Roundtable Discussion: A Review of Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’

Cowboy Carter - Beyoncé © Blair Caldwell
Cowboy Carter - Beyoncé © Blair Caldwell
Atwood Magazine’s writers unpack Beyoncé’s loud, proud, and revolutionary eighth studio album ‘COWBOY CARTER’, a disruptive and seminal statement reckoning with the legacy of country music and Black culture, while ushering in a new era for the genre.
Featured here are Atwood writers Blake McMillan, Brendan Le, Hannah Burns, Jada Moore, Josh Weiner, Julia Dzurillay, Kevin Cost, Noah Wade, and Will Yarbrough!

Cowboy Carter - Beyoncé

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To start, what is your relationship with Beyoncé’s music, and what were your initial thoughts when you heard Beyoncé was releasing a country album?

Josh: I’ve been busily buzzin’ around the Beyhive for a solid 20 years now, ever since “Crazy in Love” marked the start of her solo career when I was in 6th grade! I’ve continued to regularly listen to and enjoy her music ever since, and finally got to see her in concert for the first time on the Renaissance World Tour last year. For these reasons, I approached Cowboy Carter with much anticipation and was happy to see it score well with critics (91% average rating on Metacritic? Solid stuff!)

Blake: I steadily resisted the Beyhive until last year, when Harry Styles won Album of the Year at the Grammys instead of RENAISSANCE. Stan Twitter was super pissed, so I dove into her discography to see what the hype was about. I had to readjust my hyper-pop ear for the sound, but the album slowly crept into my Apple Music Replay, I saw the tour film in theaters twice, and I continued to dive back through Lemonade and Black is King. She’s since been placed in my top 3 and am elated to experience my first Beyoncé album rollout.

Hannah: I remember being a kid, maybe six or seven, sitting around the family computer with my sister and our neighbors watching the Crazy In Love music video. We all did Hip Hop dance classes at the time and tried to mimic Beyoncé’s moves. This only became more fanatical when Single Ladies came out. If I am drunk enough, I could still whip that dance out. I loved Irreplaceable, Halo, Love on Top, but became truly obsessive when Beyoncé’s self-titled album dropped as I was entering high school. I listened to Superpower (feat. Frank Ocean) religiously on the way to school. However, Lemonade remains one of my favorite albums of all time. I stand by the fact that it is a no-skip album and I listen to it every time I’m on an airplane. Beyoncé released RENAISSANCE the summer after I came out to my parents and moved to New York, so I felt called to the celebration. I agree it was robbed for the Album of the Year Grammy. COWBOY CARTER also feels perfectly timed to my life, where I can see my home in South Carolina from a distance, not wanting to escape anymore or reject the country music I was raised with, but to imagine what the South can be and is for so many.

Brendan: I’ve been a casual Beyoncé fan for as long as I’ve been a music listener. Some of the first songs I ever added to my playlist were “Love on Top,” “Deja Vu,” and “1+1.” I was a big Lemonade listener when it came out, but it wasn’t on Spotify for awhile so I never had the chance to revisit it. Like every pop music fan, I was on the edge of my seat when she announced RENAISSANCE. It was around that time that I became a full-fledged fan. She is, in my opinion, one of music’s greatest archivists. Both Act I and Act II have demonstrated how intricately researched her music is, trying to grasp the history of their genres and condensing it into an hourlong body of work. I admire her ability to take the best of every songwriter, producer, musician and artist and combine their work and her talent into something that feels explicitly Beyoncé.

Kevin: Beyoncé has always been a constant figure throughout my sentience. I’ll never forget turning on the tiny television propped up on a folding tray table in my parent’s bedroom as I got ready for school and seeing the music video premiere for Destiny Child’s “Say My Name” on MTV and being totally enamored with the vocals and overall energy of the iconic pop/R&B stars. Of course, after that, her solo career skyrocketed, and no one could go a day without turning up the volume to any of her infectious tracks like “Crazy In Love,” “Freakum Dress,” and “Love On Top.” The real “oh, she’s phenomenal” moment was when I was standing on the Franklin Ave subway platform in Brooklyn, waiting to catch the train back to my dorm, and saw a group of teenage girls cheering and dancing along to what I later found out to be the surprise drop of her self-titled album. It was a cultural reset, and if Beyoncé wasn’t already solidified as a massive superstar, that was the moment that I became an allegiant fan. Ever since, Beyoncé released some of the most monumental albums, including Lemonade and Renaissance, which both had me in a chokehold. Hearing the news that her new project would be country-focused, I was elated. Growing up surrounded by corn fields and now currently residing in her home state of Texas, it felt correct.

