Album Review: “COWBOY CARTER” by Beyonce

The superstar shines on an expansive and gloriously entertaining effort

It would be an understatement to say that a new Beyoncé album causes ripples in the fabric of pop culture. Every Beyoncé album, particularly from her stellar self-titled record in 2013 up until 2022s “Renaissance,” has been subject to not only critical acclaim but also wide media coverage and scrutiny of their themes, lyrics and messaging. When it was announced that “COWBOY CARTER” would be Beyoncé’s “country” album—with the lead singles “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM” and “16 CARRIAGES” being indicative of a wholly new direction—fans (including yours truly) went into a frenzy. It is no secret that mainstream country is re-discovering the influence of Black musicians on the genre. Beyoncé going country labeled this album as a watershed moment for the genre, even before it was released. Given that “Renaissance” was such a finely crafted, impeccably produced and genuinely thrilling album, “COWBOY CARTER” has a lot to live up to. So, is it any good?

I am thrilled to report that YES! “COWBOY CARTER” is ambitious, grand and cinematic, yet intimate and subdued when it must be. Listening to it reminded me of listening to the best Stevie Wonder records—a cohesive mixed bag of strongly executed songs. In the days leading up to its release, Beyoncé said herself, “…. It’s not a country album, it’s a Beyoncé album!” That is true. CC is surely a country-Americana-Western-infused album, but it is presented with a veneer of R&B and gospel that feels wholly Beyoncé-esque. Never does this album feel that it is trying too hard to be diverse and eclectic in its sonic palette. That is because the core songs are impeccably well-written, filled with incisive but quotable lyrics garnished with delicious melodies and you have a wonderful sonic meal.

If “Renaissance” showcased her vocal acrobatics engineered for the dance floor, CC showcases just how incredible her voice has grown not only as a vocalist but as a storyteller. On CC, she gets joyously weird, and the album is all the better for it. It kicks off with “AMERIICAN REQUIEM,” which is a grand psych-gospel stomp, as she fires at critics taking digs at her presence in the country music landscape. It’s a superbly executed introduction to the record, that dives into a very faithful cover of “Blackbird” by The Beatles.

The single “16 CARRIAGES” is a poignant ode to growing up and leaving your past behind. “PROTECTOR” encapsulates the message of motherhood and the bond between a mother and child in a sublime, frankly tearjerking way (“Even though I know, someday, you’re gonna shine on your own/ I will be your projector”).

“TEXAS HOLD ‘EM” is already a huge bop on the charts. It’s infectious and infuses the album with some much-needed joy. That joy continues into “BODYGUARD,” which is the first song here to have a driving pop-rock drumbeat, akin to something of a Fleetwood Mac songbook. Beyoncé sings about how she would be protective of her lover (“Be your best friend/ I protect you in the mosh pit/ And I’ll defend you in the gossip”).

“DAUGHTER” is my second favorite track in this album, and possibly one of the best-written songs in her discography. Someone has wronged the subject, and the subject thinks of inflicting violence on them, and how those visions remind her of the qualities of her father. It is a tricky sentiment to pull off convincingly in a song. But the song does it with aplomb and genuine emotion. The string of good writing continues into “ALLIIGATOR TEARS” and “JUST FOR FUN” which feel like warm hugs of positivity. 

There are moments on this album where Beyoncé manages to include her vicious, venom-spitting rapping on full display—notably on “SPAGHETTII.” Towards the end, we see glimpses of the more usual components of her albums: thumping basslines in “DESERT EAGLE,” twinkling synth-pop in “II HANDS II HEAVEN” and trap-infused R&B in “TYRANT.”

Even the guest spots on the album click. It features Dolly Parton, who emcees Beyoncé into an interpolation of her seminal hit “JOLENE” (“Jolene, I’m a woman too/ Thе games you play are nothing new/ So you don’t want no hеat with me, Jolene“). The iconic Linda Martell has a couple of features, mostly as a glorified host to introduce the songs. The Nigerian-American rapper Shaboozey makes his presence felt, most notably towards the outro of “SPAGHETTII.”

However, the two big guest spots deserve applause. Miley Cyrus features in the beautiful “II MOST WANTED” which paints a picture of a couple embracing the awkwardness of change and growth but still being there for each other. Post Malone splatters his undeniable charm all over the sweet and syrupy “LEVII’S JEANS” (and if you’re listening closely enough and wondering about the juicy guitar lick then yes, my friend, that’s THE Nile Rodgers playing it). 

No Beyoncé album is complete without at least one raucous, head-banging-worthy party anthem. Here, that song is “YA YA,” which is my favorite track. Beyoncé samples seminal hits from Nancy Sinatra and The Beach Boys into the album’s most explicitly political statement, celebrating Black artists who helped modern contemporary music and the industry in general. She goes wild singing it; the backing vocals slap and it’s impossible not to physically submit to the infectious energy of this song. It is a gorgeous mess of a song that begs to be played out loud. 

If I had to be nitpicky about this album, I would say that sometimes the album, through the interludes, makes it a point to mention to us listeners that confining to genre boundaries smother creativity. It takes the pain of saying to the listeners that the artist involved here hasn’t done this kind of music. While I appreciate the sentiment and the intent of that, it may throw off some listeners who are here to consume the music, which is consistently fantastic throughout the 78 minutes of its runtime. 

Overall, “COWBOY CARTER” is a phenomenal addition to Beyoncé’s stellar discography and gives us the sensation that her best is yet to come. I hope she keeps dishing out such incredible works of music for years to come. Albums of such class, creativity and scope that fire on all cylinders are hard to come by. 

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