song”.

To any questioning how well she fits any idea of country music they may have, she’s made it clear this is not a country album, but a Beyoncé album. Beyoncé has given us her most excessive body of work to date. It is unfocused, it swerves and changes directions, yet delivers quality in so many different ways no part of it can be called inessential. While one could choose a cynical route and think their way into not appreciating the full product, the truth is history will be kind to Cowboy Carter as yet another classic album from Queen Bey. She might have brought a whole genre into a new era simply by the power of the spotlight placed on her. It’s her show, and we all can’t help but watch, be mesmerized, and eagerly await Act iii.