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On 'Cowboy Carter,' Beyoncé's country is as broad as the public she serves

Beyoncé's voice is the real star of <em>Cowboy Carter</em> as she sets out to prove, once and for all, that she can hold it down in any genre she damn well pleases.
Courtesy of the artist
Beyoncé's voice is the real star of Cowboy Carter as she sets out to prove, once and for all, that she can hold it down in any genre she damn well pleases.

When Beyoncé made the surprise announcement back in February, during the Super Bowl, that her forthcoming album would be a country album, it was immediately met with praise and excitement, validating what had been long expected and kickstarting a conversation about representation in country music. Except — wait — Beyoncé didn't actually say it would be a country album. Never did. In fact, she explicitly stated, in the days leading up to its release, that this was not a country album, even going so far as to project the words "THIS AIN'T A COUNTRY ALBUM. THIS IS A 'BEYONCÉ' ALBUM" onto the facades of various museums in New York City in an unauthorized, guerrilla-style street promotion.

So how did we come to convince ourselves otherwise?

First: Beyoncé engineered it that way, from donning a cowboy hat at the 2024 Grammy Awards, to releasing the country-influenced "TEXAS HOLD 'EM" as one of her two first singles (the second single, "16 CARRIAGES," was considered a country song only by virtue of its proximity to "TEXAS HOLD 'EM"). Though she'd already done "Daddy Lessons" in 2016, the single is a much more fun and danceable kind of country, with a similar energy to country-trap artist Blanco Brown's 2019 song "The Git Up."

Second: We wanted a country album from her. Badly. Black and Brown country music fans (myself included) have been shouting ourselves hoarse, trying to enlighten people about the history, influence and ongoing presence of Black folks in country music, but our words had largely fallen on deaf ears. Just by putting on a Stetson and mentioning the word "country," Beyoncé accomplished what we lowly music writers had been trying to do for years. We wanted a Beyoncé country album, so we invented it.

But the question of whether Cowboy Carter is or is not a "country album" is a distraction from appreciating it for what it really is: a far-reaching and phenomenal album, and arguably (no shade to Lemonade) Beyoncé's most ambitious yet. It challenges the narrow labels and expectations we've come to place on Beyoncé, likewise challenging what we have come to expect from pop music.

It is not, however, easy to categorize, which is also by design. Concepts like classification are tossed out the door, and the result is a sprawling, meandering exploration of Black American music history. Except it isn't quite that, either, since the album opens (after the "AMERIICAN REQUIEM" overture/introduction) with a cover song written by the very white and very British Sir Paul McCartney. Opening with this song is itself a curious decision. Despite McCartney allegedly writing the lyrics in tribute to civil rights activists (which always struck me as the kind of self-mythologizing that The Beatles frequently trafficked in), "Blackbird" is not an obvious choice for someone of Beyoncé's range and caliber; it's more often heard plucked by lovelorn college boys in smoky dorm rooms. And while I was excited to learn that the talented rising country singers Tanner Adell, Reyna Roberts, Brittney Spencer and Tiera Kennedy were guests on the song, it's disappointing that their unique voices are melded together and stripped of their individuality, providing little more than background harmony to Beyoncé.

Other guest singers on the album are given a little more room, like Miley Cyrus, Post Malone and up-and-coming singer Shaboozey, but their voices are still largely relegated to unobtrusive backup. Louisiana native Willie Jones (who has been blending hip-hop, country, soul and rock for at least half a decade) makes the most of his one verse on the slow ballad "JUST FOR FUN," sounding like a mix of Teddy Pendergrass and Dr. John. But it is Beyoncé's voice — stacked and multitracked to near-cosmic heights — that is the real star of Cowboy Carter. She growls, howls, purrs, coos, serenades and spits bars — sometimes all in the same song. In case there'd been any remaining doubt, she set out to prove, once and for all, that she can hold it down in any genre she damn well pleases: rock, R&B, trap, country and (why not?) even opera, as demonstrated on the murder ballad/revenge fantasy "DAUGHTER."

Speaking of genre, Beyoncé makes no secret of her distrust, or even disdain, of such a thing. In the spoken introduction to "SPAGHETTII," Black country music icon Linda Martell calls genre a "funny little concept" and relates how "some may feel confined" by its boundaries. The album's lack of musical uniformity is its strength as well as its weakness. Over its 80-minute runtime, it bounces us around like a pinball machine: from gentle folk to four-on-the-floor rock to American Bandstand-era rock 'n' roll to (oddly) Irish jig music to psychedelic funk to slinky R&B. By the time the record reaches its final note, it's hard not to suffer from whiplash.

