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In “Cowboy Carter,” Beyoncé converts us to the religion of country music

“My un-American life,” Beyoncé had crooned in the opener in Act I of her “Renaissance” project. At first glance, it’s a lyric that may not mean much. However, it grants us insight into the harsh rejection the pop musician had previously faced in the country music industry and larger conservative America.
In 2016, when Beyoncé released the acclaimed “Lemonade,” it became her most successful project as a genre-bending artist. However, country music gatekeepers were deadset on excluding the musician from the genre that traditionally features predominantly white artists – mostly because of an electric performance of her country track, “Daddy Lessons” performed with the Chicks during that year’s CMA Awards.
No matter how strong the performance or the undeniable influence of Black people on country music, Beyoncé was met with a harsh and racist backlash. The response was so toxic that the CMAs scrubbed the performance from all its platforms. Conservatives spewed similar racist sentiments during the singer’s 2016 Superbowl half-time show performance, labeling Beyoncé and the performance as “un-American.”
The criticisms around her identity and Americanness have haunted the musician’s music and image for a better part of a decade. But in “Cowboy Carter,” Beyoncé isn’t afraid to take the bruising rejection and turn it into a career- and history-defining album. Ever the clever songwriter, she pushes the criticism even further with the soulful opener, “American Requiem,” asking what does it actually mean to be an American?
Related Beyoncé is primed and ready to dominate country music even if it is a genre that shunned her
The pop star boldly answers the question in her highly anticipated venture into country. Her eighth studio album, a 27-track Western epic, “Cowboy Carter” took the artist over five years to make she said. “It’s been really great to have the time and the grace to be able to take my time with it.” That much is clear in the 1 hour, 19 minute project.
Breaking down “Cowboy Carter”
In her long-awaited journey into the genre, Beyoncé acts as a country music purist as she sits behind a curtain, weaving in and out the narrative of her life. And like many Black Americans, her origins begin in the South. As she sings in “American Requiem” against reverberating acoustic guitar and piercing vocals, she is the “grandbaby of a moonshine man” in Gadsden, Alabama. She’s got “folk in Galveston, rooted in Louisiana.” But it’s also true that there’s rejection in the spaces she felt were supposed to be hers too, singing that they, “Used to say I spoke, ‘Too country’/And the rejection came, said ‘I wasn’t country ‘nough.'”
She pushes back with unrelenting force: “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.”
The Texas pop diva said herself that “Cowboy Carter” was born out of an experience she “had years ago where I did not feel welcome . . . and it was very clear that I wasn’t. But, because of that experience, I did a deeper dive into the history of Country music and studied our rich musical archive.”
None of “Cowboy Carter” is for the people who rejected her. An example of this is the pop star’s soft cover of “Blackbird,” the 1968 Beatles hit, a protest song Paul McCartney wrote inspired by the Black women in Little Rock Nine. Beyoncé elevates the classic song by featuring country music’s emerging powerhouse Black women: Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy and Reyna Roberts. The blend of vocal harmonies and symbolism will leave you awestruck and almost croaking.
The great experiment in “Cowboy Carter” is Beyoncé has entirely reimagined what country music has the potential to look and sound like. Committing to the Beyoncé-ification of country music isn’t an exclusive endeavor but rather enlists the genre’s greats like Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Linda Martell. She does it through a fictional AM radio station called KUNTry in which the country icons act as the announcers for the album’s tracks, and it feels like the angels greeting you at the gates of heaven, ready to usher you into an enlightened, higher plane. Cinephiles may feel listening to “Cowboy Carter” is akin to a heavenly experience since Beyoncé had noted that each song on the album is a reimagining of Western films like “Five Fingers For Marseilles,” “Urban Cowboy,” “The Hateful Eight, “Space Cowboys,” “The Harder They Fall” and “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
The previously released singles “16 Carriages” and “Texas Hold ‘Em” are only minuscule markers of “Cowboy Carter’s” weight and versatility. In “Bodyguard,” Beyoncé stuns in a silky smooth folksy jam, reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac and its frontwoman Stevie Nicks. In the interlude “Dolly P,” Parton references “Jolene” with, “You know that hussy with the good hair you sing about?/ Reminded me of someone I knew back when.” It then transitions to the long-awaited cover of Parton’s 1973 hit, which is an peak example of showmanship from Beyoncé’s genre-defying craft. She tells the other woman, “Jolene, I know I’m a queen, Jolene/I’m still a Creole banjee b***h from Louisianne (Don’t try me).” But then surprisingly, in the bridge, the singer brings in a male choir to answer her call and response. It’s a quippy, murderous take on Parton’s classic.
