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Review: ‘Cowboy Carter’ challenges the country genre

Courtesy Parkwood Entertainment

By Emelia Gauch     4/2/24 11:30pm

Rating: ★★★★½

Top Song: Ya Ya

Beyoncé’s much-anticipated country album is more than just country. Instead, “Cowboy Carter” defies the genre, sprawling to include country and non-country covers alike, R&B tunes and acoustic ballads. 

On an Instagram post 10 days before the album’s release, Beyonce wrote about not feeling allowed into the space of country music, referencing the backlash she faced for performing “Daddy Lessons” with the Chicks at the Country Music Association Awards in 2016. Using the concept of a fake country radio called “KNTRY” on “Cowboy Carter”, Beyoncé creates her own space in a genre that has declined her entry.

The album opens with “American Requiem,” a song with beautiful vocal layering and a powerful build-up in a homage to church and worship music. “American Requiem” reflects on Beyoncé’s mourning for what America could be, including poignant lines on the criticism Beyoncé has faced for being both “too country” and not “country ‘nough.” 

She gestures to the key role Black musicians have and continue to play in the development and popularization of country music and breaks the fourth wall, almost speaking to the audience and criticism she expects to receive with lines like “If that ain’t country, tell me what is?”

From there, “Cowboy Carter” dances to two-step, hip-hop and the line in between. Some songs, like “SPAGHETTII” featuring Linda Martell and Shaboozey, are more akin to the dance and house-infused synths of Beyoncé’s previous album “RENAISSANCE”. Yet even songs like “SPAGHETTII,” that feel further away from conventions of the country genre, have country-like background instrumentals and acoustics underscoring the song. This grounds each song in the country genre inspiration and distinguishes the album from “RENAISSANCE”. Others tracks, like “BODYGUARD” and “ALLIIGATOR TEARS,” reflect the folk-rock sounds of Fleetwood Mac and Carole King while incorporating background country-inspired instrumentals.

Musical covers and artist features are the highlights of the album. “II MOST WANTED” with Miley Cyrus is a catchy acoustic experience. The two women’s voices blend well, with Cyrus’s rasp and Beyoncé’s clear tones complementing each other. In “JOLENE,” with updated lyrics, tight vocal runs, hand clapping and voice stacking, Beyoncé balances the line between paying homage to Parton’s original song and making it her own. The updated lyrics in “JOLENE” turned a song about insecurities to one about confidence and self-defense, playing with the scorned woman trope in country music (Think “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood and “Fist City” by Loretta Lynn). Dolly Parton’s feature on the “Cowboy Carter” album and Dolly’s Instagram post saying “Beyonce is giving that girl some trouble and she deserves it!” act as endorsement of these changes.

“YA YA” invites listeners to the second act of the album. The song has a powerful quick beat and an exciting rhythm, as well as a sample of “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” and a reference to progressive rock-pop hit The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” From there, the album’s sonic palette continues to diversify. “RIVERDANCE” emulates house music and banjo, while “TYRANT” and “SWEET HONEY BUCKIN’” incorporate trap beats. The mixing on each song still calls back to the country genre. 

The album is long, with 27 tracks in total, and loosely held together by both sound, with country elements underlining even the more hip-hop and R&B songs, and themes of storytelling and familial connection. These ideas take a central role in both Act I and II with tracks like “PROTECTOR,” which features Beyoncé’s daughter Rumi Carter, and “OH LOUISIANA,” a sped-up version of Chuck Berry’s song by the same title. 

Overall, combining a range of beats, sounds and genres into one singular and lengthy album is an ambitious task, one that Beyonce doesn’t quite accomplish, especially as the album goes on. It starts to feel like Beyonce lost track of the original conceit for the album and her statement feels less cohesive. Particular sonic low points are “LEVII’S JEANS” with Post Malone and “OH LOUISIANA”. 

That being said, it’s a testament to Beyoncé’s talent that this fact does not significantly take away from the album’s many good moments.

“Cowboy Carter”'s refusal to accept a narrow definition of what country ‘is’ is itself most representative of the true history of country music — one that oscillates and has always included Black musicians and continues to be upended by artists like Beyoncé.

Beyoncé herself said it best: “This ain’t a country album. This is a ‘Beyoncé’ album.” She’s right — this is Beyoncé’s world, and we’re all just listening to it.

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