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Cowboy Carter: A Genre-less Masterpiece 🤠

Written by: Jadon King

Stans will already know, but for those that aren’t tapped into the latest music news, Beyoncé dropped her latest album, Cowboy Carter, this past week! A follow-up to her 2022 album Renaissance, the album marks a distinct switch in genre and aesthetic for Beyoncé, moving from dance and club influences to take on country. However, the switch to country isn’t as big of a jump as some critics are making it out to be; Beyoncé is a native of Houston, Texas who regularly performed at the famous Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo as a member of Destiny's Child and a solo performer. Her mother’s roots are Louisiana Creole and acted as the group's stylist at points, dressing Destiny’s Child in rhinestone cowboy glam for their “Bug a Boo” music video. Country music's origins as a genre are found in the South, sharing influences with blues, an evolution of African music brought to America by slaves. With that in mind, today we’re looking at the influences that led Beyoncé to country music and talk about the final product! 🤠

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard Beyoncé’s Texas twang. Destiny’s Child’s self-titled debut album featured a cover of the country ballad “Sail On” by Commodores, which blended the group’s R&B mastery with confident country accents. On her 2016 album Lemonade she sang about “Daddy Lessons”, a country song standing alone next to the rest of the album’s R&B and art pop sounds. But at a deeper level than that, Beyoncé is tapping into the deep roots of black heritage within country music. Country music, while popularized by typically white, male performers, was developed by slaves on plantations; the banjo itself, a key instrument in country, evolved from African string instruments brought to America due to the slave trade. Only because white musicians appropriated the instrument and its sounds, developed by slaves, did “country” come to be what it is today. Even the notion that country today has one sound is a flimsy one; country has always been a blend of celebratory, Saturday night porch music and the soft reverence of church on Sunday morning. Understanding country music’s development and origins gives Cowboy Carter more historical context as we listen to a black woman’s country album and watch its reception. 🤝

And unsurprisingly, we love it. The album begins with “AMERIICAN REQUIEM”, in which Beyoncé asks if there’s a place for her in country music. “Can you stand me? Can you stand with me?” She sings before staking her claim in the second verse:

“Looka there, looka in my hand / The grandbaby of a moonshine man / Gadsden, Alabama / Got folk down in Galveston, rooted in Louisiana / Used to say I spoke too country / And the rejection came, said I wasn't country 'nough / Said I wouldn't saddle up, but if that ain't country, tell me what is? / Plant my bare feet on solid ground for years /They don't, don't know how hard I had to fight for this / When I sang my song.”

The album moves on to a soft, deeply compelling cover of the Beatles’ “Blackbird”, which features a cast of wildly talented black female country artists as backing vocals including Tanner Alder, Reyna Roberts, Tiera Kennedy, and Brittney Spencer. The album takes a turn towards the spiritual on “PROTECTOR” as Beyoncé sings to her daughter Rumi, vowing to be her protector as she grows “even though I know, someday, you’re gonna shine on your own”. Beyoncé emphasizes maternal themes with nature imagery which evokes thoughts of Mother Earth herself, singing, “An apricot picked right off a given’ tree / I gave water to the soil / and now it feeds me / and there you are, shaded underneath it all”. The richness of the Earth providing its harvest is a common theme in country, as country singers tend to be from rural farmlands, so it's no surprise to see Beyoncé putting her own feminine twist on the motif. The next song on the album, “SMOKE HOUR WILLIE NELSON”, is an interlude of sorts that breaks the fourth wall and establishes Cowboy Carter as a concept album. 💿

