Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’ Is a Sprawling, Endlessly Entertaining Tour de Force: Album Review

What does “going country” mean to Beyoncé — musically speaking? That’s a mystery that really had to wait until this week to be solved. We’d already picked up a good idea of what country means to her culturally, in her few public statements in advance of “Cowboy Carter,” amplified in the one trillion thinkpieces published during the last two months, many of which really did help spur a vital conversation about Black exclusion and reclamation in one of America’s most important indigenous artforms. But now “Cowboy Carter” is in front of us as a real piece of music, not just a conversation piece. So what does what might already be the most talked-about album of the 21st century actually sound like?

It sounds pretty magnificent, if a short answer is required. But if it’s genre we all really want to get into, “Cowboy Carter” sounds kinda country, and kinda not — in a way that feels wholly country. Because what is modern country music if not a cornucopia that’s a long way past being defined by a single sound? “Act II” feels a lot like a 27-course meal, difficult to describe in whole, but endlessly easy to digest, serving by serving. There are moments throughout where she’s embracing the tropes and traditions of country as we’ve known it, and just as many where you’re thinking she decided to abandon the concept, until suddenly Willie Nelson or Dolly Parton pop up for one of their intermittent spoken cameos, or there’s a fleeting Patsy Cline interpolation, and suddenly she’s veered back into C&W mode again. No one will mistake this sprawling set for ever following a straight path, or having a remotely dull moment.

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It’s almost as if Beyoncé was watching some of the evolutionary leaps and hiccups country has been experiencing as it redefines its boundaries — as the music always has — and said, “Hold my Armand de Brignac. I’ve got this.”  But it’s not just a matter of what Beyoncé can do for country music; it’s what her concept of country can do for her, in expanding her musical empire and even her already well-honed sense of self. It’s a lot.

As many different directions as “Cowboy Carter” goes in, it’s held together by one common thread that runs through the vast majority of tracks: acoustic instruments. (If “Beyoncé Semi-Unplugged” was on your bingo card, 2024 is really going to be your year.) With that said, she’s pulling mostly from her pop, R&B and hip-hop communities for support here, so the album isn’t going to sound exactly like anything on the Americana chart, but… close enough, in some regards. There’s a blessing to this that doesn’t just have to do with fetishizing acoustic guitars, and it’s this: Decluttering the tracks that might otherwise be given over to beats means she’s going to fill that space up with something else, which turns out to be — hallelujah — massive amounts of voice stacking.

As a whole, “Cowboy Carter” is a masterpiece of sophisticated vocal arranging, laid out on top of mostly fairly stark band tracks. It’s not as if she ever laid off that great trick of her trade, even in a dance-based album like “Renaissance.” But here her brilliance at rendering self-harmonies is pushed up to the forefront in a way that might not have been as easy to focus on for a listener since Destiny’s Child covered “Carol of the Bells” for a Christmas record. It’s bliss.

Apart from these mostly common elements, the tracks almost couldn’t be more different from one another. Who knew that her exploration of Black Country would seem so much like her White Album? Or like a countrified version of Side 2 of “Abbey Road,” once the second half of this album turns into a series of short, sometimes weirder songs that have more strength as part of a dizzying medley than they might as Spotify singles. In its own fashion, “Cowboy Carter” plays as well as a smartly sequenced album as “Renaissance” did, even though that felt like a DJ club set and the new one goes harder on eclectic songcraft.

Her decision to issue “Texas Hold ‘Em” and “16 Carriages” as the two teaser tracks two months in advance of the album turns out to have been ideal for setting expectations for two very different sides of the record. “Texas” wasn’t shy about invoking country tropes, like line-dancing; it, along with some of the attendent pre-release imagery, made some suspicious souls wonder if this album would end up feeling like country cosplay. But then there was “Carriages,” a deeply personal ballad about her misspent youth as a budding starlet, sounding nothing like either old or new country, but married to the genre somehow just by the sound of its intricately plucked strings and storytelling.