Julia: High school was definitely when I developed some version of my current music taste. That was also around the time Beyonce dropped her surprise self-titled album, which really rocked my world. I’ve officially been in the Bey Hive since then, getting even more obsessed thanks to Lemonade, The Lion King: The Gift, and her Coachella performance.

Jada: Like many Black kids, I grew up listening to the Black women vocalists like Brandy, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Aaliyah, and Ashanti. Of course this also included Destiny’s Child and Beyoncé. So it’s fair to say, I grew up with Beyoncé in a way. Her music has always been a constant in my life in some form or another and her album Lemonade was groundbreaking and moving for me. So, when I saw she was releasing an all country album I was actually excited. I admire when artists try out new genres. Despite the initial reception some of the public had regarding her announcement, it also started an important conversation on how country music is deeply rooted in Black culture.

Noah: I remember the B’Day era being my entryway to Beyoncé… specifically “Deja Vu,” “Ring The Alarm,” and “Beautiful Liar” with Shakira, then “Listen” half a year or so later. As a closeted kid, I think I was really drawn to her as being the entire package… the voice, the attitude, the sensuality, the energy, etc. It was all very mesmerizing… inspiring even. I’m probably nine years old at the time, so I wasn’t really aware of Tina Turner or Janet Jackson or any of the people who had been THAT before her, I just felt like I was seeing and hearing something that was more developed and artistically rich than what I was used to.

Obviously, she continues to up her game as both a musician and an overall entertainer as the years go by (regardless of my feelings on a lot of the Sasha Fierce stuff) but, to me, the self-titled album was when she decided to stop pandering to what was commercial and just do whatever the hell she wanted artistically. From that project on, she has continued to push the boundaries and raise the bar even though very few artists are willing, or able, to take risks like that.

At surface level, her doing a country album makes perfect sense, really, considering her growing up in Houston and her constant exposure to the music and the culture. If you look at it deeper, with Renaissance geared towards house music, this new record focusing on country, and her next one potentially gunning for rock/blues, she is paying homage to these genres that African-Americans essentially invented, yet do not get credited for doing so.

Will: Beyoncé has been a major pop star for most of my life. When I was growing up, Destiny’s Child were in heavy rotation on MTV and Top 40 radio and her first few solo hits (“Irreplaceable,” “Baby Boy”) were guaranteed to come on at all my high school dances. One of my friends was a captain on his football team and he loved “Halo” without so much as a drop of irony.

But I’ll admit that I belong to that crowd of hipsters who didn’t take Beyoncé seriously until she surprised us all with her self-titled back at the tail-end of 2013.

I did not watch the Super Bowl. So when I woke up on February 12 and saw the news that Beyoncé had surprised us once again by announcing her new country album during the broadcast of America’s biggest game, my first thought was whether the gatekeepers at country radio were already clutching their mama’s pearls. Then, after listening to “16 Carriages” and “Texas Hold ‘Em,” I angrily texted my friends to ask why none of them had told me that these songs are so good.

Beyoncé "BLACKBIIRD" © Aidan Moyer
Originally written by Paul McCartney as a tribute to the Little Rock Nine in 1968, Beyoncé reclaims “BLACKBIIRD” with a densely layered and richly melodic cover. A chorus of Tanner Addell, Tierra Kennedy, Reyna Roberts, and Brittany Spencer – all Black women – echoes McCartney’s Civil Rights sentiments half a century later in a powerful new context. As an ultimate co-sign, Paul signed off on an extremely rare instance of direct Beatle sampling as his original toe-taps and acoustic guitar are heard on ‘Cowboy Carter.’ © Aidan Moyer

What are your first impressions of COWBOY CARTER?

Cowboy Carter - Beyoncé

Josh: I like it! The only possible criticism I might have is that it could be a bit too long at 79 minutes, but throughout that 79 minutes are a TON of seriously impressive singing, production, guest appearances and more. Great to see Queen Bee still going strong 20+ years into her career.

Blake: I hail from the deep south and have enjoyed artists like Orville Peck and Trixie Mattel re-spinning my roots in a queer-friendly mood. Beyoncé has accomplished something similar in that vein, as she demonstrates that country music can move away from that ‘climb up on the hood of my daddy’s tractor’-type white man lyricism, like someone who would say tank top instead of wife beater.

Hannah: My initial reaction was joy that one of my favorite tracks on Lemonade, Daddy Lessons, has been expanded on and perfected in COWBOY CARTER. And then elation hearing Dolly Parton’s voice.

