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Album review: ‘COWBOY CARTER’ redefines genre through inventive renditions, collaborations

Beyoncé sits atop a white horse while holding an American flag. The singer-songwriter’s newest country album was released March 29. (Courtesy of Columbia Records)

“COWBOY CARTER”

Beyoncé

Columbia Records

March 29

By Reid Sperisen

March 29, 2024 5:57 p.m.

This post was updated March 31 at 9:40 p.m.

For Beyoncé, the road less traveled by is always the right choice.

At a sprawling 27 tracks over an expansive 79-minute runtime, Beyoncé’s eighth studio album “COWBOY CARTER” is her longest LP to date. It is both one of her most ambitious projects and perhaps her most noticeably imperfect. Wholly original in its unique mix of eclectic sounds, “COWBOY CARTER” blends whimsical and wistful themes of family, faith and freedom. The result is an experimental record that, though at times uneven, is proudly American and deeply human.

The irresistible lead single “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM,” a delightful hoedown romp, remains one of the LP’s best offerings. The hit single became the first song by a Black woman to top the Hot Country Songs chart, and it spent two weeks atop the all-genre Billboard Hot 100. “All of the problems just feel dramatic,” Beyoncé sings, giving this danceable uptempo a comforting edge.

If Beyoncé is looking for another kinetic track with massive hit potential, future classic “BODYGUARD” is the answer. The song is downright swanky with its lush production full of peppy keys and smooth guitar, as Beyoncé seductively proclaims “Honey, honey / I could be your bodyguard.” With different production touches, “BODYGUARD” could easily slide onto Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now,” but its rhythmic tinges are full of rapture, designed for watching the sunset with a romantic partner.

Another highlight is Beyoncé’s revision of Dolly Parton’s 1973 woman-to-woman anthem in “JOLENE.” The song’s production remains the same, but Beyoncé’s barely contained ferocity in her reworked lyrics is hypnotic. “We’ve been deep in love for twenty years / I raised that man, I raised his kids,” Beyoncé growls, the autobiographical lyrics calling back to themes of infidelity on 2016’s “Lemonade.” Beyoncé’s performance is so assured that it is easy to miss the danger lurking in her voice until the song explodes into a militant chant in its final minute.

The crown jewel of the record is “BLACKBIIRD,” Beyoncé’s stunning cover of The Beatles’ 1968 song. Up-and-coming Black female country artists Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy and Reyna Roberts all contribute harmonies. In just two minutes, the five transform the song from a gentle plucked lullaby into a haunting multigenerational hymn.

“YA YA” and “RIIVERDANCE” are two more can’t-miss moments of exuberance on the back half of the album. The former somehow manages to blend samples of two 1960s classics, Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” and The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” into a frenetic dance number with raspy vocals. “RIIVERDANCE” while lyrically repetitive, is full of verve and sounds like a country-dipped offshoot of Beyoncé’s 2014 trap hit “7/11.” Together, they are a rollicking good time in a buoyant combination only Beyoncé could have executed.

The grandeur of “COWBOY CARTER” means that some songs get lost in the shuffle in the middle of the album, namely “DAUGHTER,” “JUST FOR FUN” and “FLAMENCO.” To a lesser extent, the dulcet melodies on the Miley Cyrus collaboration “II MOST WANTED” and the contemplative “ALLIIGATOR TEARS” verge on being forgettable. Regardless, each of these songs still provides pleasant listening with folksy instrumentation and soaring vocals.

If the album has a bum note, it is “LEVII’S JEANS.” Sensual songs about butts are one of Beyoncé’s strong suits, but Post Malone’s awkward, off-key vocals make him her worst duet partner to date. Post Malone’s high-pitched delivery is unconvincing, bizarre and sounds like The Kid LAROI. With a different collaborator – perhaps the robust croon of Bruno Mars, crisp falsetto of Justin Timberlake or even playful rap of Drake – this song could have been a winner.

The sequencing of “COWBOY CARTER” resembles the work of Beyoncé’s sister, Solange, whose LPs “A Seat at the Table” and “When I Get Home” flow together in a series of thematically loose vignettes. On Beyoncé’s 2022 album “RENAISSANCE,” the beats carried seamlessly between tracks in one continuous groove. By comparison, “COWBOY CARTER” employs marked shifts in production and tone between each song, which can be jarring.

The abundance of interludes on “COWBOY CARTER” contributes to the album’s pacing issues, as the spoken transitions by country music legends Dolly Parton, Linda Martell and Willie Nelson halt the record’s momentum. However, the lithe jig of “DESERT EAGLE” deserved to be fleshed out into a full song. The delectable guitar riffs, funky vibe and Beyoncé’s silky vocals are too infectious to be limited to 72 seconds.

Understandably, trying to pack so many ideas into one kaleidoscopic album leads to a lack of cohesion. Yet for any of its faults or shortcomings, “COWBOY CARTER” deserves listeners’ respect for its boundless ambition. Beyoncé has created an album endlessly more intriguing than any of the bland fodder released by mainstream country hitmakers such as Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen. Where pop peers such as Swift and Ariana Grande settle for commercially reliable synth sounds – and Rihanna forgets about musical obligations altogether – Beyoncé’s conviction to take dramatic sonic risks is nothing short of heroic, 27 years into her career.

More importantly, Beyoncé continues to redefine any understanding of genre. The songs on “COWBOY CARTER” incorporate far more than just country, with dashes of Americana, blues, gospel, folk, funk, soul, trap and zydeco. Even if not every track is excellent, Beyoncé experiments with and curates thought-provoking music that has extensive social and political relevance. Though only time will tell how “COWBOY CARTER” holds up relative to Beyoncé’s immeasurable discography, the new LP’s commitment to pushing listeners outside of their comfort zones is already another achievement to Beyoncé’s name.

Blazing an uncharted trail, “COWBOY CARTER” gallops away from contemporary trends and charges deeper into the imaginative psyche of music’s greatest creator.

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Reid Sperisen
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