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Friday, June 21, 2024
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Review: ‘COWBOY CARTER’: A bombastic, genre blending, career triumph

How Beyoncé is reclaiming country music with Act II

<p>Beyoncé ventured into the country music genre on her latest album "COWBOY CARTER."</p>

Beyoncé ventured into the country music genre on her latest album "COWBOY CARTER."

“Ladies, and gentlemen: This particular tune stretches across a range of genres, and that’s what makes it a unique listening experience. Yes, indeed,” Linda Martell announces on the track “THE LINDA MARTELL SHOW.” “It’s called ‘YA YA.’”

While Martell is talking about one singular track, the same could be said for the entire album. Beyoncé’s eighth studio album and highly anticipated sequel to 2022’s “RENAISSANCE,” “COWBOY CARTER” is finally here. The project explores and reclaims country music for Black people, some of the originators of the genre.

Black artists have shaped country music from the beginnings of the genre. Enslaved Africans created the banjo, for example. But Black artists have been pushed out of the genre for an equally long time. White-run record labels kept Black artists off album artwork, put white stand-ins on stage to sing Black artists’ music, and put Black artists on “race records” instead of the “hillbilly records” their white counterparts appeared on. These whitewashing tactics largely erased the genre’s origins from the public consciousness, and accomplished Black artists found a lot of hardship alongside any success. 

Linda Martell — featured on the “COWBOY CARTER” tracks “SPAGHETTII” and “THE LINDA MARTELL SHOW” — came up in that system. When Martell signed a record deal as a country artist, she was mortified to learn that her management would be publishing her music through Plantation Records, not through their other label, SSS International. But like many other Black artists, she stayed silent because she was promised a successful career.

Her singles and albums were successful, and she became the first Black woman to perform on the “Grand Ole Opry Radio Show.” And yet, Martell still struggled. She was blacklisted from the industry after leaving her management in the dust. Martell had to become a bus driver for her local school district.

With that context, hearing Linda Martell on “COWBOY CARTER,” a project dedicated to reclaiming the genre of country music, is one of the many highlights of the album.

“COWBOY CARTER” is full of moments that will excite listeners, especially country music fans. The opening track, “AMERIICAN REQUIEM” — which I would argue is Beyoncé’s best album opener to date — references the night that “COWBOY CARTER” was born: the 2016 Country Music Association Awards.

At the show, Beyoncé performed with country group The Chicks, who have also been blacklisted by the country music community. In 2004, The Dixie Chicks, who have since cut “Dixie” from their name, made some comments against then-President George Bush and his decision to invade Iraq. Lead singer Natalie Maines stated “We’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas,” and the instant boycott from radio, audiences and awards began.

People left the show during the performance and did not welcome her in the space. She sings about this in one of the first lines of the album: “It’s a lot of talking going on / While I sing my song.” The lyric is perhaps the embodiment of the phrase: “The best revenge is success.”

The opening track leads into a cover of The Beatles’ “Blackbird.” The cover features artists Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy and Reyna Roberts.

At first, this might seem like a random cover to have on a Beyoncé country album, but Paul McCartney wrote the song about the Civil Rights Movement after being inspired by the “Little Rock Nine,” a group of nine Black students who enrolled in an all-white high school in 1957 and faced violent resistance to their attendance. The modern take on the song by five Black country artists breathes new life into the original track. 

The album features two other prominent forces in country music as well: Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. Having two of the arguably biggest country artists of all time on your first country project is big in itself, but knowing that they both wanted to be on the album is just as remarkable.

Beyoncé covers the Parton classic “Jolene” and relates the material to her own struggles with infidelity in her long-term marriage with rapper Jay-Z, the source of inspiration for her album “Lemonade.” It’s another cover that feels like her own.

The album also features two very modern pop stars: Miley Cyrus and Post Malone. Cyrus is on “II MOST WANTED,” where she and Beyoncé duel with vocal runs and belts. 

On “LEVII’S JEANS,” Malone, weirdly enough, sounds perfect alongside Queen Bey. In fact, one of the most romantic lines — Malone’s belting of “You’re my renaissance” — is featured in this track, an ode to Beyoncé’s 2022 album  “RENAISSANCE.” 

While the album has serious and deep subject matter, there are still tracks — like “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM,” “BODYGUARD” and “TYRANT” — that are sure to get you dancing. 

One of the highlights of the entire album is “YA YA,” where Beyoncé takes every part of her career and throws it into one song. Blends of country, pop, hip hop and soul are deeply infused in the song, by far the most ambition we’ve ever heard from the superstar. This track could be named one of her best, but it’s still too soon to tell.

There are so many different moments on the album that make me think it could be her best yet. The way it blends traditional storytelling and the history of country music with Beyoncé’s life and career story is unforgettable.

The story of every Black woman, Black mother and Black artist can be heard and felt from start to finish with this project. Act I was good, Act II was better — so what will she do with Act III?

Solargenic.

Photogenic.

Shoot.



Josh Pawlik is an arts editor and can be reached at josh.pawlik@ubspectrum.com 


JOSH PAWLIK
josh-pawlik.jpg

Josh Pawlik is an assistant arts editor for The Spectrum. His hobbies include playing guitar, working out and reading. He can be found on Instagram @joshpawlik 

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