Brendan: Like every Beyoncé album, COWBOY CARTER is insanely well-crafted, with every decision made on the album brimming with layers and layers of intention. I was amazed at how grand the entire record was — like an epic Western film. Despite the 27 tracks, each song was distinct and she made the interludes so integrated that it’s hard to imagine the album without them. I finished the record thinking, “Wow. How lucky are we to witness her talent in real-time?”

Kevin: It took me both commutes to and from work to get through the entire album, but it is an excellent grab-bag of genre-bending music. Of course, Beyoncé can be country, and she definitely made her imprint while highlighting the roots of where country music originated.

Noah: I don’t think it’s as “musically dynamic” as Renaissance (her vocal performance is literally never an issue), but she did things within the overall parameters of country that NO ONE has done in decades, or maybe ever. And not only that, there are elements that, upon first listen, seem completely outside the box that you can’t help but think “Wait, where are we going here?” but then she pulls you back into this organic, rootsy sound that feels very familiar… very classic. It’s HER interpretation of it.

Jada: I think it’s fun! Each song has its own distinct sound and personality, which is aided by some of the most recognizable voices in music. As well as some lesser known, but just as impactful voices. They all helped play a part in creating such a unique listening experience. I love how Beyoncé took the genre and gave a new spin on it in a way that only Beyoncé Knowles can!

Will: As someone who firmly believes that 8-10 songs is the perfect album length, when I saw the tracklist for COWBOY CARTER, my immediate reaction was that this album was too damn long. Then again, it’s not that much longer than RENAISSANCE – and that album is basically perfect.

Now that I’ve listened to COWBOY CARTER a handful of times, I still think that it’s too long. Beyoncé isn’t as locked-in as she was on RENAISSANCE. But even though it’s not firing on all cylinders, COWBOY CARTER is so guns blazing that it might go down as the most daring album of her career.

Beyoncé 'Cowboy Carter' © Blair Caldwell
Beyoncé ‘Cowboy Carter’ © Blair Caldwell

Which songs stand out for you on the album, and why?

Cowboy Carter - Beyoncé

Blake: “DAUGHTER” is giving Italian operatic recital meets country revenge fantasies, and it positively fascinates me. My swiftie heart skips a beat when she defeatingly wisps out a ‘Look what you made me do’ before the first chorus. My first listen I was like, ‘I have no idea what she is talking about and I have never been more intrigued.’

My love for RENAISSANCE truly feels appreciated on tracks like “SPAGHETTII” when we get the word ‘cunty’ rhyming with ‘country,’ and again on “LEVII’S JEANS” when Post Malone dripping with a pickup truck-induced accent rips through a ‘you’re my Rena-sawnce.’

Hannah: Obviously getting Beyoncé’s “BLACKBIIRD” and “JOLENE” were standouts to anyone raised with Dolly and The Beatles, but “16 CARRIAGES” remains my favorite track. I love the RENAISSANCE energy of “SWEET*HONEY*BUCKIIN’” and “II HANDS II HEAVEN” and the impact of “AMERIICAN REQUIEM” and “AMEN,” but “16 CARRIAGES” feels like the sister song to “Daddy Lessons” from Lemonade. It feels even more significant in the context of the full album than it did as a single.

Julia: I can’t believe no one mentioned “YA YA” yet! It just has the smartest samples and the most over-the-top, boot-stomping, “get up on your feet” sound to segue listeners into the second half of COWBOY CARTER. That’s absolutely the song I’m looking forward to seeing live. “YA YA” aside, the bass on “DESERT EAGLE” is amazing and every inch of “BODYGUARD” reminds me of Aly & AJ’s newer music in the best way.

Brendan: The stretch from “II MOST WANTED” to “AMEN” could be a 10/10 album in itself. Specifically, the five-track run from “DESERT EAGLE” to “SWEET*HONEY*BUCKIN’” could not be done by anyone else. From the first half, “AMERIICAN REQUIEM” is one of her best album openers. “DAUGHTER” (for the opera!) and “BODYGUARD” (for its hooks) are also standouts.

Kevin: The fact that she somewhat interpolated “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield on “AMERIICAN REQUIEM” is absolutely perfect for the opening track, so that was an immediate standout for me. “SPAGHETTII” was obviously a U-turn on the album, and it screamed Houston, which was so delightful. But my favorite is “ALLIIGATOR TEARS.” The entire track feels like you are in slow motion, trotting through the Louisiana bayou on horseback, continuing whatever journey you are on.

