Beyoncé: Cowboy Carter review track by track – when it breaks loose, it’s like rain after a thunderstorm

On her new album the star shows she still excels at big gestures and still brings the bounce, the groove, the everything

Act II: Cowboy Carter
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Artist: Beyoncé
Label: Parkwood/Columbia

The origin story of Beyoncé’s eighth studio album begins at the 2016 Country Music Awards in Nashville and a performance of her song Daddy Lessons. A collaboration with the singer’s fellow Texans Dixie Chicks (today just “Chicks”), the track was an immediate favourite from her Lemonade LP and a vivid expression of her love for country music, on which she had been raised in Houston.

But mainstream country has views on who is or is not allowed to call themselves a country star, and Beyoncé was deemed beyond the pale. Fans took to social media to protest her participation in the event, and the Country Music Association scrubbed all reference to the performance from its timelines. One of the world’s biggest pop stars was being erased before our eyes – a blotting-out that carried echoes of the treatment of generations of black country artists across earlier decades.

The incident complicated her feelings towards country, and she confronts it early in her sprawling, playful and, in places, almost overpoweringly cerebral new record. “They used to say I spoke too country,” she proclaims on the album’s opening track, Ameriican Requiem. “And the rejection came, said I wasn’t country ’nough.”

In 2024 Beyoncé is an artist for whom music is less a popular art form than a vehicle for expressing her feelings about herself, her family and her relationship, as a successful black woman, with the United States.


One thing she isn’t interested in is squeezing into genre pigeonholes. And so, while Act II: Cowboy Carter does not lack for country flourishes – steel pedal, cameos from Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson – rather than pay tribute to the milieu she draws it into the vast expanse of her musical landscapes. It’s a small-c country LP – but a big-B Beyoncé one and a thoughtful companion piece to her 2022 album, Renaissance, which put an equivalent twist on Studio 54-style disco. Beyoncé has said that she originally planned to release Cowboy Carter before Renaissance but the pandemic changed her plans.

With so much weight on its shoulders – so much to say, and so many people to say it to – the record could have been a bit of a chore, caught in the gravitational force field of its own self-worthiness.

There’s some of that – when Beyoncé is serious, there is no more serious artist on earth. But it’s great fun, too, and when it breaks loose it’s like rain after a thunderstorm – as we discover on the snapping country pop of Texas Hold ’Em and the electrifying Bodyguard.

The ears of Irish listeners will be drawn to Riiverdance – though it doesn’t have much to do with Michael Flatley and his magic mullet and is instead an act of release in the record’s final third, as Beyoncé declares, “Bounce on that sh*t ... dance.”

She sounds deadly serious as she delivers the line, but the groove around it is irresistible. It’s Beyoncé in miniature: an artist who excels at big gestures and sweeping statements but who, when the party begins, brings the bounce, the groove, the everything.

1: Ameriican Requiem

A state-of-the-nation address from Beyoncé and introduction to the album’s recurring theme: her complicated relationship with country music and the sting of the rejection of Daddy Lessons by the Nashville establishment. “They used to say I spoke ‘too country’,” she says against a sky-scraping choral arrangement. “And the reaction came, said I wasn’t country ’nough ... They don’t know how hard I had to fight for this/ when I sing my song.”

2: Blackbiird

Paul McCartney was in part inspired to write his classic Beatles ballad by the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. The lyrics clearly spoke to Beyoncé – though her take is perhaps too tame and reverential. It takes a lot to overawe one of her generation’s foremost voices – but here you can hear her tiptoeing around McCartney.

3: 16 Carriages

A stomping showstopper country ballad that raises the tempo from Blackbird and paints a dark picture of Beyoncé's experience as a teenager with Destiny’s Child – and of the tensions between her father (who managed the band) and her mother. Robert Randolph, who handles steel pedal on the tune, has described Beyoncé’s desire to “play with some country fire” – and that is precisely the feeling they have conjured.

4: Protector

A graceful choral piece with a spoken introduction by Beyoncé’s six-year-old daughter, Rumi, and which unfolds as a Valentine to her family: “I will lead you down that road if you lose your way/ Born to be a protector.”

