Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Beyoncé Cowboy Carter


It’s not a country album. Beyoncé already said it wasn’t a country album a few days ago, but artists say a lot of things when they’re promoting records. In this case, it happens to be true. Cowboy Carter, the much-vaunted Beyoncé country album that materialized in the collective imagination when she released the first two singles last month, does not exist. Instead, we get an album that uses country music as a framing mechanism and maybe also a springboard. The album that we got is probably more interesting and definitely more fun than the one I worried we were getting.

The singles left me unconvinced. The credits were confusing enough to distract from songs that ultimately sounded pretty slight. It was like: Wait, Rhiannon Giddens plays banjo on this? And it’s produced by the guy from the Stills? “Texas Hold ‘Em” was cute in both the good and bad ways — a well-crafted but self-impressed line-dance novelty that aimed to make a point simply by existing. “16 Carriages” was the kind of ballad that tends to show up near the end of a Beyoncé album, the kind that I tend to respect but skip. That track does interesting things with Beyoncé’s iconography, treating her early Destiny’s Child tours like they were 40 days in the desert. But as a song? As a song, it’s fine. The craft and the voice are impeccable, and it might move me when I hear it at the right moment, but it’s not going to have me hanging out the driver’s side window and screaming lyrics when I’m at a red light.

The songs weren’t the point. The point was the point. After celebrating house music and queer Black culture on Renaissance, Beyoncé was coming for country music in Act II. After the conflicting responses to her “Daddy Lessons” CMA performance, Beyoncé was going to reclaim country for Black culture, exposing the roots as she’s already done with other cultural expressions. It’s a point worth making! Beyoncé’s CMA performance was a provocation, and so is the album that she made in response. Cowboy Carter aims to get a certain response — not just from the people who already love her but also from the Nashville institutions that haven’t wholeheartedly embraced her. If country radio doesn’t suddenly throw every track from Cowboy Carter into heavy rotation, is that racism? I feel like it’s not, but that’s not my fight to fight.

In any case, a point, even a good one, cannot sustain a whole album. You can make a statement in an Instagram post, and Beyoncé’s done that a bunch of times. You don’t need 80 minutes to make a statement. If you’re going to ask that much of people’s time, you need songs. And for the most part, Cowboy Carter has songs.

Cowboy Carter has ideas, too. Sometimes, the ideas can drown out the songs. The sheer audacity of putting a Jersey club beat on Patsy Cline’s “I Fall To Pieces” is fun to think about, and it’s also fun to hear. The way it’s set up on “Sweet Honey Buckin” — sorry, I don’t know how to type the star symbol — that shit bounces. Beyoncé’s music works best when it’s physical and instinctive. That’s why Renaissance might go down in history as her best album. The idea behind the album — the hypercharged IMAX-screen version of old-school underground house music — had a lot of fizz. But once that fizz lost its fizz, the album was still banger after banger. Cowboy Carter doesn’t live up to that impossibly high standard, but it does have bangers.

Like Renaissance before it, Cowboy Carter goes extra-hard in the back half, once the premise is firmly established. “Desert Eagle” has the nastiest bass tone I’ve heard in a minute. “II Hands To Heaven” is the kind of pillowy glide that must’ve played in the dreams of late-’90s downtempo producers, and it’s got Beyoncé giving a smooth, gospel-infused house-diva vocal that those producers would’ve killed for. “Levii’s Jeans” taps into Post Malone’s genial-dirtbag charisma more effectively than any actual Post Malone songs I can remember hearing. “Tyrant” goes straight from a ’70s-rock funeral dirge like Styx’s “Renegade” into d.a. got that dope chopping up a string-band sample in ways that must’ve had Bubba Sparxxx sitting bolt upright in the middle of the night. (Today, spare a thought for Bubba, who went for something aesthetically similar two decades ago and who did not get the hosannas that Beyoncé is already receiving.)

Some of the moments on this album have a real charge to them. As I write this, most of the Cowboy Carter credits haven’t shown up online yet, so we don’t know the army of behind-the-scenes figures who doubtless worked on the record. We do, however, know that all those people put their backs into the album. “Spaghettii” has Beyoncé spitting what sounds like the hardest verse that Jay-Z has written in years. On early listens, my favorite track is “Ya Ya,” which turns an obvious but beautifully executed Nancy Sinatra sample into a ’60s Tina Turner pastiche, throwing gasoline on the rumors that the third album in Beyoncé’s current trilogy will be a rock ‘n’ roll record. (Based on Beyoncé’s one line about protecting you in the moshpit, I hope it has Bad Brains breakdowns.)

