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Album Review: COWBOY CARTER is the new sheriff in town

By Ramiro Bustamante Torres, April 11 2024—

As one of the year’s most anticipated album releases, Beyoncé released COWBOY CARTER on Mar. 29. This is Act II of a three-album work that started with the release of Act I: RENAISSANCE preceding it. Within a few days of its release, the album was highly praised and on Apr. 1 Beyoncé received the iHeartRadio Innovator Award for her contribution to pop culture. From the surprise release of the two first singles after a Verizon ad post-halftime of the Super Bowl LVIII to a message on social media from Beyoncé 10 days before the release, there was a lot of speculation about the nature of the album, but as she said in her statement, ‘This ain’t a Country album. This is a “Beyoncé” album.’ 

This album was birthed from her rejection at the 2016 CMA Awards and her poor treatment after performing “Daddy Lessons” with the Chicks — who were already at odds with the mainstream country community for denouncing the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This album is not only impressive because of the number of creatives involved but also for the references to Black music history, Western films and the blending of genres across the tracklist.

There are features from known legends of Country, such as Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Linda Martell — notably a cover of “Jolene” as the tenth track. The album also includes Black country artists currently making a name for themselves in the industry such as Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy, Reyna Roberts, Shaboozey and Willie Nelson. The list of names involved doesn’t stop, with Stevie Wonder playing the harmonica on “JOLENE” to Paul McCartney playing the guitar for Beyonce’s cover of “Blackbird” and even Calgary-born artist Lowell receiving credits on “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM”, showing just how big of an endeavour this work is. More notable collaborations are Post Malone on “LEVII’S JEANS” and Miley Cyrus on “II MOST WANTED” which add to a stacked roster. These weren’t random collaborations and you can tell when listening to the entire work. 

If RENAISSANCE was a love letter to House music and the community that built it, then COWBOY CARTER is a beautiful hat-tip to the history of country music and a big middle finger to those who shunned her performance at the CMA Awards. The presence of Linda Martell, the first commercially successful Black woman in the country music industry, is to remind the audiences what they are getting into. In Martell’s intro to “SPAGHETTII” she says, “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they? / In theory, they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand / But in practice, well, some may feel confined”, reinforcing Beyoncé stating this is not a country album. Martell’s presence is also a way for Beyoncé to remind audiences that Martell is a legend of country music, standing at the same heights as Nelson and Parton, all three taking part in the interludes. Even in the opening track “AMERIICAN REQUIIEM” the lyrics “Used to say I spoke too country / And the rejection came, said I wasn’t country ‘nough“ directly referencing the backlash and racism her performance received at the 2016 CMA Awards. Beyoncé continues to pay tribute to Black music history referencing the Chitlin’ Circuit in “YA YA”  and on a poster where she revealed the tracklist. In a press release to PR Newswire, Beyoncé shared that each song has inspiration from old Western films as their own reimagined version.

Listening to the album from start to finish, there’s a sense of changing and blending genres with a feeling of a loop between the first and last track. When the first two singles were released — “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM” and “16 CARRIAGES” — they had some of the traditional country music style, but Beyoncé, unconstrained to a single genre, added some R&B-esque verses to the songs. While both songs had their fame, they were misleading to the real sonic direction of the album, such as “SPAGHETTII” breaking the acoustic sounds that were heavily present throughout the first half of the album. Even with the interpolation of Giordani’s “Caro Mio Ben” as the bridge for “DAUGHTER” there was the blending of genres, which shocked me the first time I heard it but now it would be wrong to not have it there. 

One of my favourite tracks is “SWEET ★ HONEY ★ BUCKIN’” because it has three parts that showcase the blend the best with lyrics, instrumentation, samples and interpolation. If you pay attention to the transitions between songs, they feel so seamless that you might not notice you’re three tracks from where you started wondering when that first song will end. This goes to show how much dedication and production work went into the track order and mixing the audio to feel like prose.

COWBOY CARTER was previously worked on before RENAISSANCE and was almost released before the current Act I, in which Beyoncé decided to change the order of the albums stating, “[…] there was too much heaviness in the world. We wanted to dance. We deserved to dance.” Even if it came later than expected, the album has been received well, with Rolling Stone giving it five out of five stars and declaring it an “Instant Classic” just days after its release. 

There is still criticism floating around that it is not a proper country album, which I agree with because it’s more than that. It took country music, dusted it off and gave it a new look and sound for the mainstream culture to engage with. I believe that this is no less country than most music on the radio. If anything it breaks the mold and forces people to reconsider what could be country music. It also has brought forward current Black country artists who were shunned from the genre and continues the conversation of what is country and who is a country artist. 

If you weren’t a Beyoncé fan before or not a country music fan, take a chance on COWBOY CARTER and you might find a song you like amongst the tracklist. COWBOY CARTER is out now on streaming platforms and physical copies are available as well. I would recommend checking out the lyric videos on Beyoncé’s YouTube channel for some visuals to add to the experience.

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