Noah: I have not seen enough love for “RIIVERDANCE” which is baffling to me. Outside of that, “YA YA,” “SWEET*HONEY*BUCKIN,” “SPAGHETTII,” and “II HANDS TO HEAVEN” are all standouts to me, as is the “JOLENE” cover. That touch of the modernized remix-style intro is an INSANE aspect of it, but like… it’s a freakin Beyoncé cover. I was surprised by it, but I think, even after hearing it once, I’d be surprised if she DIDN’T do that.

Josh: I’ll have to give it a few listens before I make up my mind for good which songs I liked best, but for now I’ll say I’m a big fan of the lead single, “Texas Hold ‘Em,” as well as the collaboration with Dolly Parton, “Jolene,” basically for assuring me that this musical experiment of her– “going country” while collaborating with way more senior musicians on one album than ever before– was off to a good start. 

Jada: Listening to “AMEN” was such an impactful experience. The usage of a gospel choir paired with Beyoncé’s heart-wrenching and thought-provoking lyricism really touched something deep within me. I admire her for touching on such a deep topic, for Black listeners especially. Once again bringing the Black experience to the forefront on this album.

“PROTECTOR” is another song that stands out for me because of the absolute vulnerability of it. The fact that Beyoncé’s youngest daughter, Rumi, made her musical debut on the track makes it even more of a special addition to the album.

Of course, I cannot forget to mention the singer’s very own iconic rendition of JOLENE. How very iconic was it that the track right before it was the collaboration song between the OG Jolene singer, the great Dolly Parton!

Will: Despite my nagging Beyoncé for giving us too much cud to chew on, there are a lot of standout songs on COWBOY CARTER.

“TEXAS HOLD ‘EM” is a real knee slapper. The fingerpicking on “DAUGHTER” climbs like Spanish moss. “YA YA” interpolates “Good Vibrations” and “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” With its soft and scratchy acoustics and heavily airbrushed piano loop, “RIVERDANCE” sounds to me like Aphex Twin channeling White Ladder and I mean that in the best possible way. When “TYRANT” lets the beat drop, I am simply over the moon.

But the song that I keep coming back to is “16 CARRIAGES.” It makes sense why Beyoncé chose this as one of the album’s advanced singles. When broken down, “16 CARRIAGES” sounds like country. It’s got lots of the usual fixins: brassy horns, pedal steel, an organ that swells like a river and a central melody that’s as sturdy as a rocking chair. And yet — I don’t think I’ve ever heard a song quite like “16 CARRIAGES.” Beyoncé bends those familiar tropes into her orbit, turning them into a grand tale of her life on the range.

Do you have any favorite lyrics so far?

Cowboy Carter - Beyoncé

Blake: On ‘AMERIICAN REQUIEM’: “Used to say I spoke “too country” / And then the rejection came, said I wasn’t country enough / Said I wouldn’t saddle up / But if that ain’t country, tell me what is.”

Hannah: On SPAGHETTII: “In the kitchen cookin’ up them chickens/ Extra leg, but I ain’t even tryna kick it/ Cunty, country, petty, petty, petty.” Also, YA YA: “Baby, if you ain’t got no grits/ get the f*** up out the South.” Amen!

Brendan: The second verse of “II HANDS II HEAVEN”: “I’m a stallion runnin’, no candle in the wind / You won’t ever see me comin’ or goin’ but you’ll know whenever I’m here / Dancin’ in the moonlight, catchin’ every breeze / My feet on the dashboard, now go really fast, boy / Ever since I went to Marfa, ain’t no trouble on my mind / Singin’ sweet songs to Las Vegas, singin’, “I will carry on.” The last two lines — in melody and lyrics — have Ryan Beatty written all over them.

Julia: When Dolly Parton said, “Hey Miss Honeybee, it’s Dolly P,” I squealed. “Telephone” fans in 2024, let me hear ya!

Kevin: On the cover of “Jolene”: “I’m still a Creole Banjee b**ch from Louisianne” and on “Daughter” “They keep saying that I ain’t nothing like my father, but I’m the further thing from choir boys and altars.”

Jada: On “AMEN”:

This house was built with blood and bone
And it crumbled, yes, it crumbled
The statues they made were beautiful
But they were lies of stone, they were lies of stone

“YA YA”:

Whole lotta red in that white and blue, huh
History can’t be erased, ooh

Noah: As much as I love me some “can’t f*** with me” style Beyoncé like in “SPAGHETTII,”: “I ain’t in no gang but i got shootasssss and I bang, bang. At the snap of my fingas, I’m THAAAAANOS. Damn it, damn it,” I also love poetic, ‘give it all for God’ Beyoncé.