Another frightening and unexpected murder ballad is “Daughter” where the singer breaks into the 18th-century opera song “Caro Mio Ben.” Her writing has never been crisper as she sings:
Your body laid out on these filthy floors
Your bloodstains on my custom coutures
Bathroom attendant let me right in
She was a big fan.
The experimental hip-hop track, “Spaghettii,” features rapper Shaboozey and Martell. Martell, who was the first critically successful Black female county artist, suffered at the hands of white supremacist gatekeepers in the country genre in the South during the late ’60s and ’70s. Martell narrates about the confinement of genres:
Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?
Yes, they are
In theory, they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand
But in practice, well, some may feel confined
Beyoncé brings on former Disney pop-country starlet, Miley Cyrus for the guitar and banjo ballad, “II Most Wanted.” The pop powerhouses are in their country bag when they affirm their eternal love for their partners, “I’ll be your shotgun rider until the day I die.” Cyrus’ raspy vocals juxtapose against Beyoncé’s soulful and piercing falsetto. “Levii’s Jeans” is a funky, bluesy and sultry love song featuring rap/folk crossover artist Post Malone.
The pair croon to their lovers:
Oh, girl, I wish I was your Levi’s jeans
The way you poppin’ out my phone
I love you down to the bone
While the album could do without a few tracks, the standout is “Ya Ya.” The track is a homage to the Queen of Rock and Roll, the late Tina Turner. Beyoncé even emulates Turner’s electric growl and energy. “Ya Ya” even gives hits of the Beach Boys and Elvis Presley. The pop star commands and controls every second of the rock-inspired song as she calls in the claps, drums and the live instruments that follow her lead.
Finally, Beyoncé reiterates her identity, telling people to stop looking for a “new America”:
My family lived and died in America, hm
Good ole USA, s**t (Good ole USA)
Whole lotta red in that white and blue, huh
History can’t be erased, oh-oh
It’s in “Tyrant” where Beyoncé gets real weird — so weird it’s challenging and most importantly fun. A fiddle against a traditional trap beat made for the club, the star sings, “Tyrant every time I ride it, every time I ride it/Make it look so good, try to justify it.” However, in the album’s closer, “Amen,” Beyoncé reaches God. A choir of just her own layered vocals back her sweeping, religious-tinged soprano voice.
An organ reverberates against her immaculate vocals, she asks for forgiveness and mercy. In “Amen,” the singer eventually loops back to the themes and statements she posed about identity in “American Requiem”:
Say a prayer for what has been
We’ll be the ones to purify our Fathers’ sins
American Requiem
Them old ideas (Yeah) are buried here (Yeah)
Amen (Amen)
It’s clear in “Cowboy Carter” that Beyoncé has spent decades of her decorated musical career mastering her craft and it’s paid off. No one else could make an album as expansive and almost eternal as “Cowboy Carter.” The pop star honors Black music history with subtle care and protection as she becomes a part of the same history she admires and draws inspiration from. It’s for all the singing cowboys, the Blaxploitation films, the chitlin’ circuits across the segregated South. It’s for her ancestors, her lineage and all the invisible Black Southerners who have shaped the fabric of American culture, society and institutions. It’s not a political album but it can’t help but force us to question the value, significance and everlasting impact of Southern Black art and experience. Best of all, we can do it while throwing a hoedown or twerking just like Beyoncé.



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