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Cowboy Carter: Beyoncé’s stinging riposte

Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’ is a richly annotated critique of the country music establishment. It explores and reclaims the black roots of American folk culture

Beyoncé at the iHeartRadio Music Awards in Los Angeles, on 1 April.
Beyoncé at the iHeartRadio Music Awards in Los Angeles, on 1 April. (Reuters)

Over the past decade or so, no major artist has done as much to expand our notion of what a pop album could do than Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. Her eponymous 2013 album revived the old visual album format, its songs accompanied by a set of short films that illustrated the record’s feminist themes of black sexuality, oppressive beauty standards, marriage and motherhood. She followed it up with 2016’s Lemonade, an incandescent account of emotional discord and marital breakdown (and eventual reconciliation) as she drags her husband—rap mogul Jay-Z—for his infidelity. That album marked a definite break from Beyoncé’s youthful, pop-lite image, establishing her as an art-pop savant with something real to say. In her capable hands, the pop album became something more than escapist performance, each record a deeply researched thesis on race, sexuality and the festering fissures of American society.

In recent years, Beyoncé has focused her attention on legacy—her own, and that of black America. Her 2022 album Renaissance—the first of a trilogy—paid tribute to the black and queer pioneers of dance music, drawing heavily from the ballroom, Chicago house, Detroit techno and disco scenes. Cowboy Carter, her eighth album and the second in the trilogy, continues in the same vein, but applies Beyoncé’s critical, historically revisionist (in the positive, academic sense) to country and Americana, both scenes with rich black histories that nonetheless remain strictly white-coded.

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For decades, the country music mainstream has been jealously guarded by a reactionary Nashville elite that has worked hard to exclude black artists from the genre’s history and its present. The inspiration for Cowboy Carter comes from an incident in 2016, when the Texas-born Beyoncé first came up against country’s conservative establishment. That November, she joined country renegades The Dixie Chicks onstage at the 50th annual Country Music Association (CMA) Awards to perform Daddy Lessons, a track off Lemonade that flirts heavily with country music.

The performance was triumphant, a thrilling affirmation of her southern black heritage (and all the complicated baggage that comes with it). But it was met with immediate, and often racist, backlash. Large parts of the audience sat in grim silence, ignoring Beyoncé’s attempt to get them to clap along. Social media was awash with posts that implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—argued that a black artist had no place at the CMAs. A month later, the Grammys disqualified Daddy Lessons as an entry for the country category. “I did not feel welcomed…and it was very clear that I wasn’t,” Beyoncé wrote about the incident in a recent Instagram post about the new album.

Instead of being scared off though, she doubled down, digging deep into the history of country and cowboy culture to excavate their black roots (the term cowboy itself, as the album’s press release notes, derives in part from white ranchers calling their white employees “cowhands,” and their black employees “cowboy”). Five years in the making, Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé’s stinging riposte, a richly annotated critique of the country music establishment. Using the sounds and iconography of country music as a launching point, it explores and reclaims the black roots of American folk culture and history, channelling everything from the Mississippi Delta blues to gospel and R&B.

Opener Ameriican Requiem drips with the gritty contempt of a generational pop superstar scorned, a bold mission statement that establishes Beyoncé’s Texan bona-fides and blasts the hypocrisy of an America that wants to forget that the country was founded on the backs of black slaves. “Used to say I spoke ‘too country’/And the rejection came, said I wasn’t country ’nough,” she sings, over music that draws from both gospel and glam rock. For her cover of The Beatles’ Blackbird—inspired by the struggles of black students during school desegregation—she drafts four young black country singers to accompany her, their presence a shot across the CMA’s bow.

Always a canny curator, Beyoncé brings in collaborators from across country music history, as well as pop (Miley Cyrus) and rap (Post Malone). Outlaw country legend Willie Nelson gives radio-DJ style spoken word intros to two songs—the boogie and hoedown referencing stomp Texas Hold Em, and Just For Fun, a gospel-indebted track about time healing wounds that also features young black country musician Willie Jones.

Linda Martell—the first female black country singer to be commercially successful—also appears on two tracks. She opens rap cut Spaghettii with a voice-over that puts the album’s key idea in simple words: “In theory, (genres) have a simple definition that’s easy to understand. But in practice, well, some may feel confined.” Her statement reinforces a point made very clearly in the previous track daughter, a cowgirl revenge ballad into which she drops an 18th century opera aria (sung in Italian, no less).

Elsewhere, there are interpolations of Nancy Sinatra and the Beach Boys, and a rousing cover of Dolly Parton’s Jolene, reinterpreted as a warning (“I’m still a Creole banjee bitch from Louisiana, don’t try me”). One of the most effective genre-bending cuts is Riiverdance, whose finger-plucked bluegrass guitar is paired with house-music keys and a thumping four-to-the-floor beat. If country music won’t welcome Beyoncé, the track—and the album—seems to be saying, then she will take the tropes of country music and claim it as her own.

With 27 tracks, the album can sometimes feel a little overstuffed, but even on the weaker tracks, there’s more than enough going on to keep you interested. If there’s one quibble, it’s that Beyoncé’s engagement with politics here remains vague and tenuous, with lots of nods to revolutionary forebears, but little concrete to say about the state of the nation today. That’s okay though, because Cowboy Carter is just the beginning of the conversation, initiating a debate that’s now playing out on social media, in newsprint, and in the halls of Nashville institutions. It’s now up to her listeners to, as she puts it on Amen, “purify our father’s sins.”

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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