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10 takeaways from Beyoncé's new album, 'Cowboy Carter'

<em>Cowboy Carter</em> is the hotly anticipated follow-up to to Beyoncé's 2022 album, <em>Renaissance</em>.
Blair Caldwell
/
Courtesy of the artist
Cowboy Carter is the hotly anticipated follow-up to to Beyoncé's 2022 album, Renaissance.

How long have fans been speculating over the details of Beyoncé's new album? It depends when you start counting: Some began buzzing over it the second her previous record, the dance-centric Renaissance, was released in 2022 and touted as "act one" of a trilogy. But the chatter has been especially fervent in the past two months, as singles, visuals and other teases popped up during the Grammys, Super Bowl and on the artist's own social media. The Beyhive's busiest bees analyzed clues that pointed toward a country music-inspired sound; they dissected the history of that genre, and how Black musicians have often been written out of it.

After months of anticipation, Cowboy Carter has finally arrived. Is it a country album? In many ways, yes — but it's also a sprawling work filled with disparate influences and references, while remaining a Beyoncé album at its heart. Two NPR Music staffers, reporter Sidney Madden and editor Sheldon Pearce, have been listening since the stroke of midnight. They come to you now with the 10 most important things to know about exactly what Cowboy Carter is, and is not.

1. It's a sprawling Western epic...

Just as Beyoncé's 2022 album, act i: RENAISSANCE, served as a world-building homage to the unsung Black queer youth who created house music, Cowboy Carter continues the lesson plan. In a statement soon after the album's worldwide release, the artist's Parkwood Entertainment shared that each song on the 27-track project is its own version of a reimagined Western film: "She took inspiration from films like Five Fingers for Marseilles, Urban Cowboy, The Hateful Eight, Space Cowboys, The Harder They Fall and Killers of the Flower Moon, often having the films playing on a screen during the recording process."

Each track, whether an interlude, collaboration or poignant solo, rides out like a full-length film full of scenic grandeur, character and conflicts that any Chitlin' Circuit aficionado or spaghetti Western cinephile can obsess over. As a whole, Cowboy Carter serves as a well of discovery, full of samples, sonic Easter eggs, Knowles family callbacks and, most importantly, an appreciation for pioneers in the country world.

2. ... with a searing image of its titular central character.

In the cowboy, Beyoncé finds her ideal figure of the American West and South. She cites the rodeo as the first place where anyone who loved country music and culture could gather and mingle and feel welcome. It's an image that runs counter to the experience that inspired the album: performing her song "Daddy Lessons" at the CMA Awards in 2016, where she has said she "did not feel welcomed ... and it was very clear that I wasn't." The Cowboy Carter character exists in conversation with the history of Black cowboys, the loaded meaning behind the term and its function in the American imagination.

3. It's a country album...

There are plenty of categorically country sounds on Cowboy Carter. String instruments are its sonic heartbeat, and the do-si-do of the slide guitar on "DESERT EAGLE" and "TEXAS HOLD 'EM" feel perfectly matched with Bey's feathery vocals. The jovial wiggle of the accordions on "RIIVERDANCE" tip a hat to zydeco music and the artist's Creole heritage. "PROTECTOR" (featuring Beyoncé's youngest daughter, Rumi) is anchored by acoustic guitar. "SWEET HONEY BUCKIIN' " interpolates "I Fall to Pieces," the shuffling standard made famous by Patsy Cline. Compared to Bey's past work in an R&B world full of glitz and glamor, many moments on the album, even with their layered arrangements, feel like intimate jam sessions straight out of a Nashville writing camp.

4. ... and it's also not.

Across the track list, elements of hip-hop, bluegrass and Chicano rock, with pop, rock, Jersey club music and operatic runs. "YA YA" conjures the charisma of Tina Turner and Chuck Berry, while winking in the direction of Nancy Sinatra and The Beach Boys. "BODYGUARD" is a breezy surf-rock romp with Latin percussion and a little whiskey on its breath. "AMEN" rings to the rafters in true gospel splendor. "SWEET HONEY BUCKIIN' " stacks genre upon genre and yet never overwhelms, instead connecting the dots between them with dusty horse gallops. The production credits stretch far beyond the scope of country stalwarts, making the album a treasure hunt for fans and issuing a challenge to the ways country music has come to be defined.