The statement that Beyoncé makes on this record is clear enough. She’s embracing the most nakedly patriotic of the great American art forms, playing with the iconography while digging into the darkness of American history. Along the way, she’s also highlighting some voices that were previously excluded. She got mixed reactions for waving a literal flag on the album cover. Beyoncé has done the nakedly patriotic thing before; she did, after all, sing at George W. Bush’s inauguration. I get why people were suspicious. But Beyoncé has bigger subjects on her mind. The presence of occasional host Linda Martell, the 82-year-old Black country singer who released the 1970 album Color Me Country and then had to find a regular job as a public-school teacher after the industry spat her out, is especially poignant. Beyoncé is saying something. You get it.

Sometimes, Beyoncé can be a little forced or obvious with her points. A little ways into the album, Dolly Parton shows up, in full schtick mode, to tell Beyoncé that Becky With The Good Hair reminds her of an old hussy she used to know by the name of Jolene: “Just a hair of a different color, but it hurts just the same.” Beyoncé then proceeds to sing “Jolene,” the whole thing, but she flips it so that she’s warning Jolene that she’ll beat her ass. It’s a cute-enough trick, and I will skip it whenever I play the record. Because really? Covering “Jolene”? Beyoncé doesn’t usually pull moves that hacky and obvious. Everyone’s already sung that damn song. She might as well cover Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” while she’s at it.

The cover of the Beatles’ “Blackbird” hits different for me, though. That song choice is, if anything, even more obvious than “Jolene.” Paul McCartney wrote “Blackbird” as a response to the Civil Rights movement, and there’s a long tradition of Black singers doing their own versions of the song. Beyoncé’s version is by no means definitive, but I like what she does with it. She brings in a quartet of Black country singers, and they sing the kinds of intricate layered harmonies that Destiny’s Child used to bring to Christmas carols. It’s terribly pretty. I won’t be skipping that one.

Whenever Beyoncé gives away her spotlight, her collaborators shine. Willie Jones, a singer still best-known for being a contestant on The X Factor a decade ago, howls the motherfucking lights out on “Just For Fun.” Nigerian-American Virginia country-rapper Shaboozey comes off smooth in the two moments where his inclusion could’ve come off gimmicky. Miley Cyrus, a pop singer who was literally born into Nashville country, achieves surprising levels of Stevie Nicks graceful rasp on the love-song duet “II Most Wanted.” That song is pretty good, but it should be great. There’s a middlebrow sleepiness that weighs down both the song and the album.

Some of the time — not most, but some — Cowboy Carter is boring. It’s too long. There are too many ballads. There are too many sketched-out acoustic lullabies that almost function as skits. There are too many skits, too. The spoken-word cameos from stunt-casted country luminaries are fun once or twice, but they’re not really any more impactful than Morgan Freeman on Savage Mode II. (Remember that? That was hard for a day or two, and now I always skip those skits.) A poignant and careful concept album like Cowboy Carter is critic-proof in ways that I find slightly exhausting. At certain points, it feels like prestige-bait. There’s a lyric near the end about Beyoncé losing the Album Of The Year Grammy, and Cowboy Carter sometimes sounds like one final attempt to snatch a statue that doesn’t ultimately matter that much. Cowboy Carter is an important album, and that’s admirable. Sometimes, though, its importance can weigh it down.

But even when it’s boring, Cowboy Carter is nowhere near bad. The whole thing is put together so meticulously. There’s so much money in it. Every gesture, every moment has meaning. Beyoncé does things with her voice that still feel impossible, even if we’ve already heard her do them. Beyoncé is one of the biggest stars in the world, and she’s used endless resources to make something weird and pointed and personal. That really matters. We’re just lucky that a lot of it also slaps. It didn’t have to slap. That’s a bonus.

Look, did you like Dune: Part Two? I did. That movie was overlong and pretentious and sometimes confusing, too, but it’s absolutely fucking awesome spectacle, and it’s got a point of view. This big-deal auteur had access to an unbelievable budget, and the best stars and artisans lined up to be a part of what that auteur wanted to build. It swept me away, and I wound up wishing that more of the auteur’s peers had the same level of vision. I’m not trying to sit here and tell you that Dune: Part Two is a masterpiece on the level of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire or Godzilla Minus One or whatever. I am trying to sit here and tell you that I popped a gummy, sat back, and had a great time.

People will fight over the canonical status of Cowboy Carter for a long time, and I’ll probably be one of them sometimes. Come Grammy night, people will roll their eyes if Cowboy Carter loses Album Of The Year, and they might also roll their eyes if it wins. That stuff is boring. Leave that stuff for another time. It’s boring to proclaim Cowboy Carter an eternal classic upon arrival, and it’s also boring to nitpick all the album’s flaws. You certainly can do both, and plenty of people already are. For the moment, though, I’d prefer to simply appreciate the fact that this sprawling, knowing, serious, silly piece of music exists in the same world as me. Everyone can’t make music like this. Beyoncé is one of the few who can, and she’s doing it. You don’t have to genuflect at her altar to appreciate what she’s done. She could’ve gone harder, but she didn’t have to go that hard.

Cowboy Carter is out now on Parkwood/Columbia.

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