“II HANDS II HEAVEN” has a lot of that: “Two hands to Heaven I’ve prayed, priest forgive my soul. Lovely daggers pierced my heart many moons ago. Toxic roses chased by wolves and carnivores. Lost virgins with broken wings that will regrow. I’m a stallion runnin’, no candle in the wind. You won’t ever see me comin’ or goin’, but you’ll know whenever I’m here.”

Josh: The line, “I am colder than Titanic water” from “Daughter” stood out to me. As someone who fell through thin ice as a kid, and thus has an inkling of an impression of just how cold the Titanic water was, let me assure you that Bey has become seriously heartless indeed if she means what she sings in that moment.

Will: There are plenty of tender and thought-provoking lyrics on COWBOY CARTER. Beyoncé lays all her cards out on the table right from the jump on “AMERIICAN REQUIEM,” a song that works more as a thesis statement, challenging us to stand together during this fraught moment in American history. And the mother-daughter ode “PROTECTOR” will have SEC parents reaching for the hankie they’d previously reserved for Jason Isbell.

But my favorite moments on this album come when Beyoncé is having herself a hoot and a holler. My girlfriend and I still love to clown Jay-Z for his verse on “Drunk in Love,” so it brings me great joy to hear her tease her hubby’s wildest breakfast fantasies on “DESERT EAGLE.”

How do you feel about the inclusion of Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Linda Martell, amongst others on the album? Which collaboration(s) do you find the most surprising or exciting?

Cowboy Carter - Beyoncé

Brendan: Again, only Beyoncé could convince so many legends of the genre to contribute to an album in the way that they did. I think it speaks to how much reverence she has for the music that came before her, but her homage never feels derivative. I was thrilled that Dolly made a few appearances, but outside of the three mentioned, I found the Miley and Post collaborations surprising. Miley and Bey have sung together before, but I didn’t expect the duet at all. I also wasn’t aware that Bey and Post had a connection, but “LEVII’S JEANS” is perfect.

Hannah: It meant a lot to hear Willie Nelson say on “SMOKE HOUR II”: “Sometimes you don’t know what you like until someone you trust turns you on to some real good shit. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m here.” Despite being a rebellious figure in a conservative leaning genre, Willie Nelson is beloved in country music, same as Dolly Parton. It almost felt like Willie Nelson was speaking directly to country music fans, inviting them into Beyoncé’s genre-bending homage to her country roots. Beyoncé also turned me onto some “real good shit” from Linda Martell and Shaboozey by featuring them. I personally could have done without the Post Malone feature, but I thought II MOST WANTED with Miley Cyrus was a fantastic collaboration.

Kevin: Having Linda Martell on the album, the first Black woman to sing at the Grand Ole Opry is absolutely perfect. Of course, if you are going to do a country album, you have to enlist the greats like Dolly and Willie, but I love that she brought on some of the “underdogs” in the country scene, like Post and Miley. It is a subtle head nod to their upbringings.

Blake: I do find the inclusion of The Beatles cover to be interesting, as this was a folk song but is certainly country on its own. Their rendition received no backlash, and it is very intentional that Beyoncé formed an all Black girl group for the track.

Noah: Personally, I would have preferred a legends-only list of collaborators. Miley and Post definitely stepped up to the plate, but it would have been really special to have an album of Beyoncé, as the sole modern-day star, with these troubadours who paved the way. All three… Dolly, Willie, and Linda were necessary… would have loved to have seen Vince Gill and Garth on here too. As far as those who have passed… Loretta Lynn, Charley Pride, and Odetta. That would have been really special.

Josh: It’s been a pleasure hearing Beyoncé collaborate with such a wide range of her fellow stars over the years– Jay-Z, Sean Paul, Lady Gaga, Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean among them– and it’s great to see the list keep on growing, especially to names that nobody would have reasonably seen coming. Plus, they pair up well together on record, and that’s what’s most important.

Jada: The inclusion of some of the greatest to ever touch the genre was such a smart move for Beyoncé in my opinion. With so much outrage and initial complaints from country music fans, you have legendary voices giving a co-sign and essentially saying “shut up” to the naysayers!

I found the collaboration with Post Malone most surprising, but in a way it truly does make sense. Beyoncé and Post both like to step outside the mold of what is expected of certain music genre.

I’m most excited about the collaboration with Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, because they’re two of the most powerful female voices in country music! I also loved the collaboration with Miley Cyrus as well, and it also plays into Miley’s own roots in country (per her father Billy Ray Cyrus.)