There aren’t many moments that sell the lifestyle-branding side of country as hard as “Texas Hold ‘Em” does. (That song did its job; it’s still rising on the country airplay charts, upending some people’s initial expectations.) But of course she’s tying herself to mainstream country’s coolest elders, bringing in Willie Nelson, who does a couple of faux-DJ skits, and Dolly Parton, who brings a chuckle to a spoken introduction to Bey’s “Jolene” cover by pointing out the correlation between that classic’s auburn-haired temptress and the fabled Becky-with-the-good-hair. The Dolly homage is unquestionably the most pure country number on the album, but it’s not a completely straight take, as Beyoncé has rewritten almost all of the lyrics (and added a bridge) to make the song a fiercely protective warning instead of an endangered housewife’s plea. Taking out all the vulnerability lessens the tune a little, but it’s still a kick to hear “Jolene” with a serious infusion of “Lemonade.”

There are some clever segues throughout the album, and one of them is when “Jolene” gives way to what might actually count as a murder ballad, albeit a realistic and not-at-all campy one, “Daughter.” The hilarious and frankly scary first verse has Beyoncé laying out an apparently lifeless body, noting that, despite the bloody scenario, “Bathroom attendant let me right in / She was a big fan.” Later in the song, she may have moved on to another killing, if this is about erasing a triangle: “How long can he hold his breath / Before his death?” Beyoncé lightens up the scenario just a little by praying to get rid of the “fantasies in my head,” but she sure is a cool cucumber when it comes to imagining taking care of business: “Double cross me, I’m just like my father / I am colder than Titanic water,” she warns.

Did we mention that this murder fantasy — which starts off with a classical-sounding guitar that sounds almost fit for a Marty Robbins song — eventually winds up with Beyoncé flawlessly singing an aria from the 1700s, “Caro Mio Ben,” in Italian? It’s that kind of unpredictable album, although this at least counts as probably the strangest turn on it. Unless you count “Oh Louisiana,” a much goofier number that has Beyoncé covering a Chuck Berry oldie in a sped-up voice for a mere 52 seconds.

In evangelizing for this album, it’s hard to know whether to emphasize its weirder choices or its more conventional pleasures. There are more than enough of both of them to give “Cowboy Carter” a real sense of dynamics. But when it comes to the most straightforward material, the average listener may gravitate immediately to Beyoncé’s crowd-pleasing duet with Miley Cyrus, “II Most Wanted,” which has producer Ryan Tedder building a breezy buddyship anthem over an interpolation of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” “I’ll be your shotgun rider ’til the day I die / Smoke out the window flyin’ down the 405,” they sing, putting the western back in country & Western. “II Most Wanted” is not the most interesting song here, but Bey harmonizes with Cyrus just as effectively as she does with herself. It’d be no surprise if their duet finds its way onto and sticks around the adult contemporary chart for about 18 months.

Sexy-time is a big thing on this album, too. Another superstar duet, “Levii’s Jeans,” has Post Malone in the role of Jay-Z. (Or at least we can surmise from other lyrics on the album that Beyoncé considers herself to have a very healthy marital relationship, physically and otherwise.) “Baby, let me rattle that snake with my venom / Denim on denim on denim on denim,” she sings, although it’s actually more lilting and gentle in tone than any saucy lyric excerpt is going to make it sound.

There are theories that “Act III” in her promised musical triptych will be a rock ‘n’ roll album. It could be wishful thinking; maybe she is saving an all-arias album for last in the trilogy. But if she is planning to rock, she gets a slight head start on it here with a couple of numbers here. “Bodyguard” is a strummed soft-rock number with a straight-up backbeat, sounding almost like a demo, in its sweet minimalism.

Later, she seriously ramps up the energy with “Ya Ya,” which brings out her Tina Turner side, and/or sounds like a “TAMI Show” outtake. “Ya Ya” risks extending itself an interpolation too far, as some iconic bass riffing from “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” is succeeded by Bey twice throwing in the hook from that famous country classic, “Good Vibrations.” On paper, “Ya Ya” is overstuffed with references, but that doesn’t really matter when you can feel the wind coming off the fringe of her miniskirt.

