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Beyoncé combines personal narrative, celebration of Black music in “Cowboy Carter”

New studio album released following criticism of singer’s country performance in 2016

<p>Rather than taking a more traditional approach to a country album, Beyoncé instead showcases her unparalleled versatility in a broad range of genres throughout “Cowboy Carter.” </p><p><br></p><p>Courtesy of Parkwood Entertainment</p>

Rather than taking a more traditional approach to a country album, Beyoncé instead showcases her unparalleled versatility in a broad range of genres throughout “Cowboy Carter.”


Courtesy of Parkwood Entertainment

“This ain't a Country album. This is a ‘Beyoncé’ album,” the singer wrote in an Instagram post, emphasizing an important distinction that gestures at the true brilliance of her eighth studio album, “Cowboy Carter” released on March 29. 

Rather than taking a more traditional approach to country music, Beyoncé showcases unparalleled versatility throughout the album, exploring different genres. She effortlessly weaves together stories of her lived experiences with an exploration of her family’s ancestry and the Black roots of country music. The final product is a 78-minute-long celebration of Black culture and music that beautifully tells the story of not just one family but the shared experiences of Black Americans fighting against the erasure of their contributions to music and history.

While sonically the new album completely pivots from the house-inspired sounds of its prequel, “Renaissance,” both albums tackle a similar theme at their cores: the reclamation of genres with roots in Black culture and music. Similar to how she pays homage to the queer Black musicians who laid the foundations for house and disco music in “Renaissance,” Beyoncé highlights the Black roots of country music throughout “Cowboy Carter.”

Beyoncé’s newest foray into country music comes after intense criticism for the 2016 performance of her country-inspired single, “Daddy Lessons.” After performing the song with the Chicks at the Country Music Association Awards, country music fans criticized the performance online, claiming that Beyoncé should not be welcomed into the genre. But, rather than succumbing to the pressures of those who aimed to stop her, Beyoncé fought back, releasing “Cowboy Carter” and reminding fans that the true roots of country music lie in Black culture.

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The album, which takes the format of a radio broadcast by a fictional radio station, begins its 27-track run with “AMERIICAN REQUIEM.” During this track, Beyoncé makes the first of several references to the hostility she has faced within the country genre, despite her Southern roots and upbringing in Houston. “Used to say I spoke too country / And the rejection came, said I wasn't country ‘nough,” she sings. 

On the folk tune “BLACKBIIRD,” Beyoncé collaborates with young Black country artists Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy and Reyna Roberts. A cover of the Beatles’s “Blackbird,” the inclusion of the song reinforces Beyoncé’s goal of emphasizing the influence of Black Americans on the album. According to Paul McCartney, the song was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement in the American South. 

After “16 CARRIAGES,” which tells the story of Beyoncé’s childhood and life in the public eye as a teenager, the first of several spoken interludes interrupts the flow of music. After a series of songs, country icon Willie Nelson introduces listeners to the KNTRY radio station, welcoming them to “The Smoke Hour” and introducing the album’s lead single, “TEXAS HOLD ’EM,” which serves as a love letter to Beyoncé’s home state, Texas. “BODYGUARD” — a track that revolves around Beyoncé’s protective tendencies around her lover as she likens herself to the synthetic fiber Kevlar — rounds out the next section of the album, before another spoken word interlude by Dolly Parton.

In the aptly named “DOLLY P,” Parton consoles Beyoncé as she grapples with her husband Jay-Z’s infidelity. Parton compares her husband’s other woman “Jolene” to Jay-Z’s “Becky” by stating, “just a hair of a different color, but it hurts just the same.” In the following track “JOLENE,” Beyoncé takes a strong stance against the fictional character Jolene. Although the melody sticks to the original song, Beyoncé’s powerful cover of “Jolene” has significant lyrical changes. Instead of pleading with Jolene to leave her and her husband, Beyoncé warns Jolene to stay away from her husband, singing, “I can easily understand / Why you're attracted to my man / But you don’t want this smoke, so shoot your shot with someone else.” Beyoncé then showcases her impressive vocal abilities with a hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Caro Mio Ben” — an Italian opera standard — partway through the track “DAUGHTER.” 

In a spoken-word introduction to the next song, “SPAGHETTII,” Linda Martell, a pioneer for Black country artists, alludes to the barriers Black musicians face within country music. Martell explains, “In theory, (genres) have a simple definition that’s easy to understand / But in practice, well, some may feel confined.” The track is a departure from the primarily country and western sounds of the rest of “Cowboy Carter,” reminding listeners that this isn’t any album — it’s a Beyoncé album. The hip-hop-inspired track, featuring a guest appearance from the rising country/hip-hop artist Shaboozey, snaps back at critics who doubt Beyoncé’s musical talents. 

A string of love songs follows Martell’s interlude. Burgeoning Black country artist Willie Jones appears on “JUST FOR FUN” — a track about living life for the fun of it. Meanwhile, artists Miley Cyrus and Post Malone feature on “II MOST WANTED” and “LEVII’S JEANS,” respectively.

The album then ventures into flamenco music with the aptly titled track “FLAMENCO,” after which another spoken-word introduction by Linda Martell plays, reminiscent of late-night talk shows. Martell introduces the track “YA YA,” a celebration of Black artists that transports listeners to Chitlin’ Circuit venues, spaces where Black artists could perform in the segregated South. The theme of reclamation continues in this song, as Beyoncé repeatedly spells out “B-E-Y-I-N-C-E,” her maternal family’s actual surname, which also appears on the sash Beyoncé wears on an alternative cover of the album. 

The reference to this surname is one of the most integral parts of the album. When Beyoncé’s mother, Tina, was born, a misspelling in her birth certificate caused her surname to be spelled “Beyonce.” Hospital staff refused to fix the mistake, informing the family that they should feel lucky that Tina, a Black child, even received a birth certificate. With this reference, Beyoncé sheds light on the intense historical mistreatment of Black Americans — a pattern of injustice which even robbed them of their own names. Similar to how she exposes the Black roots of country music, Beyoncé unveils her own family’s history, reclaiming a name that is rightfully hers.

After a remixed sample of “Oh Louisiana” by Chuck Berry, Beyoncé slips back into romantic themes with three interconnected tracks: “DESERT EAGLE,” “RIIVERDANCE” and “II HANDS II HEAVEN.” Parton then returns for “TYRANT,” requesting “Cowboy Carter” to “light up this juke joint.” The initially acoustic track quickly gains a beat produced by D.A. Got That Dope. The old-timey fiddle tune in the background complements the modern hip-hop beat, creating a surprisingly pleasing — yet unlikely — blend of genres. 

“SWEET HONEY BUCKIIN’” — a track split into three parts — features a second guest appearance by Shaboozey. After opening up the first part, “SWEET,” with an interpolation of “I Fall To Pieces” by Patsy Cline, Beyoncé slows down the tempo for the all too short “HONEY.” In the song’s final part, “BUCKIIN’,” Beyoncé addresses her lack of a Grammy Award for Album of the Year by rapping, “A-O-T-Y, I ain’t win / I ain’t stuntin’ ‘bout them / Take that shit on the chin / Come back and fuck up the pen.”

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The album concludes with “AMEN,” which includes a repetition of the introduction of the opening track. As the album restarts and “AMERIICAN REQUIEM” begins, listeners hear Beyoncé sing “Nothing really ends / For things to stay the same, they have to change again,” informing them of the everlasting barriers Black musicians face. The cycle of erasure and discrimination has never disappeared; it has only reinvented itself. However, the release of “Cowboy Carter” could help pave a path for Black artists to overcome impediments to their success within country music.

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