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Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’ Is a Vivid Mission Statement. Let’s Discuss.



BEN SISARIO I don’t usually say this about news releases, but since Beyoncé says so little about the making of her art, the “Cowboy Carter” announcement was intriguing for noting that “each song is its own version of a reimagined Western film,” and that Beyoncé screened movies while she recorded, including “Urban Cowboy,” “The Hateful Eight,” even “Space Cowboys” (?!).

My first reaction to hearing the album was surprised gawking at its range of genre and sound, after she head faked us all into perhaps more limited expectations of “country.” (Of course we should have known better.) Viewed only as a genre-hopping exercise, “Cowboy Carter” might be a confusing jumble. But the film frame puts narrative and character at the center of her message, and with that everything came into clearer focus for me.

As a heroine, Beyoncé makes a big, bold statement of her quest in “Ameriican Requiem,” taking on nothing less than American history. She finds villains in Jolene and (ahem) the Grammys. Songs like “II Most Wanted” and “Levii’s Jeans” could be plot-break montages while our conquering cowgirl hangs with some sidekicks she meets along the way. By the final reel she’s recapitulating her complaints and declaring herself the victorious leader of a grand resistance (“We’ll be the ones to purify our fathers’ sins”).

SALAMISHAH TILLET I’ve listened to the album so many times now — on a plane, in a spin class, and, as I think she intended, while I drove on the highway (sadly, 280, not the 405). Yes, Ben, she has gone big here! But, instead of longing for some lost past, she is taking on “History” — musical and American — with, as we say in academia, a big “H,” or those big narratives about identity, belonging and discrimination.

I almost missed those lyrics, “Whole lotta red in that white and blue, ha/History can’t be erased, oh-oh/You lookin’ for a new America” because I was too busy Proud Marying, jerking and twerking to “Ya Ya.” I think that might be the point — it is as if she saying, “The times are so desperate, I am going to use all the vocal gifts and genres at my disposal to bring the country together and show you how good I am at doing them (again)!”

WESLEY MORRIS Howdy-do “Cowboy” crew. This album … First of all, Ben, I had been entirely ready to consider Beyoncé as a kind of Tarantino historian-crusader thinking big and referentially about America at least since “Lemonade.” She can be just as trashy but is far more rigorous in her rebukes. Then you reveal that this thing was made on successive movie nights? Which of these tracks is “Posse”? Which one’s “Bad Girls”? Was “Nope” on her marquee? Was “Unforgiven”? This is a revenge picture (Grammy, get your gun), a mercenary thriller and one of those territory-expansion pioneer sagas that could play as rejoinder to something like Kelly Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff.” It’s also the home of “Ya Ya,” a banger that explains how “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” might have gone if Tina Turner ran the brothel and “Laugh-In” had done the décor.

For about the first 45 percent, until right after “Daughter,” this sounds cinematic — panorama, passion, character, texture, harmony, tenderness, violence, story, stakes. And that’s just “16 Carriages,” with its chain-gang, horse-hoof, whip-crack, steam-engine percussion blasts. That song is Top 10 Beyoncé, for me. “Bodyguard,” “Texas Hold ’Em” and “Ameriican Requiem”/“Amen” aren’t far behind. There are 27 tracks here, and maybe 22 songs. And about as many ideas. The sequencing and variety made me wonder about the 30 entries on “The White Album” and the 21 on “Songs in the Key of Life,” the way they push the limits of what a record can actually fit. (Stevie Wonder pressed the last four songs on an EP!) I learned from Jon Pareles’s incisive review that “Cowboy Carter” and its 79 minutes are just about all that a physical compact disc can handle. With these great artists, testing boundaries runs from genre to the distribution vessel itself.

The album very much works as an argument. But it doesn’t achieve the sensualist overload of her last release, “Renaissance” — an LP whose credo was basically “more bounce to the ounce.” When that’s over, you feel like you just ate a pit-roasted rainbow; you’re licking colors off your fingers. Here you’re taking notes. Beyoncé’s been a subtle teacher — “Lemonade” is an all-genre masterwork that’s also remarkable for its concision. But now she wants the work to show.

