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First-Listen: Beyoncé's 'Cowboy Carter' Is a Sprawling, Slippery, Adventurous Interrogation of America's Country Traditions

Much like her previous album 'Renaissance' used house music and dance culture as a jumping-off point to pull from a variety of styles and musical traditions, 'Cowboy Carter' hardly limits itself to country. If anything, it’s even more stylistically promiscuous.

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Source: Parkwood Entertainment

Beyoncé's 'Cowboy Carter' both embraces and interrogates country and Americana traditions.

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Beyoncé's Cowboy Carter is finally here. While the singer all but pioneered the surprise album release strategy with her self-titled fifth LP back in 2014, the run-up to her eighth has been a different story entirely. First teased with a Super Bowl commercial, the album has stayed in the headlines ever since via a slow-drip of singles and photos, as well as substantial discourse about the star’s embrace of country music, a genre where she was previously made to feel less-than-welcome.

As it turns out, this media blitz was an entirely appropriate prelude to the album, a sprawling, endlessly referential journey through several decades of Americana and country traditions. This is a record that will inspire no shortage of exegesis over the coming weeks, but some things are obvious right from the first listen:

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Source: CBS

'Texas Hold 'Em' offered a preview of what the album had in store.

It’s a country album, all right…

Granted, this much should have been obvious from the album’s title, cover art, pre-release artist’s statement and first single, “Texas Hold ‘Em,” which has already made Beyoncé the first Black woman to top Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. But any remaining suspicions that all of this might have somehow been an elaborate head-fake are dispelled right away. Roughly-strummed acoustic guitars, churchly vocal harmonies and lyrical invocations of rodeos, horses, denim, grits and whiskey crop up continuously.

While “Texas Hold ‘Em” is the closest thing to a vintage Shania Twain banger to be found here, the lullaby “Protector” offers a lovely Western-tinged ballad, and “Alliigator Tears” could slot into any country radio playlist with little-to-no friction.

As teased earlier in the week (and spoiled by the song’s author several weeks before that), Beyoncé takes on Dolly Parton’s much-covered 1973 hit “Jolene,” albeit with some significant lyrical alterations. Twisting the original’s desperate plea into a cold-eyed warning is certainly a choice that will raise some hackles: Miranda Lambert actually pulled a similar trick on her “Jolene”-citing “Geraldine” just a few years ago, but Beyoncé’s treatment changes the entire emotional tenor of the song. It's not the only striking reinvention here, but it may be the boldest.

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The singer manages to pull from a wide variety of styles and sources on the LP.

…but not entirely

Much like her previous album Renaissance used house music and queer dance culture as a jumping-off point to pull from a variety of styles and musical traditions, Cowboy Carter hardly limits itself to country. If anything, it’s even more stylistically promiscuous, with “Ya Ya” standing out as the most thrillingly adventurous song of the bunch: a restless Tina Turner-style stomper that cheekily interpolates Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking” and the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” before suddenly giving way to an almost chopped-and-screwed interlude of Chuck Berry’s “Oh Louisiana.” It's quite possibly the weirdest song Beyoncé has ever concocted, and it works brilliantly.

“Daughter” is a quiet stunner — an eerie dirge that nods to Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song” before incorporating several measures from Giuseppe Giordani’s aria “Caro mio ben.” Meanwhile, “Riiverdance” splits the difference between the star’s dance and country eras, looping a fingerpicked guitar riff and a gentle wash of piano over a four-on-the-floor beat that comes out as something resembling Frankie Knuckles gone Nashville. There’s even a Southern-fried rap track, with Bey spitting some furious verses alongside Shaboozey on “Spaghettii.” Beyoncé has always displayed omnivorous musical tastes, but never has she made an album with references quite as deep and as varied as this one.

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Miley Cyrus delivers one of 'Cowboy Carter's' most memorable guest appearances.

The standout guests are not who you’d expect

Earlier this week, Beyoncé turned heads when she revealed that country legends Parton and Willie Nelson would have cameos on her upcoming record. The two are present and accounted for, though neither get a chance to sing, instead appearing on spoken-word vignettes that are cute enough, even if they largely seem to function as elder statesmen co-signs and preemptive responses to any criticism that might be coming her way. (“You still don’t think Beyoncé should sing country? Willie and Dolly are fine with it; who the hell are you?”)

Parton’s goddaughter Miley Cyrus, however, does step up to the microphone for some actual singing, sharing equal track time with Beyoncé on “II Most Wanted,” and the two women's voices prove unexpectedly compatible — it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this song follow “Texas Hold ‘Em” on a climb up the charts. Post Malone also gets a radio-ready showcase on the catchy yet shallow “Levii’s Jeans,” which isn't that far removed from something Luke Bryan might tackle.

The album’s real standout guest performers, however, are names that might not have been as familiar to listeners this time yesterday. A reverently faithful cover of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” is given some tremendous harmony work courtesy of four Black women country singers: Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy and Reyna Roberts. The symbolic significance of having five Black women sing a ‘60s rock standard inspired by the Civil Rights movement is obvious, but just as importantly, their performance of the song is flat-out beautiful, with Adell in particular giving an absolutely showstopping reading of the song’s final verse.

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Beyoncé never needed an invitation

With Renaissance, Beyoncé may have been experimenting with genres that were previously a bit out of her wheelhouse, but she had every reason to expect she'd be welcomed with open arms by the dance music community. With Cowboy Carter, she's well aware she might not be, and that anxiety -- and her steely-eyed determination to overcome it -- is one of the record's most explicit themes. We see this everywhere from Black country pioneer Linda Martell's spoken word interlude ("genres are a funny little concept, aren't they?") to Beyoncé's lyrics on the album's opening song: "They used to say I spoke too country / Then the rejection came: 'not country enough.'" These are complicated, multi-pronged issues -- for all of country music's glaringly obvious, decades-long problems with race, it's also fair to say that Carrie Underwood would probably also attract some skepticism if she tried to make a straight-ahead contemporary R&B album -- and there is a certain danger in conflating them all together in the same narrative. But the main takeaway of Cowboy Carter is a righteous one: the country music tradition is a fundamental part of America's cultural heritage, Black musicians played an essential role in building that tradition, and everyone has the right to play in that sandbox. "Can Beyoncé make a country album?" is a pointless and unfair question. "Can Beyoncé make a good country album?" is a much more relevant question. Judging from Cowboy Carter, the answer is pretty clear: yes she can. And she never needed anyone's invitation to try.


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