Will: Having lived through the ’90s and early 2000s, I am officially allergic to this kind of album cameo. But the ones on COWBOY CARTER work for me because they serve the narrative. The Recording Academy is so off in their own world that they need Linda Martell to hit them over the head with how Beyoncé is bucking genre conventions on “SPAGHETTI” and “YA YA.” Though to be fair, I wondered whether covering “Jolene” was necessary, so I’m glad Dolly pointed out the parallel to “that hussy with the good hair.” Willie doesn’t play as vital of a role, but I love the way he pronounces her name like he’s ordering off an expensive menu. Plus, he proves to be a more sooth-saying DJ than Jim Carey.

This being a country album, you knew COWBOY CARTER was going to serve up some sweet and supple harmonies. But I was not expecting Post Malone to out-twang Miley Cyrus. Instead of tea with honey, maybe more artists should be drinking Bud Light before shows.

Does this album’s billing as Beyoncé’s “first country album” affect the listening experience for you at all?

Cowboy Carter - Beyoncé

Josh: Sort of. When “Texas Hold ‘Em” was released as this album’s first single, I thought, “Oh wow… this native Texas singer is finally going down that route, huh?!” But as I listened to the accompanying album, I realized that “country-tinged” might be a better description for it. It makes more room for country influences than any album of hers in the past has done, while also making comfortable space for R&B, pop, hip-hop (she does some more rapping! Let’s gooooo), and other genres. So I guess, it being labeled as a “country album” in some corners influenced my expectations for it to some extent, but ultimately the listening experience wound up being as positive as I’d hoped for, no matter what the packaging may have been.

Brendan: “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM” and “16 CARRIAGES” are definitely some of the more traditional country songs on the album. I think they were the perfect segue into what COWBOY CARTER actually is — a sprawling, genre-bending album that maintains its country soul in the lyricism, vocal performance and instrumentation even in its more experimental moments. I think after RENAISSANCE, I’ve realized that whatever genre Beyoncé chooses to take on, I can trust her to do it justice, so I didn’t have too many preconceived notions of what the album would or should be.

Kevin: I was skeptical at first, only because I wasn’t sure which direction she would take in the country genre. After hearing the two singles, it became more evident that she was heading towards the pop-country feel, but in the back of my mind, I knew this was going to be something totally different. Beyoncé has a way of reimagining the way music can sound, no matter what genre she takes on, so I chose to dive into the album with no expectations.

Noah: No, it doesn’t affect the listening experience. What it IS going to affect is how I listen to country music going forward because, and no offense to anyone doing it right now, but some people just don’t do it right and this album makes that glaringly obvious. Obviously that’s incredibly subjective considering, like literally every other genre, there are many facets to what you can do with it, but there’s a difference between what Chris Stapleton does vs what… nevermind.

Jada: I think it slightly affected the listening experience, only because country music is not a genre I’m particularly drawn to. However, after Lemonade and RENAISSANCE, I knew that whatever genre and sound Beyoncé wanted to try, she was going to smash it for lack of better words.

Will: Beyoncé had hot sauce in her bag long before she saddled up with her fellow Texans in The Dixie Chicks, but without that billing, I might not position COWBOY CARTER alongside Morgan Wallen and Zach Bryan. That’s more a reflection of my own inherent bias and ignorance about how Black people have shaped country music. But that she has to spell it out in big bold letters for some of us is an indictment not just on the music industry but also American culture as a whole.

Beyoncé 'Cowboy Carter' © Blair Caldwell
Beyoncé ‘Cowboy Carter’ © Blair Caldwell

COWBOY CARTER has been positioned as a reckoning for country music. What impact do you predict it will have on the genre?

Cowboy Carter - Beyoncé

Julia: In Bo Burnham’s Netflix stand-up, he comments on that specific “stadium” version of country music that panders to a working-class audience without actually participating in the lifestyle. Whenever I see Morgan Wallen doing something ridiculous, I think of that. But I think what Beyoncé created here is totally separate from that.

She really forces listeners to examine the legacy of country music. Why is — or isn’t — it inclusive of all artists today? How can we make this sound and its corresponding stardom accessible while maintaining the genre’s integrity — something that’s so deeply protected and guarded by fans?

Brendan: In 79 minutes, Beyoncé does a sweeping overview of the past, present and future of country music. With interpolations, samples and references to country legends like Loretta Lynn, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Dolly Parton, she educates the listener on what country music has been. At the same time, she spotlights up-and-coming Black country artists like Tanner Adell and Brittney Spencer to show that country music’s current landscape is more diverse than what is highlighted on the radio. The last third of the album, with all its imaginative and genre-fusing songs, is her thesis on what country music can be.