LINDSAY ZOLADZ Welcome to the Smoke Hour, everybody. Wesley, I’m with you on the divergent listening experiences of “Renaissance” and “Cowboy Carter.” Approximately one billion plays later, “Renaissance” does not have a “skip” moment for me. “Cowboy Carter” is, as Pareles put it in his review, “a bumpier ride.” At least until it isn’t: From “Ya Ya” on, it shifts gears into the fluid, relentless flow she achieved on “Renaissance” — or to use a Beatles reference, that the Fab Four achieve on Side 2 of “Abbey Road.” There’s a lot here. I’m not sure all of it works, but some of it is sublime, and regardless it seems poised to extend Beyoncé’s improbable second imperial phase until the promised Act III. Giddy up and bow down.

SISARIO A weak spot in the cinema-auteur theory is that there’s really only one character in Beyoncé’s story, and that’s her. It’s more like an ultra-dramatic monologue.

ZOLADZ I want to zoom in on “Jolene,” which to me sums up so much about this album’s unruly ambition, its inevitable limitations and its irreverent, endlessly remixed approach to American musical history. Beyoncé’s “Jolene” isn’t a cover so much as an impassioned piece of fan fiction, rewriting Dolly Parton’s ballad of anguished jealousy into a cocksure taunt: “Jolene, I’m warning you, don’t come for my man.”

This inversion of power makes the song less vulnerable and emotionally effective than Parton’s original, but it also gestures toward a dynamic that Parton glosses over in her introduction to Beyoncé’s take, when she compares her auburn-haired “Jolene” to the notorious Becky with the good hair Beyoncé called out on “Lemonade”: “Just a hair of a different color,” Parton says, “but it hurts just the same.” Does it, though? Beyoncé’s lyric has a racial implication that Parton’s does not.

A far more interesting and successful song is “Daughter.” Here is the pathos that is missing from her “Jolene” — so deeply felt that Beyoncé has to borrow from opera to demonstrate the scope of her sorrow and craving for vengeance. “Daughter” is a bloody, modern-day murder ballad in the revisionist spirit of SZA’s “Kill Bill,” but it’s also the flip side of “Daddy Lessons,” the countrified tune off “Lemonade” that in some sense kicked off the “Cowboy Carter” experiment. “Daddy Lessons” was both affectionate toward and critical of that flawed fictionalized Daddy, but here Beyoncé laments their similarities: “If you cross me, I am just like my father, I am colder than Titanic water.”

All over this album, I hear Beyoncé wielding her power by embodying traditionally masculine roles: protector, bodyguard, gunslinger, bandleader, sexual initiator. “I am the man, I know it,” she sings on “Just for Fun.” She once wondered what life would be like if she were a boy, but now she is Daddy, for all the good, bad and ugliness that implies. Even in the title. This ain’t “Cowgirl Carter.”

TILLET I know that “Jolene” will get a lot of love, but, then I also thought “Lemonade” was her “Jolene” and then some. Can we talk about “queer” Beyoncé a bit? I loved “Thique” on “Renaissance” for the same reason I like “Tyrant” here. They are unabashedly sexual songs, and because she blurs pronouns, they convey a wider range of pleasure than many of her previous albums.

And while I am not a Miley Cyrus stan — I leave that to the kids — I am surprised by how much I like “II Most Wanted.” They flipped an old-fashioned Bonnie and Clyde-style duet (a trope that Bey and Jay-Z use in many of their collaborations). Tonally, this song really plays up their timbre differences (Beyoncé’s soulful soprano with Miley’s husky rasp), and it feels more gender fluid and their chemistry more subversive than, let’s say, the “Thelma and Louise” trip from Lady Gaga’s “Telephone.” I eagerly anticipate the live performance of this song.

ZOLADZ I love how much fun Beyoncé is having with the elasticity of her voice on this record. Is it possible she still doesn’t get enough credit as a vocalist? Because she’s reveling in her voice’s expansiveness here — all those registers, inflections and personas. “Ya Ya” alone is populated by an entire country of different Beyoncés.

MORRIS Meaningfully, one of those impersonas is of Elvis. For the stretch of that song that includes the line “Baby, if you ain’t got no grits, get the [expletive] up out the South,” she lounges back, congests herself and goes snarling in. It’s the one spot on the album in which the historian, the avenger and the comedian converge. The humorist who ring-led “Renaissance” resurfaces on this song.

TILLET Yes to “Ya Ya,” Though it appears late, it is the centerpiece of this album, and I am amazed at how massive and fast it is. We can hear her tribute to her idol Tina Turner (that growl, that grit), then she samples Nancy Sinatra and the Beach Boys — it achieves everything she purported the album would do. It refuses genres and the racial identities that we associate with them and it establishes that Beyoncé is her own genre.