5. It's got country and Americana icons to set the tone...

Voices from country lore appear throughout the track list, signposts for the album's deconstructions of genre. The outlaw country pioneer Willie Nelson, who once bucked the Nashville sound himself, stands in as the host of KNTRY Radio Texas, Beyoncé's fictional pirate station. Dolly Parton draws a line from Becky with the good hair to Jolene, and turns up again before "TYRANT," encouraging Beyoncé to light up a juke joint. In a prelude to one of the album's most adventurous cuts, "SPAGHETTII," Linda Martell, an undersung, trailblazing Black country star of the '70s, lays out a sort of mission statement: "Genres are a funny little concept, aren't they? Yes, they are. In theory, they have a simple definition that's easy to understand. But in practice, well, some may feel confined."

6. ... and it's flipping some old tropes.

There are covers of country classics here that stand out for how stealthily they're reimagined. Parton's 1973 hit "Jolene" shows up early in the album, but Beyoncé adds her own sauce to flip its storied narrative. A vigilant Bey (flip-flopping between being upset and unbothered) clocks the "bird" chirping round her man; unlike Dolly, who responds to a similar threat with a plea for mercy, she puts her rival on notice: "I'm warnin' you, woman, find you your own man / Jolene, I know I'm a queen, Jolene / I'm still a Creole banjee bitch from Louisianne." This twist renegotiates the common push and pull of rolling-stone / damsel-in-distress infidelity that's historically been a hallmark in country standards, and has only recently started to shift (see also: Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats").

7. It gives flowers to unsung pioneers.

When Linda Martell shows up in the opening moments of "SPAGHETTII" to pose her question about genres, the slick rhetorical framing cuts to the main conceit of Cowboy Carter and centers Martell herself as a case in point. As a pioneer in the country space, Martell made history with her 1970 album, Color Me Country, and was the first Black woman to perform on the storied Grand Ole Opry. But because of the racist aggression she endured when moving from pop to country, Martell soon left the business. Now, at 82 years old, Martell's getting her due. Her voice is immortalized on both "SPAGHETTII" and "THE LINDA MARTELL SHOW," both tracks that play hopscotch with a range of genres. "I am proud that Beyoncé is exploring her country music roots," the veteran posted on Instagram. "What she is doing is beautiful, and I'm honored to be a part of it. It's Beyoncé, after all!"

8. It shines a light on the stars of country's new age.

A recent study tracking country music programming from 2000 through 2020 revealed that only 29% of country songs played on format radio were by women artists, and of that 29%, 0.01% were Black women. And so along with honoring pioneers, Cowboy Carter platforms new stars in the field who are still working their way through its entrenched gatekeeping and redlining.

Rhiannon Giddens strums her banjo on the album's lead single, "TEXAS HOLD 'EM." Virginia's Shaboozey, whose 2022 release, Cowboys Live Forever, Outlaws Never Die, offered songs for a post-"Old Town Road" country-rap world, cuts through two tracks with his unforgettable tone. "BLACKBIIRD" features the vocals of four Black women — Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy and Reyna Roberts. This soulful cover of The Beatles' classic about Black women's plights and resilience during the American Civil Rights movement puts its subjects in a spotlight that country radio rarely does, bringing home the reality that opportunities for artists like these have scarcely grown in the years since Martell broke ground.

9. It saddles up over the pop-country middle ground.

On Cowboy Carter, Beyoncé is a pop star actively in conversation with the idea of country music, and traversing the distance between those genres seems to have made her consider the existing relationship between them. In two moments on the album, she enlists singers who have been blurring that binary for quite some time: Miley Cyrus and Post Malone. Miley, of course, is the daughter of "Achy Breaky Heart" sensation Billy Ray Cyrus, and in her own pursuit of a pop identity, fiddled with Mike WiLL trap, Flaming Lips psychedelia, glam rock and country pop before settling on the centering sounds of last year's Endless Summer Vacation, which earned her a record of the year Grammy for "Flowers." For his part, Post broke out as a watercolor trap rockstar and has since shifted toward a sound more in line with his Texas roots. Both seem to resonate with the ambiguity Bey sees running through the music.

10. There's more beneath the rhinestone jewel case.

Beyond the many featured guests, other behind-the-scenes contributors help tell the story. The-Dream, Pharrell, No I.D., Raphael Saadiq, Ryan Tedder, Ryan Beatty and Swizz Beatz all helped produce the record. It also boasts an incredibly accomplished cast of supporting players: Pulitzer-winning folk revivalist Giddens, Grammy-winning soul man Jon Batiste, session luminary Nile Rodgers, gospel pedal steelist Robert Randolph, blues rocker Gary Clark Jr., hip-hop banjoist Willie Jones and the incomparable Stevie Wonder. The incredible variety of names and skills is the secret sauce behind Cowboy Carter's sprawling vision.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.
Sheldon Pearce