And though Beyoncé tried, unsuccessfully, to disabuse us of calling Cowboy Carter a country album, she asks us at the same time to respect and legitimize her bona fides by including spoken interludes from country music royalty Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. Her reworking of Parton's "Jolene," however, loses the original's power, supplanting the vulnerability that made it so heartbreaking with yet more swagger and bluster. Her desire for validation from the country music industry, but not from country music's hoi polloi, could explain this uninspired interpretation, as well as her regrettable sidelining of Linda Martell as mere mouthpiece. As the first Black woman to perform solo at the Grand Ole Opry and an artist who, like Beyoncé, has faced discrimination in the same spaces, Martell undoubtedly has much more wisdom to share than a few platitudes about "genre." Not offering Martell more of a role on Cowboy Carter is a missed opportunity and reinforces the suspicion that Beyoncé tapped these icons for credibility, not to give them a platform.

Beyoncé also has an ax to grind here: Cowboy Carter feels like an intentional, calculated response to everybody who dared throw dirt on her name following her infamous 2016 CMA performance. On Instagram the week before the album's release, Beyoncé wrote how 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." She continued, "The criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me." Now, she's the the first Black woman with a No. 1 single on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. You come at the queen, you best not miss.

This reprisal comes amid an overt, back-to-basics reinvention designed to appeal to a sweeping country ideal. In another statement, she wrote about wanting to "go back to real instruments" in the wake of a digitized world, keeping songs raw and leaning into folk: "All the sounds were so organic and human, everyday things like the wind, snaps and even the sound of birds and chickens, the sounds of nature." While Cowboy Carter does contain plenty of organic and natural elements, and centers acoustic instruments in ways not explored on previous albums, her assertion would have us ignore that a stable of today's hottest producers, including Swizz Beatz, Pharrell, The-Dream, Hit-Boy, Raphael Saadiq and No I.D., meticulously crafted many of these tracks in state-of-the-art recording studios with samplers and sequencers. She would rather us imagine that she and her friends recorded these songs around a campfire under the stars, passing around a bottle of Old No. 7.

Of course, there's nothing new or provocative about using modern technology in the service of country or Americana music, just as there's nothing remarkable about artists borrowing liberally from other genres. In the age of Morgan Wallen, why shouldn't Beyoncé be allowed to use 808s and trap beats and still call it country?

But for an album that is at least superficially concerned with centering Black voices in country music, Cowboy Carter contains strikingly few Black country guest singers, notwithstanding the assembled singers on "BLACKBIIRD," Jones' all-too-brief turn on "JUST FOR FUN" and Martell's spoken interludes. Rather, it draws more from the Great White American Songbook, referencing Buffalo Springfield ("AMERIICAN REQUIEM"), Fleetwood Mac ("II MOST WANTED"), The Beach Boys, Patsy Cline and the aforementioned Fab Four, and grants white singers more solo minutes than any other guest. This doesn't necessarily take anything away from the music, but it feels conspicuous on an album that had brought so much hope and anticipation, warranted or not, to country musicians and fans of color.

Which brings us back to the succinct but unequivocal artist statement: This is a Beyoncé album. This is not a treatise, a communiqué or a history lesson. Let's not try to search too hard for some higher political meaning, like we did with Donald Glover's "This is America" or Jordan Peele's Us. Beyoncé is an artist and an entertainer, and she is among the greatest to do it. Her triumphs, losses, joy and pain are all on display here, expressed in whatever mode best fits the story she's telling. The mother's love on "PROTECTOR," the woman scorned on "DAUGHTER," the booty jam of "TYRANT," the big stepper of "SPAGHETTII," the (I'ma go ahead and say it) sapphic love of "II MOST WANTED" — these are Beyoncé songs before they're anything else. And the character at the heart of the album is fluid, elastic, more versatile than the Beyoncé of previous albums. By adopting the role of the outlaw, she's free to toss all rules — about expectations, limitations and identity — into the trash heap.

Cowboy Carter is a document of an artist at the top of her form, one who intends — by virtue of her singular focus and steely resolve — to dominate every available music chart. But if you want to go on calling Cowboy Carter a country album, well, go right ahead; God bless you and keep you. Country music, like the country itself, means different things to different folks. There's room enough for everyone here.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Santi Elijah Holley