SISARIO One detail that I really dug here was the sonic thread of continuity with “Renaissance” on the echoey, shouty vocals that waft through occasionally, like at the start of “Jolene” and “Spaghettii.” It gives the feeling that we have simply moved through a physical space — that the dance party is taking part in a neighboring circus or a festival stage at the other end of the field. What will we hear in the third big tent? (And what kind of horse will she ride to get there?)

MORRIS Yes, Ben! One album seems telepathically, twerkingly in touch with the other. “Cowboy Carter” has “Renaissance” palimpsest. And the disco-Western imagery from “Renaissance” promised something like “Cowboy” was afoot — but only in a Keyer Soze sort of way. (I at least didn’t see all the horses and 10-gallon hats at the shows last summer and think “Here Comes Dirty Yoncé.”) The way that “Sweet Honey Buckiin’” corresponds with “Pure Honey” as penultimate tracks. “Pure Honey” smashed through its genre wall. The “Honey” third of the new song is lifting a wedding-night veil. The “Buckiin’” third is the consummation.

ZOLADZ I’m curious what everyone thinks about the back-to-back guest spots from Cyrus (the gorgeous, elegiac “II Most Wanted”) and Post Malone (the astoundingly horny “Levii’s Jeans”)? Cyrus and Malone are both white artists who have been accused of appropriating Black music for commercial gain, and slipped easily back into supposedly “whiter” genres like rock and country when the discourse got a bit too spicy. I keep wondering what they are doing on an album that is so attuned to the racial history of genre. Is Beyoncé slyly contrasting herself with them to show how easy it is for white artists to genre-hop in the opposite direction? Or are we giving her too much benefit of the doubt and should also remember that the same year “Lemonade” was released she was also featured on a dreadful Coldplay single?

MORRIS Oh Lindsay, why? I don’t know how selecting and releasing singles works nowadays, but these two songs seem like chart rockets awaiting a D.J.’s ignition. You’re right about both Cyrus and Malone’s coziness and ease with Black American music and, in the wake of a momentary national tsk-ing, their retrenchment into pop-country and rocky pop. But I hear interracial provocation in these two songs: They’re both sexual — in the case of the Cyrus song, suggestive at the very least. Now, that shouldn’t be news. Yet for someone as vividly Black as Beyoncé to be trading denim entendres with a young white guy on the only current-sounding country-radio jam on the entire album — that ain’t nothing.

And look, the most honestly artistically collaborative we’ve ever been about race in this country has been through music. Beyoncé’s choosing optimism here. The idea that she has roped in these two — as opposed to, say, Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan; as opposed to Taylor Swift — tells me that she’s daring to look the “appropriation” problem in the face and give it a wet kiss. She implies as much in the Sirens’ calvary of the album’s opening manifesto: “Them big ideas/are buried here.” It suggests, too, that she’s spied fellow genre agnostics in these two. (Also: She’s 42, they’re not. It’s possible their desire makes her feel even younger. Aging is another of the album’s concerns.) My head would have turned much further had Beyoncé shown up on one of their albums instead.

SISARIO Will “Cowboy Carter” be Beyoncé’s next LP to lose album of the year at the Grammys? Even after Jay-Z’s scolding of the institution at this year’s ceremony, another disappointment feels inevitable to me. The pattern is painfully clear. Grammy voters thought Beck’s “Morning Phase” was more important than “Beyoncé,” that Harry Styles’s “Harry’s House” was more deserving than “Renaissance.” Adele was almost embarrassed that her “25” defeated “Lemonade.” (I give Grammy voters a pass for picking Taylor Swift’s “Fearless” over “I Am … Sasha Fierce” back in 2010.) Surely at least one of those Beyoncé LPs should have been recognized as a mold-breaking achievement.

I read Beyoncé’s statement about using “real instruments” here as Grammy bait. And, who knows, it may work. But I think the odds are still against her — perhaps even more than usual now that she has turned it into a war cry. “A-O-T-Y, I ain’t win/I ain’t stuntin’ ’bout them,” she sings on “Sweet Honey Buckiin’.” But what she’s doing — or at least how it will be seen — is publicly scolding the music industry, revealing even in her denial how much it really does matter to her.

