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The Daily Tar Heel

“Cowboy Carter” is a masterclass in the art of homage.

Beyoncé's eighth studio album has been billed as the superstar's first country record. But with references to American classics and musical history across multiple genres, Queen Bey proves that she is anything but a purist.

Released on March 29 as the second installment in a trilogy spearheaded by “Renaissance” (2022), "Cowboy Carter"'s thesis is perhaps best articulated at the album’s halfway point by Linda Martell, the first Black female artist to perform at the Grand Ole Opry

“Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?” Martell muses over a blazing Southern hip-hop banger, “SPAGHETTII.”

Indeed, “Cowboy Carter”’s 27 tracks incorporate and interpolate Jersey club beats, Paul McCartney folk tunes and gospel harmonies, running the gamut from bass-thumping house music to haunting balladry.

At 1 hour and 18 minutes, the album's genre-bending acrobatics, thematic sumptuousness and symphonic production of a Western-fusion epic is more than a match for online concerns about short attention spans in the age of streaming. 

Following a tease in a Verizon Superbowl commercial, Queen Bey surprise released the first two singles off the album “16 CARRIAGES'' and “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM,” on Feb. 11.

The songs contrast two acutely different tones though. 

“16 CARRIAGES" weaves a tale of Beyoncé's trials and tribulations en route to stardom, revealing her vulnerabilities in a tender ballad. "TEXAS HOLD ‘EM," however, swings with a spirited blend of country and R&B, as Beyoncé embraces her roots through the lively backdrop of a poker game.

As an introduction to the album, both songs encapsulate two distinct tones embodied throughout the supplementary tracks of “Cowboy Carter.”

First-half standouts include album opener “AMERIICAN REQUIEM,” in which Bey floats over a reverberating guitar, bidding adieu to the old guard of country music, which scorned Beyoncé after conservative commentators lambasted her performance of “Daddy Lessons” at the Country Music Awards in 2016.

“For things to stay the same, they have to change again,” Beyoncé croons, in a reference to how American racism has mutated over time, from its origins in the Transatlantic slave trade to its current, deeply entrenched iteration, which has ensured that even a chart-chopping billionaire’s artistry is not taken as seriously as her white peers.

The album’s engagement with the past also extends to its more intimate interludes and personal musings on family and fidelity. The cover “JOLENE” adds a contemporary twist to the eponymous classic by Dolly Parton.

Similarly, Beyonce’s rendition of an original Beatles hit invites listeners to discern a stratified and deeper meaning. “BLACKBIIRD,”  featuring a quartet of four Black country music artists — Tanner Adell, Tiera Kennedy, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts —emulates the story of Black women, specifically.

The Beatles found inspiration for the song in the American Civil Rights movement, and McCartney has said that the term "Blackbird" can be interpreted as Black girl. Beyoncé empowers the narrative in a present setting, inviting Black women to “take these broken wings and learn to fly.”

Yet amidst these weightier subjects, tracks like “YA YA” provide contrast. The soulful country tune not only kicks off the energy, but also serves as Beyoncé's rallying cry for her listeners to “keep the faith.” With its fast-paced, hypnotic beat, the song embodies a sense of empowerment in motion.

This album also has no shortcomings in terms of talent. Beyonce’s choices in featured artists range from long-time country icons like Martell and Willie Nelson, to current day hit-makers like Miley Cyrus and Post Malone — both of which blend pop and country.

A true standout on the album is ”II MOST WANTED” featuring Cyrus. The duet tells the story of a deep companionship — “I’ll be your shotgun rider 'till the day I die,” Cyrus and Bey sing in layered and powerful harmony.

“Cowboy Carter"'s ambitious mix of passionate ballads and riveting dance music is nothing short of revolutionary. Beyoncé masterfully braids together lesser-known narratives and history while infusing them with her own unquestionable singularity.

It's an inclusive vision of what country music — and music in general — can be.

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com

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