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'Cowboy Carter' sees Beyoncé at her creative peak, innovating nearly 30 years into her career

March 29, 2024
Photo by Zachary Balcoff | The State News

“Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?” asks Linda Martell — the first commercially successful Black woman in country music — at the beginning of  “SPAGHETII,” the 13th track on Beyoncé’s latest album, "Cowboy Carter."

“In theory they have a simple definition to understand, but in practice, well, some may feel confined.”

She says this to a backdrop of cinematic snare hits, a droning guitar, and eerie whistles, an instrumental that sounds like watching two cowboys poised for a gunfight in a dusty street while a tumbleweed blows across the frame. From there, Martell drops out, and suspense mounts up to the drop of an abrasive, bass-heavy beat over which Beyoncé shows off her rapping chops.

“They call me the captain the catwalk assassin when they know it’s slappin 'then here come’ the yappin’” she raps. 

The album’s sole rap song — whose title seems to be a reference to “Spaghetti Westerns,” a term that emerged in the mid-1960s used by critics to describe films produced by Italians about the American west — demonstrates Beyoncé's self-awareness that people probably didn't see a country-influenced Beyoncé album coming. 

But herein lies one of the album’s central theses: Beyoncé’s creativity knows no bounds, and she refuses to be constrained by genre, or societal conceptions of who is allowed to make certain types of music and who isn’t. (You’ll recall that an Oklahoma country music radio station made headlines after denying a listener’s request for the album’s single TEXAS HOLD ‘EM to be played.)

She said it best in the lead-up to the album on her Instagram: “This ain’t a country album. This is a Beyoncé album.”

The introduction track “AMERICAN REQUIEM” sees Beyoncé acknowledging the potential for her to be unwelcome in the country music space despite her country roots.

“The grandbaby of a moonshine man, Gasden, Alabama, got folk down in Galveston, rooted in Louisiana," she sings. "Used to say I spoke 'too country,' and the rejection came, said 'I wasn't country 'nough,' said I wouldn't saddle up, but if that ain't country, tell me what is."

The song’s instrumental and lyrics have a 60s-esque peace and love quality. One can imagine a packed Woodstock crowd chanting the chorus: “Can we stand for something? Now is the time to face the wind, now ain't the time to pretend, now is the time to let love in. Together, can we stand?”

Beyoncé sticks with the 60s theme on the next track, a cover of The Beatles’ “Blackbird.” Paul McCartney was inspired to write that song by the Little Rock Nine, a group of Black students in Arkansas whose enrollment in a previously all-white school sparked protest from segregationists and racial violence in 1957. 

Beyoncé singing the classic ahead of yet another presidential election where bigotry and racism are fueling the debate around crime and immigration is timely and powerful. 

Next is the deeply emotional one-two punch of “16 CARRIAGES” and “PROTECTOR,” the latter of which is a tribute to Beyoncé’s youngest daughter Rumi Carter, who can be heard babbling behind beautiful acoustic guitars in the song’s intro. 

Beyoncé reflects on the nature of parenthood and striking a balance between giving your child the space to find themself, while also guiding them on their way. 

“I will lead you down that road if you lose your way, born to be a protector,” she sings. “Even though I know some day you’re gonna shine on your own, I will be your projector.”

The song is sweet, beautiful and a massive tear-jerker, joining Beyoncé’s canon of cathartic tributes to her family members, i.e “Blue” from her 2014 self-titled album, “Sandcastles” from 2016’s "Lemonade," and “PLASTIC OFF THE SOFA” from 2022’s "RENAISSANCE."

After an interlude from the country legend Willie Nelson and the hoedown jam “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM,” which was released as a single during the Super Bowl in February, comes the uptempo highlight “BODYGUARD.”

The song has an infectious, yet simple groove, an earworm chorus, and almost sounds like it would have fit on Kacey Musgraves’ grammy-winning "Golden Hour."

Given Beyoncé’s status and wealth, she undoubtedly has access to the best studio musicians in the world, but they deserve a shout out here, nonetheless. The performances are incredible, which is made clear by the fact that they manage the impossible task of not being outshined by Beyoncé’s vocals (especially that bass player — absolutely killer!)

Next is an interlude from another country legend, Dolly Parton, who makes reference to Beyoncé’s infamous “Becky with the good hair” line. 

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“You know that hussy with the good hair you sang about, reminded me of someone I knew back when, except she has flaming locks of auburn hair, bless her heart. Just a hair of different color, but it hurts just the same,” the Tennessee legend says. 

This sets up the album’s second cover: this time it’s Parton’s classic about a romantic competitor, “Jolene.”

