Cowboy Carter by Beyoncé album review by Sam Franzini for Northern Transmissions. The multi-artist's LP is now out via Parkwood/Columbia


Cowboy Carter


It’s a testament to the butterfly effect that one night in November 2016 can lead one person to years of self-discovery, thought, and reflection. (No, not that night). For Beyoncé, it was her performance of “DADDY LESSONS” at the CMA Awards to racist criticisms of the singer’s place in the genre. Online and in-person, there was a tension so palpable the CMA scrubbed the performance due to backlash, and the moment stuck with her for years.

That the rejection stung so personally for Beyoncé comes as a bit of a surprise. Just two years ago, of course, she released a blockbuster album so confident and characteristically herself — assured that she’s the shit and she knows it. But for her, who grew up in Texas, of course she has a connection to the south she felt was hers to sing about; of course there was a disconnect between the average CMA Awards viewer, confused as to why a Black woman is planting herself in the sounds you’re surrounded with. The average viewer, of course, is not willing to look into Beyoncé’s history. “It’s a lot of talking going on, while I sing my song,” she sings on the haunting and warbling opening track, “AMERIICAN REQUIIEM,” with the sharpness of an aggravated high school teacher. “I said, ‘Do you hear me?’”

Because of that night, Beyoncé turned inward and did a deep dive into the history of country music, which turned into Act II of a saga now clearly centering historically Black genres, updated, modernized, but well-researched. “The criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me,” she wrote on Instagram, “act ii is a result of challenging myself… This ain’t a Country album. This is a “Beyoncé” album.”

COWBOY CARTER, then, is an effort to re-right wrongs, for her to take up space within the genre that she was mercilessly excluded from. “Said I wouldn’t saddle up, but if that ain’t country, tell me what is?” she asks on the opener. “They don’t know how hard I had to fight for this.” Fight she did — along with her southern backstory in “AMERIICAN REQUIIEM,” she narrates her journey on “16 CARRIAGES,” an explosive Americana masterpiece about touring from her beginning days in Destiny’s Child, all these years later for her exquisite tours, leading to a fractured family relationship. “Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make,” she sings, “Had to sacrifice and leave my fears behind, for legacy, if it’s the last thing I do.” Now, she has nothing to worry about, being one of the most respected musicians of all time.

She takes her time, then, to give spotlights to monumental country singers like Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Linda Martell, while also bringing along new Black country singers that are trying to pave the same road Bey herself did: Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy, Reyna Roberts, Willie Jones, and rapper Shaboozey later on. A handful of artists come together on “BLACKBIIRD,” a Beatles cover, which actually upsets “JOLENE” as the better cover on the record. The highly anticipated “JOLENE,” while a worthwhile song, erases the desperation Dolly originally felt — “I’m warning you, don’t come for my man” — a plea is more interesting than a threat (Although tapping Dolly to say “hussy with the good hair” makes the effort worthwhile).

Like with RENAISSANCE, the lead singles for COWBOY CARTER act as red herrings for the eventual album to come — simple distillations of the genre she’s pulling from. While “16 CARRIAGES” holds its own weight, “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM,” with its on-the-nose whistling and banjo, mentions of boogies and hoe-downs, thankfully does not signal the rest of the album’s themes (“SPAGHETTII,” acts the same way, though the line “Cunty, country, petty petty petty, referencing making a whole album in response to genre critics, is a standout). COWBOY CARTER is exemplary when it takes easily recognizable themes and spins them in Beyoncé’s own way. “BODYGUARD” is a folky bop that showcases her muscular vocals in the outro; “YA YA,” instantly catchy and exuberant, is a nod to “Chitlin Circuits,” a spaces where Black performers and audiences thrived after being denied access to other shows; she uses her fingernails as percussion in a classic Dolly move on “RIIVERDANCE,” and “SWEET ★ HONEY ★ BUCKIIN’” is a no-holds-barred banger whose inspiration stems from jittery mechanical bulls.

Even on classic country ballads like “II MOST WANTED” and “LEVII’S JEANS,” with Miley Cyrus and Post Malone respectively, the pairs sound wistful and powerful, even if the lyricism is as shallow (but funny) as wishing to be a pair of your partner’s jeans, “So you can hug that ass all day long.” Though Post Malone’s inclusion was a bit of a shock, they actually work well together, and Bey and Miley singing about female friendship, riding down the 405, works tremendously.

COWBOY CARTER functions quite differently from its predecessor — it tends to read more like personal investigation rather than an album. Despite more material, there’s notably fewer to pick at, less songs to keep on heavy repeat than the tight, instantly replayable RENAISSANCE. The broad scope of genres, mentioned by Linda Martell at multiple points in the record, leads to such deviances like the notably R&B sex anthem “TYRANT,” dreamy, ethereal “II HANDS II HEAVEN,” and the sweet ode to her children, “PROTECTOR,” where she has faith in them to let them shine on their own. It’s not necessarily a muddled listen, rather an adventurous one, but its runtime feels like it could be cut for maximum impact.

In her dive into country, Beyoncé reinvents the genre for her own personal entertainment and as a final rebuke to anyone who says she isn’t “Country enough.” Her 2016 performance might have spurred the record, but as she says in the gorgeous mid-record highlight, “I’m goin’ all out just for fun, I am the man, and I know it.” Music, for her, is just what she loves to do — might be fun getting a little country! COWBOY CARTER acts as a personal investigation, memoir, tribute and spotlight, but it also helps that it’s as ambitious as it is fun.

Order Cowboy Carter by Beyoncé HERE

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