8 apr 2024

Cowboy Carter: Beyoncé’s flamboyant (and political) take on country music

Two years after her last studio album, the invigorating Renaissance, Beyoncé released her new record, Cowboy Carter, on March 29th, 2024. By renewing the country music genre and taking ownership of the cowboy imagery, the singer makes a powerful musical and political move. The album is already one of the greatest of the year.

Anyone who doubted the R’n’B queen’s foray into country music is bound to change their mind after listening to the 27 sublime, amazingly produced songs on Beyoncé’s flamboyant new album, Cowboy Carter, out on Friday 29th of March, 2024.


Cowboy Carter, Beyoncé’s sublime new record featuring Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton


One of Beyoncé’s great strengths on Cowboy Carter is her ability to bring together artists from all walks of life, ages, personal and musical backgrounds, and to unite them in an emotional rodeo. Dantesque, inventive and exciting, the album includes interludes by legendary country star Willie Nelson and black country singer Linda Martell, successful covers of Dolly Parton’s Jolene and The Beatles’ Blackbird, a tribute to American civil rights activists. But also collaborations with Post Malone or Miley Cyrus on the poignant II Most Wanted, which is reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac.


We also hear the voice of Beyoncé’s youngest daughter, Rumi Carter, on the song Protector, while the names Nile Rodgers and Stevie Wonder stand out in the album’s credits. Wondering about the height of luxury? In addition to being the object of a cover, Dolly Parton appears twice on the record, especially during an interlude that seems to allude to Jay-Z’s infidelity, since it refers to a notorious “Becky with the good hair”, the rapper’s alleged mistress. An already iconic intervention. Finally, Queen Bey puts the emphasis on the younger generation of African-American country songwriters, such as Tanner Adell and other artists who have yet to gain the recognition they deserve.


Cowboy Carter, a true country album?


Ahead of the release of this brilliant album, Beyoncé clarified on her Instagram account that her voice is now more powerful and versatile than ever: “This ain’t a Country album. This is a ‘Beyoncé’ album.” Indeed, there are touches of R’n’B, pop, rap, house, funk music and even opera in Cowboy Carter. References and instruments, such as mandolin, banjo, ukulele, harmonica, abound. If you listen carefully, you will recognize the lyrics of Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys, a chord from These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ by Nancy Sinatra and notes from Oh Louisiana by Chuck Berry.


However, the essence of Beyoncé’s eighth opus is encapsulated in its Southern rock sound palette – rock’n’roll, country and blues – at the crossroads between bands like The Allman Brothers Band or Lynyrd Skynyrd and the singer’s tribute to her Texan origins, Beyoncé’s twist. After all, Texas is the cradle of blues and country music… The star, who uses her fingernails as percussion on her album, grew up completely immersed in that culture. The press release about Cowboy Carter confirms it: “The album is a cornucopia of sounds that Beyoncé loves and grew up listening to, between visits and eventually performances at the Houston Rodeo – Country, original Rhythm & Blues, Blues, Zydeco and Black Folk.

Beyoncé brilliantly takes back ownership over country music with Cowboy Carter


As much fun as it is to listen to Cowboy Carter, which sounds like an instant classic, the album is not just about the music. From the moment the title of Beyoncé’s new album and its cover were unveiled – she poses like a cowboy (or Napoleon) on a white horse, holding the American flag in her hand – we knew that the pop icon wanted to do more than simply make us dance in cowboy boots.


With her already cult album Renaissance (2022), Beyoncé reminded us that house music was born in the queer and black communities. Cowboy Carter is another illustration of her commitment. She stated on Instagram: “This album has been over five years in the making. It was born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed…and it was very clear that I wasn’t. But, because of that experience, I did a deeper dive into the history of Country music and studied our rich musical archive. It feels good to see how music can unite so many people around the world, while also amplifying the voices of some of the people who have dedicated so much of their lives educating on our musical history.


The industry of country music has often been hostile to African-American artists, even though it borrows from black sounds. The banjo, the star instrument of country musicians, is derived from the West African akonting, a folk lute brought (or recreated) to America by African slaves. And the forefathers of country music, such as the Carter Family, often learned to play from black musicians.


