Cowboy carter

A Cowboy Carter review

Now for this next tune, I want y’all to sit back
Inhale, and go to that good place your mind likes to wander off to
And if you don’t wanna go, go find yourself a jukebox
Thank you

On the sixth track of Beyoncé’s eighth studio album – the first of many interludes – Willie Nelson (playing the role of country radio station host) instructs me to relax and smoke a cigarette. Not wanting to upset a legend, I make myself a coffee and walk to the corner-shop to grab a pack of Marlboros as the lead single TEXAS HOLD ‘EM  plays. This record – a country cut that had seemed excessively stripped-back upon release – finds itself gloriously recontextualised by Nelson’s interlude; it’s hard not to feel as if you’re sat in a dive bar in Beyoncé’s home state. That said, to characterise COWBOY CARTER solely as a ‘country’ album would be to do it a discredit – Beyoncé amalgamates elements of contemporary country (squarely on trend) with folk and classic country as well as (briefly) hip-hop.  

But COWBOY CARTER asserts itself as an impressive feat well before TEXAS HOLD ‘EM appears in the track list. The opener – AMERIICAN REQUIEM – is an assertive and sonically expansive announcement of Beyoncé’s presence in the country scene, guided by a twangy guitar quintessential of the genre. She exhibits pride in her Southern heritage, recruiting elements of blues and jazz as the song builds to a crescendo with the repetition of the Louisiana slang: “looka dere, looka dere”. ‘AMERIICAN REQUIEM’ also serves as a ballad of musical progressivism: “For things to stay the same, they have to change again” – Beyoncé taunts those who question her validity as a country artist with her incessant repetition: 

Can you stand me?
Can you stand me?
Can you stand me?
Can you stand me? 

It’s statements that like this that make it hard not to characterise COWBOY CARTER as a landmark record à la Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly (for want of a less constantly cited example). These words are symptomatic of the same feeling of otherness that prompted Kendrick’s “You hate me, don’t you?” on The Blacker The Berry, but more generally feelings of identity and exclusion that underpin so many different songs. In a similar vein the second track – a cover of The Beatles’ Blackbird – manages to beautifully repurpose a song that McCartney wrote regarding the abuse faced by the nine black students enrolled at Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Her inclusion of four black female country singers on the track draws a parallel between the hatred that the Little Rock Nine faced and the coldness with which black people often find themselves received in the field of country music. Carter is herself acutely aware of this discrimination – she was booed during her performance of the Lemonde cut Daddy Lessons at the 2016 Country Music Awards. There’s an inherent boldness in Beyoncé’s decision to include Blackbird as well as her version of Dolly Parton’s incessantly covered Jolene on the same album. But COWBOY CARTER is just that – an album that is confident, unabashed in its existence as a (predominantly) country album made by a black woman, even if Beyoncé’s eventual goal remains: “years from now, the mention of an artist’s race, as it relates to releasing genres of music, will be irrelevant.”

It is on JOLENE that Beyoncé proclaims herself a “creole banjee bitch from Louisiane”. Her use of the term ‘banjee’ – a term popularised by NYC black queer culture and used as a substitute for ‘hood’ – continues the motif of queer influence on Beyoncé’s trilogy project which began with her last album, 2022’s RENAISSANCE, which paid with her first instalment paying tribute to LGBT+ pioneers of the disco and house genres. Musical elements of ACT I do make their way into this second act – the repetitive and bass-heavy RIIVERDANCE makes it clear that Bey does not want ACT I: RENAISSANCE and COWBOY CARTER to appear sonically disparate.  

To place emphasis on the cultural significance of this album is not to draw attention from the diversity and inventiveness of the music itself. Beyoncé continues to exude confidence on SPAGHETTI – a Swizz-Beatz-produced hip-hop track evoking Tyler’s Who Dat Boy as well as on YA YA, which combines a thumping drum with an interpolation of The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations. No other track serves better as an advertisement of Beyoncé’s range (both vocally and in terms of genre) as YA YA. Carter effortlessly flits between crooning, rasping and her familiar sing-rapping in what seems preordained to be a commercial hit.

In fact, it is the more chart-oriented country records on COWBOY CARTER that seem notably lacklustre. II MOST WANTED and LEVII’S JEANS – with their government-mandated Miley Cyrus and Post Malone features respectively – fail to replicate the success of the lead single. The latter track comes off as decidedly limp and sexless in spite of its lyrics, even if Beyoncé’s vocal range and flow switches do their best to counteract this banality. The presence of what is essentially a four-minute advert is also jarringly inconsistent with Beyoncé’s intention of making a socially conscious album, especially considering the extent to which injustice-aware black music has historically shunned consumerism, but what better can be expected of a centimillionaire married to a billionaire? It’s hard not to feel like she can be let off, just this once. 

Whilst the track list appears bloated, Beyoncé clearly has no aversion to brevity – songs tend not to overstay their welcome, and the stylistic range that the album offers more than justifies the 78 minute runtime. Longer tracks – such as Shaboozey collaboration SWEET HONEY BUCKIIN’ – often contain numerous discrete movements and thus don’t diminish the pace that Bey accumulates across the shorter (often single-verse) numbers. This penultimate track is followed by the gospel-infused closer AMEN, which circles back to the progressivism of AMERIICAN REQUIEM, ending COWBOY CARTER with the opening track’s refrain: 

American Requiem
Them old ideas, are buried here
Amen.