Kevin: It is time for country music to be recognized and reimagined as something more than the white-washed, pickup truck owning, beer drinking, style that has overtaken the genre and frankly, there are country artists that need more attention than the radio stars who are put on a pedestal. I think this will awaken the ears of many music lovers to discover what country music can be; the storytelling of heartache, protest, and longing.

Noah: I wholeheartedly agree with Kevin’s statement but I don’t think that Nashville is ready or willing to allow for that change to happen. If it adds a bit more diversity to the genre or allows the people who are/have been trying to diversify the genre to be recognized more than they have, then great. But, there is the potential for the political and cultural backlash, mostly by the you-know-which party (who, by the way, considering all they listen to is Kid Rock and Lee Greenwood, have no place talking about THE QUALITY OF MUSIC) which is currently whining about, of all the things, all the expletives in this album, to fall onto those people since Beyoncé herself is pretty untouchable in terms of what “they” are able to do to limit her, but I hope that that isn’t the case.

Josh: I mean… Beyoncé turns heads everywhere she goes, so I suspect more people are going to become open-minded towards country music now that Beyoncé has released an album with one foot in that genre’s door. Who knows if it will radically change the sounds of country in the contemporary era across the board, but it certainly can’t hurt to have this superstar show her home state’s signature genre some love..

Jada: I think there will absolutely be a reckoning for country music non-listeners, listeners and non-country artists alike. I think what COWBOY CARTER showcased to the world is that country can be fun, it can be loud, it can be crazy, and it can absolutely be unapologetically Black.

Will: Beyoncé just made history by becoming the first Black woman to top the Hot Country Songs chart. And unlike Lil Nas X, she didn’t have to sweeten the pill by roping in a feature from line dancing royalty. But while the cover art is definitely a conversation starter, color me skeptical as to whether COWBOY CARTER can open Nashville’s hearts (and checkbooks).

When it comes to what constitutes country music, Nashville is more stubborn than a mule, but even those gatekeepers at country radio are savvy enough to know when a golden opportunity comes a’ knocking. They would’ve been real fools not to open the door for someone with as wide a reach as Beyoncé. I just don’t think they’re banking on her audience sticking around.

After all, before COWBOY CARTER, country music was already more popular than ever. That young people are the main force behind that wave can be chalked up to the way today’s biggest country artists borrow from hip-hop. But something tells me that Nashville is only willing to let that slide for the Wallen’s of the world, who fit the traditional archetype. Heck, even perennial Grammy nominees Allison Russell and Brandi Carlisle are still getting pushed out into fringe categories like Roots and Americana.

Having said all that, if there’s anyone who can knock the Music City off their high horse, it’s the Beyhive.

Beyoncé has explicitly stated that COWBOY CARTER “ain’t a country album,” but rather “a Beyoncé album.” What has “a Beyoncé album” come to signify to you? What do you expect from her?

Cowboy Carter - Beyoncé

Noah: From the self-titled album ‘til now, a Beyoncé album is PURELY the most ambitious project in the game at that point in time, which then inspires OTHER people to go out and be ambitious. Her detractors aren’t actually listening to the music or attempting to understand what she’s trying to say, they look at the number of credits on her albums and try to discredit her. But yet these albums will lose at the Grammys to say… Adele, which the industry will say is because of commercial success, or Harry Styles, which the industry has nothing to say about because there’s no reason for it other than like, “I don’t know he’s white and cute.”

So, really, what we’ve come to expect her to keep creating these gargantuan projects and continue to be 1. The most respected artist of the current and previous generation. 2. The artist that the current generation aims to want to be and 3. The artist that the generation of legends look at and say, “Yeah, she’s the one leading the way now.” Yet she has no big four Grammy. Does that ACTUALLY matter? No. But DOES IT?? Yeah, it does.

Josh: Man, that’s a big question– there’s a lot of music to process in between 2003’s Dangerously in Love (even earlier if you count the Destiny’s Child records) and her latest releases in the 2020’s. But if it features splendid vocals and glossy production, and generates another healthy crop of hits, then at least some of the signature elements of a Beyoncé record are there.