The song features someone, presumably us, the listener, flipping through radio channels that are playing old country and blues songs by black artists that influenced white performers who went on to find great success. The various stations play an interpolation of Son House’s “Grinnin’ In Your Face”, a song written by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who influenced Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, to name a few. They also played a Chuck Berry rockabilly western swing adaptation, and gospel and blues singer Roy Hamilton’s “Don’t Let Go”. Then, country legend Willie Nelson himself enters with the flick of a lighter to introduce himself as the host of the Smoke Hour on KNTRY Radio Texas, keeping in line with the KNTY 4 NEWS stage bit from the Renaissance Tour. For the next song, he invites us to sit back and “go to the good place your mind likes to wander off to” before “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM” cues in. The heartfelt love song “BODYGUARD” is an ode to the light of love during hard times before the queen of country Dolly Parton intros Beyoncé’s straightforward rendition of “JOLENE”. ❤️‍🔥

The next song, “DAUGHTER”, highlights Beyoncé’s knack for detailed, compelling songwriting. She laments her own dark inner shadow reflective of her father’s character, singing, “They keep saying that I ain’t nothin’ like my father / but I’m the furthest thing from choir boys and altars / if you cross me I’m just like my father / I am colder than Titanic water”. Church imagery continues throughout the song, specifically in the chorus, as Beyoncé asks to be cleansed of violet thoughts. The dark soundscapes of “DAUGHTER” then transition into “SPAGHETTII”, a standout on the album for us. The song shows the diversity of Cowboy Carter’s production and Beyoncé’s ability to make a blend of seemingly clashing genres not only coherent but appealing. The song is bass-heavy and braggadocious, at least initially. The first two-thirds of the song features Beyoncé rapping, but the final portion of the song is largely melodic, with artist Shaboozey singing over a light string section. 😌

Other highlights on the album include a beautiful duet with Miley Cyrus on “II MOST WANTED”, which may or may not have made us cry a little (not the point). “FLAMENCO” is another stylistic highpoint as Beyoncé incorporates Latin rhythm and guitar into the album. Black female country pioneer Linda Martell introduces another genre-bending song "YA YA", even acknowledging that the song “stretches across a range of genres and that’s what makes it a unique experience”. And right she is. The song is rock, it’s country, it interpolates “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys, with elements of hip-hop and funk thrown in for good measure. The bassline of “DESERT EAGLE” is so funky it’s a wonder it wasn’t ripped from a Bootsy Collins song. The upbeat guitars and drums of folk music are present on “RIIVERDANCE”, lending a free, airy feeling to Beyoncé’s flowing lyrics which tell the story of a couple still in love after difficult times. “II HANDS II HEAVEN” features muted drum machine sounds common in lo-fi music and “TYRANT” is produced by hip-hop hitmaker D.A. Got That Dope, featuring bouncing 808s with a vibrant fiddle sample, as well as a brief intro by Dolly! 🥳

Cowboy Carter stands defiant as a truly genre-less work by a mainstream artist. The stylistic throughline is country, undoubtedly, however, Beyoncé’s personal flair and history as an R&B singer/rapper shines through consistently. As a result, country fans who want a straightforward, easy-to-digest country album will be disappointed, but keen, open-minded listeners will be able to appreciate the vast array of influences Beyoncé brings to her version of country. It’s like Willie Nelson said on “SMOKE HOUR II”: “Sometimes you don’t know what you like until someone you trust turns you on to some real good stuff”. The album is inherently experimental and feels more like a playlist than an album, and Beyoncé asks the listener to trust her. And we’re rewarded for doing so! But because Beyoncé is so high profile because she’s a black woman entering a traditionally white, male genre, there’s been a lot of press surrounding Cowboy Carter (much of it positive, much of it negative), but the talk about genre-this and genre-that distracts from the album itself. Artists have been mixing and bending genres since music‘s inception, so why are we surprised that Beyoncé’s doing it? Besides. The album is good. Like, really, REALLY good, and we’re already wondering what she’ll do for Act III! But for now, we’re kicking off our boots, lighting a bonfire, and listening to Cowboy Carter until the speaker breaks. What was your favorite song from the album? What are other favorite albums of yours that are genre-benders? Follow us on Instagram, X, and TikTok to let us know! 💜

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