The album feels epic, of course. (It’s worth pointing out that she does cap it at 78 minutes, exactly the max that will fit on a single CD; even in a time when there won’t be many people buying that configuration, maybe that’s in consideration for those that will.) If “Carter Country” doesn’t overstay its welcome, that’s partly to due with a song sequence that has the mood of the album changing over its duration. Rather than start with a bang, the album puts many of its most reflective songs early on, like the opening “American Requiem,” a blast of choral power that is one of a small portion of songs that wear their social conscience on their sleeves. “Protector” is a lovely song for the singer’s kids, opening with a recording of 6-year-old Rumi Carter’s request for “the lullaby, please.”

It takes until the 12th song on the album — at which point, remember, we’re not halfway through — till we get the first and only real hip-hop song on the album, “Spaghetti,” which has Beyoncé rapping, ever so briefly. But it does have, yes, the barest trace of a spaghetti Western feel, which is just enough to technically tie it back to the overriding concept. It also has an introducion from Linda Martell, the first Black female star in country music (circa 1970), who gives a short homily: “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they? … In theory, they have a simple definition, but in practice, well, some may feel confined.”

And then, after a few more essentially acoustic-based songs that pick up the tempo, there’s the final stretch of the album, where things finally get a lot looser and loopier. It may be at this late point in the album when Beyoncé loses some people. After the bonkers “Oh Louisiana” and the 1:13 paean to oral sex that is “Desert Eagle,” a few listeners might be going: What the hell was that we just heard? Suddenly, after that, it begins turning into a club album, with “II Hands to Heaven,” which has an electronic pulse we haven’t heard much of, and “Tyrant,” which flirts with trap, even though Bey is keeping the rodeo underpinnings alive with a “Giddy-up, giddy-up.”

Hearing the album finally turn into something that feels a bit closer to 2022’s “Renaissance” toward the very end could be seen as a reward for some of her faithful fans who are more into dance music for sticking through the Texas two-stepping. But in country terms, it also feels a bit like going to California’s Stagecoach Festival, where the headliner is now always followed at the end of the final night by a late-night DJ set from Diplo, since the line between line-dancing and EDM culture is being further erased these days.

Who cares if any or all of it is country or not, you might ask? Well, lots of people do — especially fellow Black artists who have a stake in how this album is received and how it might affect their futures. Martell, 82, is on board for a couple of spoken-word interludes to serve as a reminder Black country’s largely swept-under-the-rug past. But Beyoncé has brought on board here several young singers who are part of the music’s past and future, including Willie Jones, on “Just for Fun,” and Shaboozey, on “Spaghetti” and again on “Sweet Honey Buckin’,” where their interplay is as randy as the title suggests.

Most significantly — as a symbolic gesture, and a piece of music — she does a duet with the up-and-comer Tanner Adell on a cover of the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” speaking of the original White Album. It’s not exactly a random nostalgic pick: Paul McCartney has said in recent years that he was inspired to write the inspirational ballad by the civil rights movement in the ‘60s, thinking of “bird” as then-popular British slang for girls and, yes, the overall title symbol as a euphemism for young Black women. Beyoncé was so taken by the idea of adopting this song for her own purposes that she didn’t just bring Adell onto it as a second lead voice; she forsook doing her usual own backup vocal stacking in favor of forming a small choir of other featured artists, including Brittney Spencer, Reyna Roberts and Tiera Kennedy. It counts as a leg up, given what Beyoncé’s cosign is worth, but on a purely musical level, it also feels sublime.

“You were only waiting for this moment to arrive” — that’s a key line for an album that lives up to its event status as an inherent piece of agitprop and socially significant performance art, reflecting and affecting the history of Black music and country. It obviously has been compared to Ray Charles’ landmark 1962 “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,” but this feels different than someone coming in and adopting the existing country songbook for their own purposes, vital as that was. Beyoncé expanding this historic catalog with her own crucial additions to it is a never-to-be-forgotten signpost, however much it does or doesn’t immediately affect the fortunes of those still trying to get a basic foothold in the genre.

And she’s not pulling this off either by unduly ingratiating herself into a scene with country customs or ignoring those hallmarks entirely. With this endlessly entertaining project, she gets to be a warrior of female and Black pride and a sweetheart of the radio. Because being Beyoncé means never having to pretend to be just one thing.

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