“Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?” Linda Martell cackles at the beginning of “SPAGHETTII.” Perhaps the name Linda Martell isn’t a household one, which only proves her point. She was the first Black woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, but her attempt to move from soul and R&B into the realm of country in the 1960s was met with racist resistance—everything from heckling to outright blackballing. Beyoncé knows the feeling, as she explained in an uncharacteristically vulnerable Instagram post revealing that her eighth studio album was inspired by a deep dive into the history of Black country music following an experience where she felt similarly unwelcome. COWBOY CARTER is a sprawling 80-minute tribute not only to those pioneering artists and their outlaw spirit, but to the very futility of reducing music to a single identifying word. Another key quote from that post: “This ain’t a country album. This is a Beyoncé album.” It’s more than a catchy slogan; anyone looking for mere honky-tonk cosplay is missing a much richer and more complex point. Listening in full to Act II of the presumed trilogy Bey began with 2022’s RENAISSANCE, it’s clear that the perennial overachiever hasn’t merely “gone country,” she’s interrogating what the word even means—and who merits the designation. On “AMERIICAN REQUIEM,” in a voice deep and earthy as Texas red dirt, the Houston native sings, “Used to say I spoke too country/And then the rejection came, said I wasn’t country enough.” She nods again, as she’s done before on songs like “Formation,” to her family ties to Alabama moonshiners and Louisiana Creoles. “If that ain’t country,” she wonders, “tell me what is.” With subtlety and swagger, she contextualizes country as an offshoot of the Black American musical canon, a storytelling mode springing from and evolving alongside gospel and blues. Over the wistful pedal steel and gospel organ of “16 CARRIAGES,” she tells you what it’s like to be a teenage workhorse who grows into an adult perfectionist obsessed with ideas of legacy, with a bit of family trauma buried among the riffs. On “YA YA,” Beyoncé expands the scope to rock ’n’ roll at its most red-blooded and fundamental, playing the parts of both Ike and Tina as she interpolates The Beach Boys and slips in a slick Playboi Carti reference, yowling: “My family lived and died in America/Good ol’ USA/Whole lotta red in that white and blue/History can’t be erased.” A Patsy Cline standard goes Jersey club mode on “SWEET ★ HONEY ★ BUCKIIN’,” with a verse from the similarly genre-flouting Shaboozey and a quick note regarding RENAISSANCE‘s Grammy fortunes: “AOTY I ain’t win/I ain’t stuntin’ ’bout them/Take that shit on the chin/Come back and fuck up the pen.” Who but Beyoncé could make a crash course in American music history feel like the party of the year? There’s the one-two punch of sorely needed summer slow-dance numbers: the Miley Cyrus duet “II MOST WANTED,” with its whispers of Fleetwood Mac, followed by “LEVII’S JEANS” with Post Malone, the “in those jeans” anthem filling the radio’s Ginuwine-shaped hole. RENAISSANCE’s euphorically nasty house bounce returns, albeit with more banjo, on “RIIVERDANCE,” where “II HANDS II HEAVEN” floats on clouds of ’90s electronica for an ode to alternately riding wild horses and 24-inch spinners on candy paint. (Houston, Texas, baby!) There are do-si-do ditties, murder ballads, daddy issues, whiskey kisses, hungover happy hours, cornbread and grits, Beatles covers, smoke breaks, and, on “DAUGHTER,” what may or may not be a wink in the direction of the artist who won AOTY instead. There’s also a Dolly-approved Beyoncification of “Jolene,” to whom the protagonist is neither saying please nor begging on the matter of taking her man. (“Your peace depends on how you move, Jolene,” Bey purrs, ice in her veins.) Is this a genre-bucking hoedown? A chess move? A reckoning? A requiem? If anyone can pull it off, it’s COWBOY CARTER, as country as it gets.

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