While black country artists have always existed, they have never received the same musical recognition and success on the charts as white artists. Yet a palace coup took place in 2018, when rapper Lil Nas X released the hit track Old Town Road (2018), blending pop, hip-hop and country music with the mainstream imagery of a queer black cowboy. Except that while the track was soaring to the top of the charts, Billboard decided to remove the song from the country chart, claiming that it didn’t contain enough elements characteristic of the genre. A decision that was deemed as scandalous and racist. It seems that ultra-conservative institutions are willing to keep country music as a stronghold for white men only.

A political album


Beyoncé’s reappropriation of the codes of Western culture proves to be highly political – she had already flirted with country music with her track Daddy Lessons back in 2016. It is part of a desire to reinstate the figure of the black cowboy, who in the collective unconscious appears a white man. Black cowboys have always existed. In the 19th century, almost half of all cowboys were black, Mexican, Indian or mixed race. Yet history has made them invisible, despite the presence of figures like Bill Pickett.


With Beyoncé’s conquest of country music, Americana at large, as well as the great American outdoors in her lyrics, reinstating black people in the history of the cowboy imagery is already a winning bet. Indeed, by topping the Billboard “Hot Country Songs” with the track Texas Hold ‘Em, the singer becomes the first black woman in history to achieve this feat, while imposing a new mainstream representation.


“The criticism I faced when I first entered this genre (country music) forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” Beyoncé


On Instagram, the singer wrote: “I feel honored to be the first Black woman with the number one single on the Hot Country Songs chart. That would not have happened without the outpouring of support from each and every one of you. My hope is that years from now, the mention of an artist’s race, as it relates to releasing genres of music, will be irrelevant.”


She added: “The criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me. Act II (of Renaissance, ed.) is a result of challenging myself, and taking my time to bend and blend genres together to create this body of work.”


After her 2016 performance at the CMA Awards, a Mecca for Uncle Sam’s country music, the singer had faced criticism tinged with racist. On Ameriican Requiem, the splendid opening track of the album, Beyoncé settles her score with conservatives: “Oh, it’s a lot of talkin’ goin’ on while I sing my song / They used to say I spoke ‘Too country’ / And the rejection came, said I wasn’t ‘Country ‘nough’ / Said I wouldn’t saddle up, but if that ain’t country, tell me, what is? / They don’t know how hard I had to fight for this, when I sing my song.

2024, the year of country and cowboy aesthetic


In addition to the release of Cowboy Carter, the year of 2024 is set to be a very country-inspired one, as Lana Del Rey is set to release the album Lasso in 2024, which also celebrates the musical genre dear to Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift. This news fully aligns with the current westerncore trend.


Since Pharrell Williams’ Louis Vuitton menswear Fall/Winter 2024-2025 show in January (and even before), there have been countless stars and fashionistas sporting cowboy hats, fringed jackets and cowboy boots in the public space, Bella Hadid being one of them.


Judging by Beyoncé’s sensational promotional photographs for Cowboy Carter, where she poses as a saloon keeper or a heroine of the conquest of the West, the modern John Wayne-style panoply will be highly demanded.

Beyoncé’s revenge on the Grammy Awards


The country turn of Queen B might be a very strategic move to gain ground on the gold-covered area covered by Taylor Swift, who was once again triumphant at the last Grammy Awards ceremony. Indeed, there would be many country fans among the voters for the prizes awarded by the American music institution.


Although Beyoncé is the artist who has won the most Grammy Awards, she has never won the coveted Best Album of the Year, despite numerous nominations. In Sweet Honey Buckiin’, one of the most impressive tracks on Cowboy Carter produced by Pharrell Williams, she says: “A-O-T-Y, I ain’t win (That’s cool) / I ain’t stuntin’ ‘bout them / Take that shit on the chin / Come back and fuck up the pen. With Cowboy Carter, one of Beyoncé’s best albums to date, the queen of pop (and rising country icon) is in a good position to win the famous award at the next Grammys’ musical rodeo…


Cowboy Carter (2024) by Beyoncé, available now.


Traduction Emma Naroumbo Armaing