Jada: Whenever the news of new music comes out in regard to Beyoncé, I always know that something over the top (I mean this in the very best way) is coming. A Beyoncé album signifies a whole cultural experience. For example, Lemonade and RENAISSANCE: Lemonade was explicitly a Black empowerment moment, while RENAISSANCE embraces the expression found in dancehall, disco, and house by the Queer community. All I can say is, when new Beyoncé music is coming out, expect the unexpected. Whichever sounds and genres she decides on, just know she’s going to put her very own spin on it!

Brendan: A Beyoncé record, today, is always more than just an album — it’s an era, an experience and a cultural moment. She fully immerses you into the world of each record, beginning with the tributes to the album’s influences and predecessors and continuing into the sonic palette, vocal delivery and songwriting. Then she wraps all of it up in polished, carefully thought-out visuals (where are the expanded Act I visuals Beyoncé?). She’s one of the few artists where I’m rarely disappointed or worried about their artistic output.

Beyoncé 'Cowboy Carter' © Blair Caldwell
Beyoncé ‘Cowboy Carter’ © Blair Caldwell

This being Beyoncé’s eighth solo album, where do you feel COWBOY CARTER sits in the pantheon of her discography?

Cowboy Carter - Beyoncé

Josh: It’s got competition from the likes of B’Day, Lemonade, Renaissance, 2013’s self-titled release and more, but I’d place it comfortably in the Top 5 alongside those aforementioned records. Dangerously in Love, I Am Sasha Fierce, and 4 are all good too, but I feel that Beyoncé has (impressively!) improved over time and outdone some of those earlier records with her latter-day output. Keep it up, Queen!

Julia: It goes without saying that I’ll never know better than Beyoncé. Just her inherent understanding of the nuances of culture are unmatched, and I think this three-act structure feels like a painstakingly cultivated history lesson.

That said, when it comes to everyday, casual listening for the average person, I don’t think Cowboy Carter compares to Beyoncé’s earlier hits. “Texas Hold ‘Em” aside, I don’t think non-Bey Hive will be itching to hear these new songs in the club the same way they do “Single Ladies” or “Crazy in Love.”

Maybe that’s the point? That Beyoncé is beyond seeking acceptance from a larger audience? But if any album was going to reign Americans back in, pun intended, I think it could’ve been COWBOY CARTER. I love it, obviously, but I understand why some people wouldn’t.

Hannah: This is a hard question, but Lemonade still outranks COWBOY CARTER in my mind. It competes with BEYONCÉ and RENAISSANCE in an ever-changing top five, narrowly stealing second place.

Brendan: When the dust settles, I’m not sure if it’ll outrank RENAISSANCE for me just yet, but I do think it’s in my top 2 Beyoncé records for sure.

Kevin: Knowing that this is only act two of three for the project, I feel as if these three albums should be put in a separate category from her sprawling discography. Listening to younger Bey and seeing how much she has grown from producing pop anthems and the masterpiece that is Lemonade, Renaissance and Cowboy Carter are beacons in the music world of what is and what can be.

Blake: As aforementioned, I’m a baby bee, new here since RENAISSANCE. That album has a lot of fun memories, realizations about queer music, etc., so it might always be my number one. Lemonade is still an impressive body of work, so I think COWBOY is tied with it for second.

Noah: I think recency bias aside, because the album is incredible but I don’t want to sit here and say it’s the best thing she has ever done while we are all still digesting it, I think it’s more of a statement piece than RENAISSANCE but I enjoy RENAISSANCE more. And then if I have to pick between RENAISSANCE and Lemonade, my other favorite of hers, I still say RENAISSANCE because there are more consistent highs on it than there are on Lemonade.

Jada: I can’t speak to everyone’s own opinions, but for me COWBOY CARTER sits up very close in the ranks with Lemonade on top and RENAISSANCE following. I’m just biased to Lemonade, but do I truly admire Beyoncé’s ability to evolve as an artist, as well as her commitment to being unapologetically herself.

Will: Beyoncé belongs to the inner circle of pop music’s pantheon. Pick any benchmark — Billboard chart positions, ticket sales, DSPs, think pieces, the ability to break social media — and she deserves a seat at the table right alongside Elvis, The Beatles, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Whitney Houston, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, and Michael and Janet Jackson. For my money, she’s the defining artist of this millennium.

So when Beyoncé drops an album, I expect her to make a statement. Maybe I’m falling sway to recency bias here, but COWBOY CARTER feels like her biggest statement to date. I don’t think this album will go down as her magnum opus (Lemonade still holds that honor). But I’ll be damned if this doesn’t net her that long overdue Album of the Year award.

— —

:: stream/purchase COWBOY CARTER here ::
:: connect with Beyoncé here ::

— — — —

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