ZOLADZ I think that Beyoncé — like Taylor Swift — is someone who loves nothing more than to prove herself in situations where she is perceived to be an underdog. But also like Swift right now, Beyoncé is in a position of such cultural, commercial and critical dominance that there are not a lot of arenas left where she can convincingly play David rather than Goliath. In this sense, the systemic racism of the mainstream country music establishment — and American history writ large — is a worthy and appropriately sized foe. Backstage hangers-on lusting after her billionaire husband? Maybe not as much. While the libidinous Yoncé is usually one of my favorite Bey alter-egos, I do find myself wishing this album were a bit less about what’s happening in the back of the limo and more about what’s happening on the streets outside it.

TILLET To answer your question, Ben, about the Grammys, I think Beyoncé is simply raising the stakes with this album. This is why I love all the Linda Martell interludes about “genres” here. Like water fountains, schools and bank loans, genres as invented categories for marketing music have been one of the most segregated aspects of American life. The consequences have been manifold: Black musicians like Rosetta Tharpe or Chuck Berry, who appear in Willie Nelson’s “Smoke Hour” interlude, are written out of the very same musical categories they invented, once a genre, like rock or country, was mainstreamed by white artist, like Elvis or the Beatles.

We know the other half of this story: Genres like gospel, R&B and hip-hop, which also have their origins in the blues but were originally primarily marketed to Black audiences, are considered niche, less rigorous and thus less rewarded. But should Black artists keep showing up, as Jay-Z said in his recent Grammy speech? Or should they boycott and reject these institutions as places of affirmation or access? I always think there is a third option: Should white artists who have benefited from the exclusion of Black musicians disavow their own privilege and affiliation with these institutions until tangible equity is achieved?

SISARIO It’s been juicy but sad that the discourse around Beyoncé “going country” has set up a confrontation between her and the Stetson-hatted armies of Nashville. Can she shake up the entrenched conservatism of Music Row? Is it even fair to put that burden on her? This is a power-struggle narrative, a zero-sum game.

The sad part is that this may indeed turn out to be right. I don’t see a reconciliation happening. The all-encompassing musical palette of “Cowboy Country” may be seen in Nashville not as a shot across its institutional bow — a challenge for it to adapt — but simply a matter of a big “outside” star turning out a musical jambalaya with some countryish signifiers thrown in. Nashville usually demands that newcomers bend the knee; that was never going to happen here.

TILLET Back to the politics, but not Nashville. Beyoncé is often criticized for not being radical enough, so for some, her allegiance to capitalism dilutes any message that she has regarding real social change. But I believe she is also doing something else that she does not get enough credit for: collaborating with and elevating other artists. We saw hints of this when she cited Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Warsan Shire on her past albums, and went full force with Afrobeats artists in “Black Is King” and then with house and dance musicians on “Renaissance.” Because she’s dug deep into country music’s past, she knows what it means to erase people from history, and how she can impact others’ careers and legacies.

In the periods between Beyoncé’s work being criticized and her clapback with a new project, people seem to forget the ingenuity of the one right before it. This time, “Cowboy Carter” came so quickly, we could only compare her to her last best self, and she’s reminding us that she is still without a contemporary peer.

MORRIS Beyoncé has an army of credited collaborators here, and the one who stands out most aptly is Rhiannon Giddens. For years, Giddens has made her inexhaustible project the reappropriation and the revivification of so-called traditional American music. Good, bad, ugly: It all sounds vital, mysterious, crucial coming from her and her collaborators. Giddens’s work, at the Grammys and elsewhere, tends to receive one label. It’s one that I haven’t seen associated much with “Cowboy Carter,” and that’s Americana. Beyoncé has signed Giddens’s petition of requiem and reckoning, legacy and elegy. She’s actively reworking the borders on how far out a term like that can go, how far forward as well as back: minstrelsy, bluegrass, rap. It’s all us. I would love to study a transcript of their conversations, to run a finger down the playlists they maybe passed back and forth. Giddens is the artist whose curiosity and audacity I can detect here, as Beyoncé thinks through what to do with our great big past. I hope people find her music, too.

SISARIO A note about those collaborators. Beyoncé finally released album credits on Monday, and it turns out that the “Blackbiird” guitarist who sounded an awful lot like Paul McCartney actually is Paul McCartney — because she is singing over the original Beatles track.

ZOLADZ Beyoncé covers so much sonic ground on “Cowboy Carter,” I’m not even sure what genre she has left to conquer on the promised Act III. Jazz? Polka? Is she going to pull an André 3000 and pivot to woodwinds?

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