Beyonce Finds A New Freedom on ‘Cowboy Carter’ 


From the start of Cowboy Carter, Beyoncé makes it clear this ain’t your typical country album. Opening epic “Ameriican Requiem” is part gospel, part-Queen, part-Buffalo Springfield as the artist lays out both her intentions and lineage. “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?” she sings from the gut, after listing off her bonafide country credentials.

Like everything Beyoncé has done, specifically in the last decade of her career, Cowboy Carter is a college dissertation of an album: richly researched and meticulously constructed. And while she has something to prove to a whole musical community, it’s more of a love letter to her Southern roots than strictly a honky tonkin’ romp.

Five years in the making, Cowboy Carter goes long but moves easy, with the album seeming to be broken up in loose chapters. The first five tracks are heavy on both emotions and vocals, particularly her straightforward cover of the Beatles’ “Blackbiird” which features rising Black country stars Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy and Reyna Roberts. It’s a warm-up for what follows, which is some of Beyoncé’s best vocal work on record, produced flawlessly and at the forefront of each track. Her voice as an instrument is wielded superbly across the entire album but most strikingly at the top of it, as she glides across country and R&B inflections effortlessly. Single “16 Carriages” had already teased this but nothing could prepare for the lullaby “Protector,” which features daughter Rumi at the beginning. Her tender delivery of a maternal promise to her children is warmer than a shot of whiskey, her lithe twang wielded with masterful subtlety.

Willie Nelson’s radio DJ interjection on the first of two “Smoke Hour” interludes is the first sign that the album will be about expecting the unexpected from the artist; his voiceover introduces hit “Texas Hold ‘Em,” the most straightforward country song on the whole album that is immediately followed by one of the least country moments, “Bodyguard.” Shades of yacht rock and Christine McVie’s Eighties Fleetwood Mac contributions color this standout, which is a simple love song about wanting to protect your lover, while threatening to “John Wayne” any potential threats.

Like Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton appearance signifies the next turn. Beyoncé enters a Lemonade-esque portion of the project, where she’s a lover scorned and this time looking to square up for a good ol’ Western showdown. Covering “Jolene,” she remakes the song as an astute warning instead of Parton’s more pleading original. It’s cheeky and humorous in a way Beyoncé isn’t always allowed to be, even if it doesn’t add much to the album or the song itself. “Daughter” is a more effective delivery of Beyoncé’s violent revenge fantasies. Over a guitar that sounds like it was pulled from the Kill Bill score, she paints pictures of bloodstained couture and the similarly chilly ways she shares with her father. (And if you weren’t sold on her vocals yet, she delivers an Italian aria in the middle simply because she can).

By the hypnotic and bluegrass-y “Alliigator Tears,” Beyoncé is back in love and enters an extraordinary run on the album. The second Nelson-assisted “Smoke Hour” begins a fourth chapter of her flexing her ability to make country radio hit duets. Willie Jones and Post Malone make for fine partners but hardly hold a candle to Miley Cyrus’ presence. She’s the Sundance Kid to Beyoncé’s Butch Cassidy on “II Most Wanted,” a transcendent meeting of two great vocalists whose runs melt into each other instead of fighting for the spotlight. It’s a career highlight for both.

The biggest feature on the album, though, is Linda Martell. Martell was the first commercially successful Black woman in country music, who released one remarkable album before leaving the industry entirely. She first appears at the beginning of “Spaghettii,” calling genres “a funny little concept” before Bey goes full trap-country on that track with fellow genre-bender Shaboozey. But after Martell’s appearance on “The Linda Martell Show,” the album devolves into fun chaos, with some of Beyoncé’s weirdest and most eccentric musical choices.

On “Ya Ya” she channels Tina Turner by way of James Brown with covers of Nancy Sinatra and the Beach Boys. It seems like fantasy-fulfillment (not the violent revenge kind this time) as she transforms into the type of performers she and her parents were raised on and that she has often cited and emulated in her work. The Chuck Berry sample on “Oh Louisiana” drives that point home before she goes full Betty Davis funk on “Desert Eagle.” (And if rumors are true that Act III of this musical project will be rock-leaning, let’s hope that’s not the last hint of Davis we hear in Beyoncé’s music).

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From “Riiverdance” on, it seems like Beyoncé is either referring back to or recontextualizing  Renaissance, her disco masterpiece and Act I of the trilogy. The final tracks have a holiness to them, more hints of gospel and peaceful meditations that slip out of the Southern and country-western-ness of the rest of the album, like the serenity of “II Hands II Heaven.” She slips back into her cowboy era long enough for “Sweet ★ Honey ★ Buckiin,” where she sings Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” over a Jersey club beat before singing her ode to a horse.

Beyoncé’s point is made crystal clear by the time she reaches “Amen”: she is country and has always been country. There’s no doubting that, gatekeepers be damned. Her latest is a history textbook making her case from track to track. But Cowboy Carter’s greatest gift is its self-indulgence, when Beyoncé plays against typecasting and the rules made for her and, sometimes, by her. Given that working on this album pre-dated her making Renaissance, it’s clear that exploring her Southern roots and the parameters of who she was expected to be allowed her a creative freedom that she would take even farther with the incandescent dance anthems of the trilogy’s first act. It feels like after over two decades of being a performer, we are just getting to meet Beyoncé for the first time through these albums. When she asks “Can you hear me?” on “American Requiem,” the answer, more than ever, is “loud and clear.”



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