Beyoncé takes on the country genre in new album

When you think of Beyoncé, it’s unlikely to associate her with the country genre, but two and a half decades into her career, Beyoncé has solidified that reinvention as the driving force of her artistic legacy.

“COWBOY CARTER” is not Beyoncé’s first foray into the country music scene. At the 2016 Country Music Awards, Beyoncé performed her track “Daddy Lessons” with The Chicks. The performance incited uproar in the country community. People were purportedly upset at a primarily pop artist performing at a country ceremony.

But it might be more truthful to say that they were upset at a Black artist performing country music. In fact, many people scoffed at the idea of Beyoncé making country music—critics and common audiences alike. However, country music finds its roots in Black communities, a little-known history that Beyoncé attempts to highlight with this record and its promotional material.

Country music traces its roots to the original African instrument, the banjo, which was introduced to white audiences by minstrel performers in blackface. Black performers were always present at the beginning of country music, but in the Jim Crow Era, country was split into “hillbilly” for white artists while it became “race records” for Black artists. Despite this, Beyoncé fights claims questioning her ability as a Black woman to make a genuine country album.

Now, am I qualified to review a country album? Perhaps not. However, “COWBOY CARTER” is first, and foremost, a Beyoncé record, and I am definitely qualified to review that. While the album contains country songs, the majority of the tracks are more country-inspired than they are straight-up country.

Beyoncé has demonstrated that she’s capable of enriching an album’s storyline by traversing genres. If “Lemonade” showed her capacity, “COWBOY CARTER” demonstrated her mastery. To go along with this profusion of musical genres is perhaps some of Beyoncé’s most impressive vocal work yet.

The album begins with complex vocal layering on “AMERIICAN REQUIEM” reminiscent of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” She provides subtle and sensitive vocal performances on “16 CARRIAGES” and “PROTECTOR.” On “DAUGHTER,” she gives an operatic rendition of the baroque Italian aria “Caro mio ben,” followed directly by an impressive rap performance on “SPAGHETTII” featuring Shaboozey.

Even still, this list undersells the genre diversity on this album. “BODYGUARD” is an upbeat pop song, “RIIVERDANCE,” an acoustic house and Irish Riverdance song and, of course, songs like the lead singles “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM” and “16 CARRIAGES,” which show the stomp and holler and artsy sides of country, respectively. There really is no predicting where Beyoncé can and will take you, but there is no doubt that the vocal performance and storytelling will be anything less than captivating.

The album is full of references to cultural touchpoints. The second track, “BLACKBIIRD,” a cover of the Beatles’ song, alludes to Paul McCartney’s original meaning of the song as a political statement in favor of Black Americans’ plights during the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s. The blackbird is a symbol for young Black girls, such as Elizabeth Eckford from the Little Rock Nine and Ruby Bridges.

Beyoncé underlines this through the addition of prominent Black women in the country scene—Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy and Reyna Roberts. The album includes interludes with Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, legends in country. From Parton, Beyoncé not only covers but reimagines “Jolene.” She modernizes the song and fits it seamlessly into the story told by the album and her career’s narrative.

Finally, on the song “YA YA,” Beyoncé samples Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” and interpolates “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys. It also contains various nods to Martell, just about the only Black woman to have success since before country became a segregated genre. 

To me, “COWBOY CARTER” not only cements Beyoncé as one of the most ambitious, versatile and capable artists of all time, but also as a formidable musicologist. Starting with “Lemonade,” following through “RENAISSANCE” and now “COWBOY CARTER,” Beyoncé tells the story of Black American history—the pain, the joy, the untold. With her work, music and art goes beyond entertainment. 

Yes, her music is perfect to groove or cry to, but it goes beyond that. Her music carries themes of empowerment, liberation, generational hurt and intersectionality, to name a few. Though I can’t say that I’ll be listening to all the songs on a regular basis, I cannot deny that Beyoncé has once again proven that there is no limitation to her reinvention.

5/5 stars


Featured photo courtesy of Idrewulk, Wikimedia