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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Review: We Can’t Stop Listening to Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter


For the past several days, all I’ve been able to think about is Cowboy Carter. As the great-grandbaby of a moonshine man (see “AMERICAN REQUIEM”), it’s amazing to see Beyoncé, an artist who is 30 years deep into her career, consistently give us new experiences, a history lesson, and genre-bending all in one album.

As soon as I got my hands on Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love album, I became obsessed with any performance of hers I could get my eyes on. From the VMAs where she revealed her pregnancy to watching Homecoming on Netflix on repeat, I have always been in awe of the Beyoncé show. Cowboy Carter is special for Beyoncé fans in this same way, but it also has an even greater impact, especially on me. It makes me feel closer to ancestors I’ve never met while also teaching me about a side of my culture that I’m not as familiar with. This looks like feeling a sense of closeness to my great grandparents, who were farmers and business people in rural South Carolina.

Fans and critics alike are already obsessed with Cowboy Carter, too. In one weekend, the album earned a 92 on Metacritic, and Beyoncé became the first Black artist in history to occupy the entire top 15 of the US Apple Music Country Chart. Online, fans have already created thousands of videos—from dancing on horses to creating their own line dances. Of course, chatter has already started about whether this album will be up for the big awards when next year’s awards season rolls around.

If you ask me, Beyoncé’s legacy was cemented long, long ago, but this album means so much more to fans than just a collection of top hits. It’s changing the music industry as we know it. Let’s get into why:

Why Beyoncé going country matters 

Growing up in Houston profoundly influenced Beyoncé’s early work. In the Destiny’s Child days, her mother (affectionately known as Miss Tina) made a majority of the group’s outfits often with western themes to pay homage to their Texas upbringing. The style continued to weave its way through her career. We saw western themes in music videos, album releases, tour outfits, and fashion drops (does anyone else remember the Adidas x Ivy Park Rodeo release?!). TL;DR? Western style is nothing new for Beyoncé or her ever-evolving career.

Beyoncé is not new to criticism but in a post on Instagram, she tells us this record is a result of an experience she felt unwelcome in. Fans can trace this back to the 2016 CMAs when notable country artists walked out of her performance with The Chicks when they performed “Daddy Lessons” from the Lemonade album. In hindsight, that song was just a teaser of what she was capable of in the country genre. And now, after listening to Cowboy Carter, it’s clear that the feelings and effects of this experience are all over this album. She brings in the legacy of her ancestors, artists who have changed genres successfully, and outright iconic country legends like Dolly Parton and Wille Nelson to balance doubt and disbelief from critics.

Country music originated in the Black community, and I couldn’t stop thinking about that as I listened to the album. And Beyoncé doesn’t let you forget either. When white singers rose to popularity in the country genre, this became a forgotten piece of history, though. For a mainstream artist to strike back so creatively, against the establishment that created this closed door on country music for years, is powerful. So much so, that I teared up listening to “AMERICAN REQUIEM” and “AMEN” on my first listen where she repeatedly asks “Can you hear me or do you fear me?”

The inclusion of Linda Martell was especially fun to see in the tracklist. She was the first Black female artist to be commercially successful in country music and to play the Grand Ole Opry. Even though she left the country music industry in the 70s, she was the inspiration for more Black artists to recreate the country lane for themselves. It’s exciting that Beyoncé can bring a legend like this back into the limelight in a way that adds context to the not-so-hidden gems on this album.

Another jolt of inspiration on this album is the almost family reunion aspect of including current Black artists in the space like Willie Jones, Tanner Adell, Tiera Kennedy, and Brittney Spencer. These artists have made waves in country music by creating a lane that is still kept behind golden gates. Beyoncé doesn’t just acknowledge these artists either, by including them on her album, she’s playing chess not checkers. She’s aware of her impact (she is The Queen, after all) and by including these younger artists, she’s shining a light on the the hard work they’ve already been putting into the genre. Alternatively, we have to look at the songs with Miley Cyrus and Post Malone. She brings in white artists who’ve received criticism for moving through more traditionally Black genres like R&B and hip-hop (I’ll never forget where I was during Miley’s Bangerz era.) Bringing them in notes that we should be aware that Black artists aren’t the only ones who face harsh criticism when they try new things in this industry.

Beyoncé delivered again what so few artists can do: an experience that can’t be singularly defined.

When it comes to Beyoncé’s work, there’s always more to unwrap, so I will continue to sit on this album, but so far, my ultimate takeaway is that Beyoncé delivered again what so few artists can do: an experience that can’t be singularly defined. A genre-less album with roots in Country Black culture—a culture that already has its arms spread across every genre when you dive deeper. For example, if you look at groups like Migos or albums like Ariana Grande’s Sweetener and Thank u, next, southern trap music has clearly influenced mainstream pop music. If you look at rock, The Beatles, Elvis, and Bob Dylan all drew from Black influences to create new sounds. The electric guitar rose to popularity because of artists like Chuck Berry (who’s also featured on Cowboy Carter).

It’s not just a country album—it’s a Beyoncé album 

After going through the whole album, I was able to immediately pick out the country, rock and roll (“YA YA”), hip-hop (“SPAGHETTI”), gospel (“AMEN”), opera (“DAUGHTER”), and many other influences that made me want to listen again and again. She told us this is a Beyoncé album, not a country album, and she delivered. Country is underlying everything on this album that we know Beyoncé to already be good at like layering her impressive voice and moving from ballad to bop in the span of just a few moments.

Songs like “YA YA” and “BODYGUARD” made me immediately ready to put my cowboy boots on and dance all summer long. The groovy basslines, the rodeo announcer getting us ready for the big event, and the general Beyoncé flair for the theatrical had me rolling my windows down. Meanwhile, I could shift into the emotional weight of songs like “PROTECTOR” and “16 CARRIAGES” where she outright tells us “You’ll remember me, cause we got something to prove.”

The music she creates is inherently country because of her Texas and Louisiana roots even if the establishment of mostly white artists don’t think so.

Is Cowboy Carter AOTY?

The Grammys were only a month ago, but next year’s AOTY competition is already heating up. A creator on TikTok sparked conversation 24 hours after the album came out, saying that there may be backlash if this album doesn’t win Album of the Year at the Grammys. Beyoncé is the most nominated female artist in Grammy history and broke the record for most wins to date in 2023 (with 32 overall). But during the 2023 awards season, it became apparent that many Grammy voters didn’t vote for Beyonce because she was winning “all the time.” Despite her previous wins, she has been nominated for Album of the Year four times and has never won (losing to Beck, Adele, Harry Styles, and Taylor Swift, respectively.) Even Beyoncé’s husband Jay Z, referenced during his acceptance speech for a global impact award that the Grammy’s decision metrics “didn’t work.” Since then, the online conversation has lit up with takes on how industry awards often nominate and invite popular Black artists for ratings but are not inclined to actually award them.

This album is a love project than anything else—a group of songs that Beyoncé crafted over five years that helped prove her point to the industry: The music she creates is inherently country because of her Texas and Louisiana roots even if the establishment of mostly white artists don’t think so. And I think that’s the point of the whole album, AOTY or not, played on country stations or not, Cowboy Carter is an excellent album. It’s also a country album. Most, importantly, it’s a Beyoncé album. And the artist herself said it best, “If that ain’t country, tell me what is.”





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