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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Beyoncé’s country is America: Every bit of it

Sunset Wilson, left, and Nadia Agahozo at a listening party for Beyoncé’s new album, “Cowboy Carter,” on the rooftop of music venue Acme Feed & Seed, in Nashville, Tenn., March 29, 2024. The Beyhive turned out for listening parties from Atlanta to Houston, including a fan day at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And there has been a seemingly endless stream of on-theme posts from brands and politicians. (Liam Kennedy/The New York Times)

By Jon Pareles

The first song on “Cowboy Carter,” Beyoncé’s not-exactly-country album, makes a preemptive strike. “It’s a lot of talking going on while I sing my song,” she observes in “Ameriican Requiem” over guitar strums and electric sitar, adding, “It’s a lot of chatter in here.”

That’s an acknowledgment that a pop superstar’s job now extends well beyond creating and performing songs. In the era of streaming and social media, Beyoncé knows that her every public appearance and utterance will be scrutinized, commented on, cross-referenced, circulated as clickbait and hot-taked in both good faith and bad. Every phrase and image are potential memes and hyperlinks.

It’s a challenge she has engaged head-on since she released her visual album “Beyoncé” in 2013. For the past decade, even as her tours have filled stadiums, she has set herself goals outside of generating hits. Beyoncé has deliberately made each of her recent albums not only a musical performance but also an argument: about power, style, history, family, ambition, sexuality, bending rules. They’re albums meant to be discussed and footnoted, not just listened to.

“Cowboy Carter” is an overstuffed album, 27 tracks maxing out the 79-minute capacity of a CD and stretching across two LPs. It flaunts spoken-word co-signs from Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton that interrupt its flow; it includes some fragmentary, minute-long songs. Its sprawl is its own statement of confidence: that even half-finished experiments are worth attention.

The “Cowboy Carter” album cover is an opening salvo, brandishing western and American symbols: Beyoncé holding an American flag while riding a white horse sidesaddle, with platinum-blond hair proudly streaming. In a red-white-and-blue outfit, high-heeled boots and a pageant sash that reads “Cowboy Carter,” she’s a beauty queen and a white-hatted heroine claiming her nation — her country, in both senses. The politics of her new songs are vague and glancing, but the music insists that every style is her American birthright. As a pop star it is: Pop has always breached stylistic boundaries, constantly exploiting subcultures to annex whatever might make a song catchier.

Beyoncé grew up in Texas, where country music has long mingled with styles from jazz to blues to hip-hop — and where, in fact, early cowboys were enslaved Black men. Beyoncé met a racial backlash when she performed “Daddy Lessons,” a country song from her 2016 album “Lemonade” about gun-toting self-defense, with the (then-Dixie) Chicks at the 2016 Country Music Association Awards. Presumably that’s what she alluded to when she wrote on Instagram that there was “an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed.”

She wasn’t daunted. Instead she pushed further, and the mere prospect of Beyoncé releasing a country album stirred things up. Even before its release, “Cowboy Carter” prompted reminders of country’s obscured Black roots — like the African origins of the banjo and the genre’s long cross-pollination with the blues — and pointed at, yet again, its historical exclusion of nonwhite performers, despite a handful of exceptions such as Linda Martell, Charley Pride and, more recently, Darius Rucker, Mickey Guyton and Kane Brown.

What Beyoncé drew from country is productions that feature hand-played instruments — guitars, keyboards, drums — rather than the programmed beats and glittering electronics that propelled her 2022 album “Renaissance,” which also had Beyoncé on horseback on the cover and was subtitled “Act I.” That album was Beyoncé’s time-warped, multilayered homage to the electronic dance music that emerged from Black gay subcultures. “Cowboy Carter,” subtitled “Act II,” also scrambles eras and styles, with samples, electronics and multitracked vocal harmonies unapologetically joining the guitars.

The advance singles from “Cowboy Carter” paired “16 Carriages,” a booming arena-country song about Beyoncé’s industrious career and artistic drive, with the foot-stomping, banjo-picking “Texas Hold ’Em,” about enjoying Texas-style good times away from home. “Texas Hold ’Em” seized No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, making Beyoncé the first Black woman to do so, and topped the all-genre Hot 100.

If Beyoncé had merely wanted to make mainstream country hits, she could have hired a seasoned Nashville producer and had her pick of expert Music Row songwriters. But “Cowboy Carter” has different aspirations, and Beyoncé brought her own brain trust, including producers known for hip-hop and R&B. “This ain’t a Country album. This is a Beyoncé album,” she wrote on Instagram. That’s true.

“Cowboy Carter” leans into its anticipated discourse, openly interrogating categories and stereotypes and pointedly ignoring formulas. With historical savvy, Beyoncé enlisted Martell — the Black country singer whose 1970 album, “Color Me Country,” included the first charting country hit by a Black woman, “Color Him Father” — to provide spoken words. For the intro of “Spaghettii” — which features Beyoncé rapping — Martell says, “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they? Yes, they are. In theory, they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand. But in practice, well, some may feel confined.”

Beyoncé gathers young Black women currently striving for country careers — Brittney Spencer, Reyna Roberts, Tiera Kennedy and Tanner Adell — on a remake of the Beatles’ veiled civil-rights song, “Blackbird.” It’s a careful gesture, though it might have been more substantial to write a new song with them.

The album includes some understated, largely acoustic contenders for country or adult-contemporary radio play — notably “II Most Wanted,” a duet with Miley Cyrus that harks back to Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” and “Levii’s Jeans,” a boast about being a “sexy little thing” that she shares with a besotted Post Malone. In the steady-thumping, Motown-tinged “Bodyguard,” Beyoncé plays an amorous, jealous but selfless partner in an uncertain romance. And in “Protector,” an acoustic-guitar lullaby, Beyoncé personifies a loving, supportive parent singing about “lifting you up so you will be raised.”

It’s the odder, genre-fluid songs that give the album its depth. “Just for Fun” — a hymnlike duet with Willie Jones, a Louisiana songwriter who draws on country and R&B — plunges into Beyoncé’s somber low register as she sings, “I need to get through this/ Or just get used to it.” “Riiverdance” deploys intertwined Celtic-tinged guitars and close-harmony backup vocals to sketch an enigmatic relationship that encompasses murder and resurrection and weekend seductions. And “II Hands II Heaven” is equally cryptic and celebratory; using an electronic pulse drawn from Underworld’s “Born Slippy (Nuxx),” it has Beyoncé and backup voices singing about whiskey, coyotes, God, sex and “Lost virgins with broken wings that will regrow.”

Beyoncé has been a stalwart of the full-length album, sequencing and juxtaposing songs in synergistic ways. But “Cowboy Carter” is a bumpier ride than “Renaissance,” “Lemonade” or “Beyoncé.” It suggests that Beyoncé wanted to pack all she could into one side trip before moving on elsewhere. Perhaps she’s already immersed in Act III.

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