13 Apr 2024

Review: Cowboy Carter by Beyoncé

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 13 April 2024
Cowboy Carter cover image

Photo: Supplied

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There’s growing concern in the creative world about a decrease in media literacy. Plenty of examples crop up every day, but it’s notable how, whenever Beyoncé releases an album, the internet becomes awash with precise analysis: about race, genre, and songwriting.

Experts on sampling emerge from the woodwork (that’s when a musician uses a snippet of someone else's song), and experts on interpolation (that’s when part of an existing song is recreated in studio).

Her latest is called Cowboy Carter, and, much like her last album Renaissance was themed around 1970s disco, its queer pioneers, and hedonism as an act of self-expression, the latest, sub headed Act ll after Renaissance’s Act l, is practically a thesis on country music.

Or maybe it's more accurate to say it’s about genres in general, and who gets to participate in them, as over 27 songs, Beyoncé calls in notable guests, and runs through a series of Americana modes, only to deconstruct and complicate them.

An album this big, running for an hour and 18 mins, with this much to say, and this many contributors, can be tough to get your arms around, even when much of it is made up of easily-digestible pop songs. 

It helps to have an in point, and Beyoncé helpfully provided one to accompany the release. As part of a statement, she said the album “was born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed…and it was very clear that I wasn’t.”

The experience she mentions is largely understood to be a 2016 performance at the Country Music Awards, as the band The Chicks joined her to play her country song ‘Daddy Lessons’. A recent editorial ran on MSNBC by someone in attendance who said there were boos, and one person yelling racial abuse. The often racist vitriol continued on social media.

Beyoncé’s statement on Cowboy Carter continues: “because of that experience, I did a deeper dive into the history of Country music and studied our rich musical archive.”

There is ample evidence of that deep dive on the album, which has moments that feel like striving for authenticity at the expense of songs. When the genre is merged with the pop, RnB and hip-hop aesthetic that the artist usually traffics in, it soars. As she says in her statement, “this isn’t a country album, it’s a Beyoncé album”.

‘Ya Ya’ begins with a sample of Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots are Made for Walkin’, an inclusion which prompted the 83-year-old singer to tweet acknowledging the new fans the inclusion has gained her. Such is the power of Beyoncé.

On an album concerned with femme country, featuring a snapshot of that song makes perfect sense. It’s slightly more confusing when she drops in a few lines from The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’. I’ve seen people suggest she’s referencing country musician Glen Campbell’s cover of the song… It can be hard to know if these are breadcrumbs, or just musicians having fun. Musicians with enough money to licence a Beach Boys song.

The album also samples Otis Redding, covers The Beatles, and has spoken features from Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Linda Martell, all of whom have seen a rise in streaming figures over the last few weeks, and in Martell’s case, generated articles on CNN and Rolling Stone

Martell was the first commercially successful Black female country artist, and in both her appearances talks about the concept of genre. Her intro to the song ‘Spaghettii’ mentions how they can be confining, and moments later Beyoncé starts rapping. 

‘Bodyguard’ and 'Levii's Jeans' offer breezy pop fun, but other tunes are more cerebral on ‘Daughter’ she spins a Western yarn over acoustic guitar, then out of nowhere drops in a section of ‘Caro Mio Ben’, an 18th century opera. 

It’s an incredible flex to prove your operatic chops in the middle of a country-themed album, but Cowboy Carter is, in the end, more concerned with knocking down those confining genre walls than bolstering them. 

It’s not as thematically focused as Renaissance, and Beyoncé is far from the first artist to play with these ideas, but the sheer bombast of this blockbuster album, as educational as it is entertaining, crammed full of ideas, references, and throughlines, is staggering. 

It’s part history lesson, but also history-making: the single ‘Texas Hold ‘Em’ was the first by a Black woman to reach number one on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart

Beyoncé acknowledged this as part of her statement on Cowboy Carter, going on to say “my hope is that years from now, the mention of an artist’s race, as it relates to releasing genres of music, will be irrelevant.”