Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’ wants you to change the way you think about genre

Beyoncé is clearly having some fun with genre these days. Her excellent 2022 album Renaissance saw her bringing ’90s house into the current mainstream, and when it came out, she said it was Act I of a forthcoming trilogy. Act II is now here, Cowboy Carter, and as heard on its two lead singles, it finds Beyoncé embracing country music. But Beyoncé will have you know, “This ain’t a Country album. This is a ‘Beyoncé’ album.”

There are several songs on the 27-track, 79-minute Cowboy Carter that a lot of people would call country songs, but there are also songs that are definitely not country. “Ya Ya” is an art-funk song that kinda sounds like early Janelle Monáe, samples Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” and interpolates The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” Beyoncé sings the Italian opera classic “Caro mio ben” in the middle of the sweeping ballad “Daughter.” “Riiverdance” blurs the line between country, rap, and four-on-the-floor dance music in a way that doesn’t really fit into any of those categories. “Desert Eagle” has a funk bassline that would make Stevie Wonder proud. “II Hands II Heaven,” meanwhile, just sounds like a classic Beyoncé song. And Beyoncé has two skits on the album that address the whole genre thing directly.

“Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?,” one of them begins. “In theory, they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand. But in practice, well, some may feel confined.” That one goes right into “Spaghetii,” a rap song featuring country/rap fusionist Shaboozey. (Any song title with an “I” is written with two “I”s because this is Act II.) Genre gets discussed again on another skit called “The Linda Martell Show” (“This particular tune stretches across a range of genres”) and that one goes directly into the aforementioned “Ya Ya.”

Regardless of what genre (or genres) you call it, Cowboy Carter is the most raw, minimal, acoustic guitar-based album that Beyoncé has ever made. It features monologues from two country legends, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, and it includes a cover of Dolly’s “Jolene” with newly-written lyrics that seem like they might be aimed at the same woman we know as Becky with the good hair. It also features a faithful cover of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” (retitled “Blackbiird”), a song Paul McCartney wrote about the Little Rock Nine, the first nine Black students to enter the all-white, racially-segregated Little Rock Central High School in 1957. And the album opens with “Ameriican Requiem,” a psychedelic folk rock anthem that sounds a little like Buffalo Springfield’s iconic protest song “For What It’s Worth.” (I haven’t seen the credits sheet yet, but I wonder if Stephen Stills ends up listed as co-writer on this one.)

The album intentionally challenges the way we think about genre, as well as the way racial biases have played into genre barriers since the beginning of recorded music. It’s already caused one country radio station to rethink its stance on playing Beyoncé’s music, and Cowboy Carter feels like a Grammys controversy waiting to happen. It seems intentional that it features back-to-back guest appearances from Miley Cyrus and Post Malone, two white artists who casually traverse between the worlds of stereotypically “white music” and “Black music” without facing the same pushback that happens when Black artists do something similar. And it seems just as intentional that it features Tanner Adell (on the “Blackbird” cover) and the aforementioned Shaboozey, two Black artists who are breaking down those should-be-long-outdated racial barriers within country music.

“We’re so close,” Tanner told BET last year about Black women breaking down barriers within country music. “It felt like it’s been needed for a very long time. I hope we can move forward to where there will be more women of color who are not afraid to join the country conversation.”

Shaboozey echoed similar sentiments in a recent interview with Business Insider. “Hopefully the future of country music is just something that is really meant for everybody, for all of America,” he said. “I think that’s what we’re all doing here.”

At this point, it probably goes without saying that Beyoncé albums are more than music; they’re cultural conversation-starters. I’m sure the album is littered with countless other references and meanings that didn’t pop out on first listen, and I’m sure it will continue to start plenty of long-overdue conversations. It’s an album that seems built to push people out of their comfort zones, and rethink biases that they might have been internalizing for their entire lives. And on top of all of that, it’s a reminder that Beyoncé is both a powerhouse and a natural, regardless of genre.

Cowboy Carter will be out at midnight (3/29) via Parkwood/Columbia. Check out the first two singles and the tracklist below.

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01. Ameriican Requiem
02. Blackbird (The Beatles Cover, feat. Tanner Adell)
03. 16 Carriages
04. Protector
05. My Rose
06. Smoke Hour (Willie Nelson monologue)
07. Texas Hold ‘Em
08. Bodyguard
09. Dolly P (Dolly Parton monologue)
10. Jolene (Dolly Parton Cover)
11. Daughter
12. Spaghettii (feat. Shaboozey)
13. Alliigator Tears
14. Smoke Hour II (Willie Nelson monologue)
15. Just For Fun
16. II Most Wanted (feat. Miley Cyrus)
17. Levii’s Jeans (feat. Post Malone)
18. Flamenco
19. The Linda Martell Show
20. Ya Ya
21. Oh Louisiana
22. Desert Eagle
23. Riiverdance
24. II Hands II Heaven
25. Tytant
26. Sweet Honey Buckin’ (feat. Pharrell Williams)
27. Amen