The Texan artist's sweeping, western-inspired epic is a new declaration of independence...

At two pivotal moments on Beyoncé’s 27-track compendium, ‘COWBOY CARTER – the second act in a trilogy of connected releases – pioneering country singer Linda Martell delivers two lessons: before the noirish, Urbano anthem ‘SPAGHETTII’, she says, “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they? In theory, they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand, but in practice, well, some may feel confined”; the second is a spoken-word prelude to the riotous Roots rock of ‘Ya Ya’, describing the aforementioned tune as one that “stretches across a range of genres, and that’s what makes it a unique listening experience”. Both are timely assertions meditating on genre signifiers as attempts to regulate the freedom of self-expression. In other words, why do we define and codify sounds when the best creations are born out of synergy and synthesis?

In her time, Martell was the first commercially-successful Black female artist in country and the first to play the Grand Ole Opry. Yet her career began and ended after one album, 1970’s ‘Color Me Country’ – she was effectively blackballed by label executives after terminating her contract with the egregiously-named Plantation Records. Linda Martell’s inclusion on ‘COWBOY CARTER’ is intentional, mirroring the resistance by the lily-white Nashville cohort against Beyoncé, a Texan native, after her performance at the 50th annual Country Music Association Awards in 2016. Her rousing presentation of the country-appropriate, Zydeco-influenced ‘Daddy Lessons’, performed with fellow outlaws Dixie Chicks, was acclaimed as a showstopper on the night, but soon after drew the ire of true-blue reactionaries and racists.

Beyoncé gets people talking. Every release of hers foments and fuels a socially-engineered frenzy. As expected, impassioned debate continued in the build-up to release of Beyoncé’s eighth studio album, ‘COWBOY CARTER’, laden with discourse about what creative reclamation means when engendered by an elite singer with a limitless resource pool. The self-referential title, the flag-emblazoned iconography, and a Honky-Tonk prelude single, all fed into what some deemed a mass-marketed derivation of country. In a pre-release message, the singer, renowned for her carefully-orchestrated public image, proclaimed ‘COWBOY CARTER’ was “a Beyoncé album, not a country album”. She also never once uttered the word “reclamation”. But country was on her mind after the CMA cause célèbre, and so Beyoncé channelled her frustrations into uncovering the lost and forgotten Black originators. It’s why, across the sprawl of this labyrinthine album – broadcast from the dusty crackle of the Willie Nelson-presented KNTRY Radio Texas – Beyoncé performs an ethnography, oral history and a re-appropriation of Southern sub-genres.

‘COWBOY CARTER’ packs in country trademarks but doesn’t play like a conventional country album. Initially, Beyoncé’s omnivorous approach feels overwhelming but the blunt force impact gives way to a tactile aural world; the first half is all scenic immersion by the way of rootsy, clear-eyed confessionals, and the second, full of off-piste deviations through Southern rock, go go, Black gospel hymnody, funk and house. Opener ‘AMERIICAN REQUIEM’, a dose of Kaleidoscope-meets-Prince psych-folk, stands tall as Beyoncé’s most evocative start to an album; a proclamation with references to the early career prejudices that hounded a Southern Black woman with a thick, bourbon-coated drawl. Barbed lines abound: “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?” An aide-mémoire of roots that run deep on both sides, an invocation of her Matrilineal Louisiana origins with cadential phrasings like “looka dere, looka dere”.

Photo Credit: Mason Poole

From the off, Bey foreshadows the album experience: this is Black Southern hospitality realised through collaboration. On her cover of The Beatles’ ‘BLACKBIIRD’, Bey ropes in her own sorority super-group of four Black contemporary country musicians – Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy, Reyna Roberts – one for each Beatle. Summoning the defiant spirit of the Little Rock Nine, and the spark of Civil Rights-era inspiration behind the McCartney-penned classic, this sublime rendition retains the finger-picked lullaby feel of the original, energised and enlivened by the mellow subtlety of the harmonic layers. Upon release, each featured Black country artist on ‘BLACKBIIRD, and across the album at-large, has enjoyed a catalogue boost.

The interlude ‘MY ROSE’, an unfeigned tribute to son Sir Carter, recalls Destiny’s Child’s multi-tracked euphony, while on slow-burn highlight ‘Flamenco’, a veiled portend of memory and mortality, Beyoncé dials it back with raw, breathy vocal takes over looped licks of Spanish guitar. The one-two hit of ‘II MOST WANTED’ with Miley Cyrus and ‘LEVIIS JEANS’ with Post Malone, are fully-realised powerhouse duets in a pop era churning out mediocre clip-on guest features ad infinitum. Woven into the patterned personalised tapestry of ‘COWBOY CARTER’, the latter is a neat reference to the low-rise denim Destiny’s Child dressed in, shunned by high fashion designers who refused to dress “four Black country girls”.

Beyoncé’s lyrical prowess shines on ‘COWBOY CARTER’, moving between allegory and anecdotes on sonorous western-inspired numbers. At points you don’t quite know what is real or imagined as Beyoncé switches vantage points and perspectives, and gender bends back and forth. On her rendition of ‘JOLENE’, Beyoncé departs from the submissive plea of Dolly’s original; hers has a caustic bite, a warning shot against a woman who has eyes for her partner. The cycle of infidelity and its after-effects of loathing and ultra-violent ideations come into focus on operatic showpiece, ‘DAUGHTER’ – the 18th century aria ‘Caro Mio Ben’ made into a minor key revenge-fuelled lament. On the Evangelis-inspired symphonic apogee ‘SPAGHETTI’, Beyoncé lays out every truism in the country playbook, refuting white conservative America’s tenuous claim to a genre (and its many subsets), which has historically been instituted and shaped by the craftsmanship of Black American musicians like Lesley Riddle, a 1920s guitar player and folklorist.

Beyoncé’s early albums established her as a hitmaker and a generational performer, but were uneven, and at times, palatable works. For over a decade, Bey has unswervingly defended, reconfigured and reinvented the album format in her image. ‘COWBOY CARTER’ is a cumulative rendering of her past eras; the resplendent vocal detail of ‘4’, the avant-garde production idiosyncrasies of ‘BEYONCÉ’, and the interiority and racial consciousness of ‘Lemonade’. The exultant electronic masterwork, ‘RENAISSANCE’, is matched by the continuous mix sequence of the affirmational final tracks on ‘COWBOY CARTER’: a dizzying confluence of countryfied trap (‘TYRANT’), cascading house of (‘RIIVERDANCE’), and Jersey Club (‘Sweet Honey Buckin’). Still, as both a treatise and a sonic testament, ‘COWBOY CARTER’ is its own triumph; unmoored in form, space and time, it’s the work of a preternatural talent painstakingly poring over every word, stratified vocal, sample and stylistic flourish.

On album closer ‘AMEN’, Beyoncé sings of the sanctity of the Southern Black American experience, filtered through generations of artists whose contributions to country music have been diminished, or elided entirely from the history books. This archival veracity is a key feature of ‘COWBOY CARTER’, but the real truths of this tome lie in personhood: in Beyoncé’s bloodline, her divinely-ordained voice and spirit, the gospel, the dance and the communion. And that can never be boxed in, contained or effaced.


Words: Shahzaib Hussain

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.