5: My Rose

The first of the many interludes strewn across the album, this 53-second snippet is addressed to a significant other in her life – presumably her husband, Jay-Z. It’s just a strumming guitar and a multitracked Beyoncé singing “la-la-la ... love you ... just hope you love yourself.” A slight yet potent pick-me-up.

6: Smoke Hour Willie Nelson

Given her history with Nashville, it is no surprise that Beyoncé has gone beyond the country mainstream in her choice of collaborators. The first icon to grace the project is the outlaw crooner Willie Nelson, who serves as an ornery MC as he introduces the album (a mere six tracks in) and then tees up the first big crowd-pleasing highlight. “For this next tune I want you all to sit back, inhale and go to that good place your mind likes to wander off to.”

7: Texas Hold ’Em

One of two lead singles released in advance of the LP, this big, brassy workout lands as both a statement of intent and a subtle misdirection. It’s a knockout fusion of Beyoncé’s juggernaut pop and a twanging country beat. The tune is irresistible in isolation – yet also one of only a few moments on Cowboy Carter when she commits fully to the idea of crossing over to country.

8: Bodyguard

A poppy bopper with an irresistible keyboard refrain and a chorus that arrives from the heavens. Every Beyoncé album needs a few iridescent pop numbers. Bodyguard is a moment when this long and often serious project decides to have fun.

9: Dolly P

Goodbye, Willie. Hello, Dolly. Parton has long expressed her hope that Beyoncé would cover one of her songs – and now here she is, acting as both hype woman and fellow wronged lover. She compares the narrator of Jolene – whose man was about to be stolen away – to Beyoncé, who lamented on Lemonade about the notorious “Becky with the good hair”, with whom her husband cheated.

“You know that hussy with the good hair you sang about,” says Parton. “[She] reminded me of someone I knew back when ... except she had flaming locks of auburn hair ... Different colour, but it hurts just the same.”

10: Jolene

If Beyoncé was reverential to a fault in her negotiation of The Beatles and Blackbird, she brings the good vibes unapologetically on a rambunctious tilt at Parton’s Jolene. Driven by a muscular acoustic guitar and a crisp trap beat, it’s a playful take – respectful but sprinkled with Beyoncé sorcery.

11: Daughter

A descending swirl of guitar has an almost Philip Glass-style minimalist effect, the haunting quality accentuated by the stark lyrics, in which Beyoncé seems to fantasise about holding her no-good-husband’s head down a toilet bowl until he begins to gag. “How long can he hold his breath before he’s dead?” she sings before, in a final swerve, bursting into an opera falsetto. Cowboy Carter is full of surprises: with this track alone Beyoncé moves beyond half a dozen genres while delivering something that feels both coherent and emotionally vivid.

12: Spaghettii

“Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?” proclaims Linda Martell, the pioneering African-American country singer, at the top of a rollicking country-hip hop workout that features the Nigerian-American rapper Shaboozey but is all about Beyoncé‘s powerhouse rhyming. Arriving midway through an album that celebrates Beyoncé’s prowess as a singer, it’s a reminder that she’s also one of the most fluid and emphatic rappers around.

13: Alliigator Tears

The transitions between songs on Cowboy Carter are incredible, and Beyoncé does not miss a step as she proceeds from crunching hip hop to Creedence Clearwater Revival-style southern rock. Lyrically, she seems to have aimed her trigger finger – not for the first time – at a charming but untrustworthy man in her life. Everyone else is fooled; she sees through him, almost. “Oh dear, you and those alligator tears – wrecks me through and through.”

14: Smoke Hour II (featuring Willie Nelson)

Nelson is back for another spoken-word piece. “Sometimes you don’t know what you like until someone you trust turns you on to some real good sh*t,” he says. Nelson is Beyoncé’s voice on earth, and he conveys to us her message that, no matter the genre, we should keep the faith and believe she will make it worth our while.

15: Just for Fun (featuring Willie Jones)

“I am the man, I know it,” says Beyoncé at the start of a marrow-bare piano ballad that sounds like a cousin once removed from Wait for It, from Hamilton, and that circles back around to her personal life (“I need to get through this/ I’m just getting used to it”). The country component is low-key: just a gnarled guitar couched by lush strings. Willie Jones, an African-American country star from Louisiana, chimes in with a sincere rasp, but he feels irrelevant on a tune about Beyoncé and her inner turmoil. Will this tender weepy get lost amid the rest of the album?

