7 Takeaways From Beyoncé’s New Album Cowboy Carter

Image by Chris Panicker. Photo by Blair Caldwell.

When Beyoncé released her seventh album, Renaissance, in 2022, it was billed as Act I of a three-part project. After a few listens to the opulent, star-studded dance-pop epic, conversation naturally shifted toward one question: What would Act II and Act III sound like? Anyone who bet on a country record would likely have felt satisfied when, during the Super Bowl in February, Beyoncé dropped “Texas Hold ’Em” and “16 Carriages,” two songs that transported her straight from Studio 54 to the Bluebird Cafe. Now, Beyoncé has released Cowboy Carter, a record that uses country as a jumping-off point to explore vintage Nashville sounds, classic rock, contemporary rap, and R&B, all while interrogating cultural ideas of “Americanness.” It’s not a move without precedent: The centerpiece of 2016’s Lemonade was the haunted bluegrass jam “Daddy Lessons,” and, years before that, she had a hit with the timeless country-R&B crossover “Irreplaceable.”

Cowboy Carter is a sprawling, 80-minute odyssey that uses the conceit of a fictional country radio station called KNTRY to dip into a handful of different styles and collaborate with notable figures like Willie Nelson, who hosts a show called Smoke Hour, and the Black country icon Linda Martell. It’s a lot to take in, and it’s frequently a blast. Here are seven things that stand out on first listen.

The pop star goes pop-country on the lead single from her forthcoming sequel to *Renaissance* titled *Act II*.

Shining a Light on Black Country

Beyoncé has said that the creation of Cowboy Carter was inspired by “an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcome,” with most people assuming she was referring to her 2016 CMAs performance of “Daddy Lessons” with the Chicks. The Nashville firmament has long been hostile to outsiders and Black country stars, despite the long, rich history of Black country music. On Cowboy Carter, Beyoncé attempts to trace the Black country lineage from legends like Linda Martell—the first Black woman to play the Grand Ole Opry, who appears on “Spaghettii” and “The Linda Martell Show”—through to young Black country artists like Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Reyna Roberts, and Tiera Kennedy, who appear on a cover of the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” and Virginia country-rap artist Shaboozey, who appears on “Spaghettii” and “Sweet ★ Honey ★ Buckiin’.”

Beyoncéfying the Classics

The immediate head-turners on Cowboy Carter are the reinterpretations of two of pop’s most enduring classics: the Beatles’ “Blackbird” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” The former, a straight-ahead cover, is an opportunity to showcase the divine voices of Adell, Spencer, Roberts, and Kennedy. The latter is a little more distinctive: Beyoncé adds new lyrics to the original, transforming it into the kind of fiery rebuke that would fit right in on Lemonade. As if to ward off skepticism from country purists, Beyoncé’s “Jolene” is introduced by Parton herself, who nods to “Sorry” in a spoken word interlude: “You know that hussy with the good hair you sang about? Reminded me of someone I knew back when, except she has flamin’ locks of auburn hair, bless her heart. It’s just hair of a different color, but it hurts just the same.”

Elsewhere, on the rowdy “Ya Ya,” Beyoncé samples Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walkin” and interpolates the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”

Big-Tent Country

Cowboy Carter casts a wider net, genre-wise, than lead singles “Texas Hold ’Em” and “16 Carriages” would have you believe. (“Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?” muses Martell slyly on “Spaghettii.”) Plush highlight “Bodyguard” is a slinking yacht-rock groove that feels of a piece with “Blow” and “Virgo’s Groove,” two superlative Beyoncé sex jams; and “Spaghettii” offers snarling outlaw drill, while “Sweet ★ Honey ★ Buckiin’” bridges the gap between the clubs in Nashville and New Jersey for a sound that can only really be described as Jersey honky-tonk. Other songs, like “Levii’s Jeans” and “II Hands II Heaven,” find common ground between smooth R&B and country balladry. Ahead of the release, Beyoncé did clarify that Cowboy Carter “ain’t a country album, it’s a Beyoncé album”—and that’s exactly what she delivered.

Darkness on the Edge of Town

Renaissance was a full-on dance-pop odyssey, so the mood was celebratory. Cowboy Carter allows for more darkness and introspection, most notably on “Daughter,” an abstracted quasi-murder-ballad that features references to death and violence. A spiritual sequel to “Daddy Lessons,” “Daughter” finds Beyoncé issuing a steely threat: “If you cross me, I’m just like my father/I am colder than Titanic water.” As if that wasn’t creepy enough, she also throws in a haunting rendition of “Caro Mio Ben,” an aria about the heart withering without love, adding to Cowboy Carter’s dense historical pastiche.

It’s a Real Life Hoedown (Throwdown)

Cowboy Carter features A-list guests from the world of country and beyond—Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and Post Malone—but the most surprising collaboration on the album is “II Most Wanted,” featuring occasional cowgirl Miley Cyrus. What makes “II Most Wanted,” produced by indie stalwart Shawn Everett, fascinating is that it’s a pure, old-fashioned duet, which is something of a rarity for Beyoncé: When she has collaborated with other vocalists over the past few years, she’s tended to draft them in for a verse or some ad-libs and little more. In the style of a classic country duet, Cyrus trades verses with Beyoncé before harmonizing with her on the chorus. As two of contemporary pop’s most powerful voices, they could have easily tried to out-diva each other—but the resulting track is tastefully restrained.

Post Malone: Back From the Brink?

For the past seven or so years, Post Malone has been among pop’s most reliable hitmakers. And, while he’s hovered near the top of the charts, he hasn’t had a real smash since 2019’s chart-topping “Circles.” He gets a big co-sign on “Levii’s Jeans,” where he gets to croon uninterrupted—his voice approaching Michael Bublé levels of smooth, at least by raspy Malone standards—for a couple of verses, and he is set to appear on Taylor Swift’s new album, The Tortured Poets Department. Things are looking up for pop’s favorite sad sack dirtbag!

That Beyoncé virgo shit

  • “I’m ’bout to lose it, turn around and John Wayne that ass” (“Bodyguard”)

  • “Jolene, I’m warnin’ you, woman, find you your own man/Jolene, I know I’m a queen, Jolene, I’m still a Creole banjee bitch from Louisian’” (“Jolene”)

  • “Say the things that I know will offend/Wear that shit that I know start the trend” (“Sweet ★ Honey ★ Buckiin’”)

  • “Whole lotta red in that white and blue/History can’t be erased” (“Ya Ya”)

  • “Come be my Nick at Nite/So we can run it back/It’ll be nostalgia-like” (“Levii’s Jeans”)

Beyoncé: Cowboy Carter

$34.00, Rough Trade

Originally Appeared on Pitchfork