Beyoncé : Cowboy Carter

Beyoncé Cowboy Carter review

You change your name but not the ways you play pretend,” sings Beyoncé Knowles-Carter in the audacious opening moments of her audacious eighth album’s lead-off track, “Ameriican Requiem.” It signifies Cowboy Carter as an album deeply concerned with identity and how identity is exhibited and microscope-analyzed and questioned and debated. It is an early sign that this record, purportedly the second in a trilogy that began with the exquisite Renaissance, is one of the biggest swings that an American artist at the absolute height of their popularity has taken in recent memory. To expand on that baseball analogy: it’s the swing you take when you have the chutzpah to go for it with runners at the corners despite a three-run deficit. 

Beyoncé said in an Instagram caption, “This isn’t a country album, it’s a Beyoncé album.” That’s essentially true, but even when hip-hop, R&B (both new-school and very old-school), house, rock ‘n’ roll (the fearless “YA YA” is a Beyoncé career highlight) and trap make their presences known, country music is the lingua franca that (mostly) keeps the album together. From the overt country songs like “Texas Hold ‘Em,” “Alliigator Tears,” “Protector” and “Bodyguard” to those that use country elements but aren’t married to it (“16 Carriages,” “Riiverdance,” “Daughter” and the Patsy Cline-interpolating “Sweet Honey Buckiin”), Cowboy Carter makes it clear that the Lemonade standout “Daddy Lessons” was not a one-off for Beyoncé. Country music means a great deal to her, and she intends to solidify herself as one of its expert practitioners. (The country chart figures for “Texas Hold ‘Em” seem to prove that enough of its fans are picking up what she’s putting down.)

Oh, yeah, and then there’s the “Jolene” cover, which as a documented Dolly Parton superfan sent me somewhere into the stratosphere. Beyoncé repurposes the lyrics to be more like Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City” than Parton’s original: “You don’t want this smoke … I’m still a Creole banjee bitch from Louisiane,” she warns, and insert any caveats about her playing a character if you must—it rips through you nonetheless.

At 27 tracks and 79 minutes, Cowboy Carter feels almost like an early 2010s mixtape. This is by design: There are brief skits—the “Smoke Hour” interludes, with none other than Willie Nelson stopping by to give his praise as the ebullient-stoner host of “KNTRY Radio” and Dolly P gleefully passing the torch to Queen B before “Jolene”—but also fascinating, genre-bending song snippets like “Desert Eagle,” “Flamenco” and a pitch-upshifted Chuck Berry cover on “Oh Louisiana.” The skits are too short to be bothersome, but the brevity of the short ones is sometimes frustrating: Why not turn the intense funk of “Desert Eagle” into a full song? Conversely, while I think the fingerpicked guitar and vocal arrangements on “Blackbiird” are gorgeous—I really want to know who the session players on this were—did we need a full-length Beatles cover in 2024 from an artist capable of writing her own equally poignant lyrics on similar themes? (You heard what I said.) It would’ve made more sense to cover, say, Linda Martell’s “Color Him Father,” though the mere fact of Beyoncé featuring Martell on the album will do wonders for her sadly underappreciated, too-short catalog.

For some listeners, the somewhat disorganized nature of Cowboy Carter will make them return the record as a skip-to-your-favorites experience. While understandable for regular rotation, there is thought-provoking time to be had experiencing Carter in full, especially with its predecessor: If Renaissance was a dance-party celebration of Blackness and its beauty, its follow-up is a tour through American music (and the nation itself) as a decidedly imperfect chaos. Moreover, even in its less interesting tracks, Carter exhibits Beyoncé at the absolute top of her vocal game, whether solo, harmonizing with herself or alongside Brittney Spencer, Tanner Adell and Tiera Kennedy. Expert cohesive production-by-committee grounds the album, including work by No I.D., Hit-Boy, Pharrell, The-Dream, 070 Shake and D.A. Got That Dope. (The latter’s mountain of handclaps, trap drums and abrasive violin on “TYRANT” is probably the least country part of the album but the track is an unquestioned standout.) 

Also, with any luck, Cowboy Carter’s showcase of contemporary Black country artists like Adell, Spencer, Kennedy, Willie Jones and Shaboozey—whose boisterous verse on “Sweet Honey Buckiin” is short but glorious—will grant them the greater exposure they deserve. (As for the contemporary white guests, Miley Cyrus trades lines and harmonies excellently with Beyoncé on “II Most Wanted”; the less said about Post Malone the better.)

For all the pageantry that went into the LP art and promo photoshoots surrounding Cowboy Carter, it can’t be written off as a stunt, even if some of its bets don’t pay off. The sonic language of the album is an apt setting for some of the most personal work in Beyoncé’s catalog: “Protector” is as beautiful a declaration of a mother’s love as “Jolene” is a warning against interlopers, and “16 Carriages” allows her to be vulnerable about familial and career struggles past and present in a way she’s never quite been before.

Beyoncé used her popularity and platform to put out a sprawling whirlwind of an album that takes you through so many different types of Black American music, predominantly one that isn’t always thought of as a Black genre but couldn’t exist without the direct and indirect involvement and innovations of Black musicians. It’s hardly perfect, but it reflects a chaotic reality of American pop culture and life. And hopefully its embrace of risk will empower Beyoncé—who could rest on her well-earned laurels and put out music audiences expect from her, but won’t—to push herself to even bolder moves and greater heights.

Label: Parkwood/Columbia

Year: 2024

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Beyoncé Cowboy Carter review

Beyoncé : Cowboy Carter

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