16: II Most Wanted (featuring Miley Cyrus)

If Thelma & Louise were a big-hearted country ballad it might sound a lot like Beyoncé’s duet with Miley Cyrus. Their voices entwine wonderfully, and the song lands as a powerful statement of friendship and sisterhood. Musically, it’s one of the least interesting tunes here. The arrangements are simple, the vocals big and declamatory. But the chemistry is real.

17: Levii’s Jeans (featuring Post Malone)

This is an enjoyably disposable ditty constructed around a looped electric guitar, though it goes off the rails slightly when Post Malone chimes in with his hazy “just out of bed” rapping. He’s all about chilling, and his delivery does not entirely mesh with Beyoncé‘s hypersincere style.

18: Flamenco

Another left-field moment, as Beyoncé delivers a multitracked piece that sounds like Lorde meets Crosby, Stills & Nash. Arriving at the tail end of a project all about genre, it had the potential to be one of the LP’s most generic cuts – but Beyoncé sings the hell out of it.

19: The Linda Martell Show (featuring Linda Martell)

Linda Martell, the groundbreaking country singer from South Carolina, is back. At 82, she has a voice that drips with wisdom and experience as she introduces Ya Ya, saying it “stretches across a range of genres”.

20: Ya Ya

The party has officially started. Opening with a sample of Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Were Made for Walkin’ and then segueing into the Beach Boys track Good Vibrations, this shameless stomper features some of the most throwaway lyrics on the album (“You’re jerking, you’re twerking ... Let loose, do what you do, baby”). It’s a song that has started drinking slightly too early in the afternoon and is careening downhill with a big, sloppy smile. “We snappin’” observes Beyoncé. Indeed we are.

21: Oh Louisiana

Clocking in at less than a minute, the Chuck Berry cover features Auto-Tuned vocals, making Beyoncé sound like a chipmunk with a lot to get off their chest. It’s a vibe – and quite a pivot from the uproarious Ya Ya.

22: Desert Eagle

The album is rounding into the closing strait, and Beyoncé is ready to have fun. A bouncing bass line orbits her multitracked vocals, where Beyoncé observes, “Everything bigger in Texas.” It’s one of the most stereotypically Bey tunes here, rock-solid R&B that could have graced any of her previous records.

23: Riiverdance

Prepare to be devastated: Michael Flatley does not cameo in this sideways love letter to Irish music. It isn’t all that Irish, either: a mossy acoustic guitar kicks off the fun, but then Beyoncé sweeps in and commands us to “Bounce on that sh*t.” The tune is the connective tissue between Cowboy Carter and the disco-infused Renaissance – a mottled country number unspooling beneath the glitter ball.

24: II Hands II Heaven

A sample of Underworld’s Born Slippy brings dance-floor urgency to this autobiographical workout in which Beyoncé seems to be addressing Jay-Z while celebrating her love for Prince. “In that Arizona heat, summer fling saw your bad side / slip into my dreams every night, be the good guy.”

26: Tyrant

Dolly’s back! “Time to strike a match and light up this juke joint!” Parton proclaims. Then it’s into a widescreen southern rap epic built around a looped violin sample that finds Beyoncé at her most imperious. “I’m such a tyrant!” she proclaims – proudly and with passion.

26: Sweet Honey Bucklin (featuring Shaboozey)

Another wonderful country-disco mash-up: one moment Beyoncé sounds like Pasty Cline, the next she plays off the returning rapper Shaboozey. It encapsulates everything that Cowboy Carter is about – a love letter to country music that is also bigger than genre alone and that throws a withering gaze at barriers within music and the prejudices behind them.

27: Amen

The journey is complete as Beyoncé returns to the aching spiritual sweep of American Requiem, the opening track. “Have mercy on me,” she sings, her voice lifted aloft by a backing choir. “This house was built with blood and bone,” Beyoncé continues – speaking about her family, her life and her music. She carries the song as if it is a heavy weight, and when it is finished and silence sweeps in, there is a sense that, at last, her work is done.

Ed Power

Ed Power

Ed Power, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about television and other cultural topics