The “Blackbird” and “Jolene” covers — accompanied by cosigns from the songs’ authors — are brilliantly performed and cement Beyoncé as a permanent, immovable staple in the canon of American music. 

Beyoncé continues the thematic callback to 2016’s "Lemonade" — which was centered on infidelity in her marriage with Jay-Z — on “DAUGHTER.”

She juxtaposes operatic stylings and religious illusions with her warning to any man who crosses her: “help me, Lord, from these fantasies in my head, they ain't ever been safe ones, I don't fellowship with these fakе ones.”

And in the middle of the song, she sings a verse in Italian, employing her opera voice in a show stopping display of her raw vocal ability. In doing so, she continues her tradition of spending at least some time on each of her albums absolutely flexing on everyone else who has ever touched a microphone (listen to “PLASTIC OFF THE SOFA” and “VIRGO’S GROOVE” from "RENAISSANCE" if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)

From here, the album hits a small lull, as “ALLIIGATOR TEARS” and “JUST FOR FUN” are mostly forgettable relative to the rest of the album, whose long runtime is probably its biggest flaw (the album clocks in at 1 hour and 18 minutes).

Luckily, “II MOST WANTED,” a collaboration from the duo we never knew we needed — Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus — comes in just as concerns about the album’s consistency creep up.

The twang and rasp of Cyrus’ voice blends perfectly with Beyoncé’s rich, low-register and makes for one of the best cuts on the album. The pair seems to be motivated by a healthy sense of vocal competition, harmonizing, trading verses, and singing about their dedication to their respective partners in crime over a full arrangement of acoustic guitars, pianos, bass and electric guitars. 

“I’ll be your shotgun rider 'til the day I die, smoke out the window, flyin’ down the 405,” they sing. 

Unfortunately, that highlight is followed by a collab from a duo we probably correctly assumed we never needed — Beyoncé and Post Malone. The instrumental is boring and Beyoncé has none of the synergy with Malone that she had with Cyrus. 

The final leg of the album sees Beyoncé infusing some of the house music flavors from Renaissance into the album’s country-adjacent style. 

Linda Martell pops up again to introduce the stylistic shift: “Ladies and gentlemen, this particular tune stretches across a range of genres, and that’s what makes it a unique listening experience. Yes, indeed,” she says. 

On the high-energy “YA YA,” Beyoncé carries on the long-documented country music tradition of appealing to the pathos of the frustrated, everyday, working-class American (at some point along the road, country music became associated with conservatism, despite the fact that the genre was largely birthed in the south in the 30s where New Deal progressives and FDR had a stronghold.)

“Are you lookin' for a new America? Are you tired, workin' time and a half for half the pay?” she sings. “I just hope that we don’t crash keep my bible on the dash, we gotta keep the faith.”

Next comes “RIIVERDANCE” and “II HANDS II HEAVEN” which almost sound like Renaissance bonus tracks that were repurposed, and modified to blend in the country aesthetics of Cowboy Carter. The former juxtaposes a four-on-the-floor house beat with samples of quick acoustic guitar picking, and Beyoncé’s “bounce on that s---, dance” refrain will surely be adored by DJs everywhere.

The latter’s instrumental is cerebral and hypnotizing, providing the perfect backdrop for Beyoncé to poetically meditate on placing trust in romantic partners, and the potential damage we make ourselves vulnerable to in doing so. 

She elaborately layers her voice to construct intricate harmonies in the song’s main refrain, singing, “two hands to Heaven I've prayed, priest forgive my soul / lovely daggers pierced my heart many moons ago / toxic roses chased by wolves and carnivores / lost virgins with broken wings that will regrow.”

Closing out the album is the sexy, trap-influenced “TYRANT” and the three-parter “SWEET * HONEY * BUCKIIN'.”

The latter is a musical rollercoaster that excites throughout its five-minute runtime, and sees Beyoncé addressing her snub at the Grammys for album of the year.

“A-O-T-Y I ain’t win / I ain’t stung by them / take that shit on the chin,” she raps over a booming, distorted 808 pattern. 

She wraps up the album beautifully on “AMEN,” reprising the album's opener and ruminating on America and its foundations. 

“This house was built on blood and bone, and it crumbles,” she sings over massive piano chords. “The statues they made were beautiful, but they were lies of stone.”

All in all, "Cowboy Carter" is yet another document of Beyoncé at her creative peak, and still innovating nearly 30 years into her career. 

And she remains at this creative peak while venturing into the country music space, yet again affirming that she can make whatever art she wants.

In the lead-up to the album, Beyoncé wrote on Instagram, “The criticism I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.”

Propel past them she did. 

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