beyonce cowboy carter

It’s An Honour To Be Alive In The Time Of Beyoncé

Junkee writer Ky Stewart examines how, with the release of 'Cowboy Carter', Beyoncé has further proven that she's the greatest living performer. Words by Ky Stewart

By Ky Stewart, 4/4/2024

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There is no one alive who can do what Beyoncé does. There might not be anyone in the future who can either. 

For almost a week, I haven’t been able to focus on anything else besides Cowboy Carter. I’ve had different melodies, lyrics, and hooks stuck on a loop in my mind since the album came out on Friday morning. It’s actually difficult to speak to anyone without bringing up either Beyoncé or Cowboy Carter. I haven’t been this enthralled by an album since Renaissance or Norman Fucking Rockwell! That’s the power of a Beyoncé album. 

Beyoncé albums have almost always been cultural phenomena. From Lemonade to Renaissance, Beyoncé shifts public consciousness with every piece of work she produces. She creates a conversation. True to form, there is a lot of conversation around Cowboy Carter, but it feels more like a reckoning of not only country music, but the industry as a whole. It’s already one of the biggest albums of the year, perhaps the decade. 

What Cowboy Carter proves is that the impact of Beyoncé’s art hasn’t dwindled in her 27-year career (hence, the 27 songs on the album). It’s an expansive melting pot of Black history, references, vocal stylings, and a showcase of Beyoncé talent. It’s by far Beyoncé’s biggest album and yet another example of how much she understands music. 

Beyoncé Is A Music Historian 

When an artist deeply appreciates the craft of making music, and those who came before them, it adds rich layers to both the album and our understanding of it. Cowboy Carter opens the floodgates into a world of history that has been buried under sand. A history Beyoncé pours respect into. This is not a coincidence. It’s the culmination of her research into the vast — and often hidden — history of country music. 

For example, Linda Martell, who is featured on two songs on the album, was the first female Black artist to be in the Top 25 on the Billboard country music charts in 1969. She was the highest charting Black woman for over 25 years until ‘Texas Hold ‘Em’ reached number one and the first Black woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. Linda said she was blackballed in the music industry by the owner of Plantation Records, which she left because of the name. Her career never recovered.

During Willie Nelson’s interlude, ‘SMOKE HOUR WILLIE NELSON’, someone is flipping through radio stations (all the interludes imitate a radio broadcast) as snippets of ‘Don’t You Mind People Grinnin’ In Your Face’ by Son House, ‘Down by the River Side’ by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, ‘Maybellene’ by Chuck Berry, and ‘Don’t Let Go’ by Roy Hamilton plays. These Black artists were pioneers in their respective genres but their place in history had been whitewashed.

Although Dolly Parton is arguably one of the biggest country music singers in the world, her impact on Cowboy Carter might not be what people expect. Sure, she has an iconic interlude and Beyoncé gives us her rendition of ‘Jolene’ but ‘RIIVERDANCE’ is where her impact is most felt. It’s been confirmed that the percussion on the song is actually Beyoncé’s nails — an homage to Dolly’s iconic interview with Patti LaBelle where they use their acrylic nails as an instrument.  

‘AMERIICAN REQUIEM’ is the most powerful song on Cowboy Carter and one of the best album openers I’ve ever heard. It’s filled to the brim with historical music references, featuring nods to Bob Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, Prince, and Marvin Gaye. The song is a masterclass in music appreciation. There’s a great TikTok explainer by Gen X Reference Desk that breaks down all the details: 

Beyoncé Is Already Redefining A Genre 

Genres are a funny little concept aren’t they?” Linda Martell says at the beginning of ‘SPAGHETTII’. “In theory they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand. But in practice, well, some may feel confined.” That question is the main driver for the entire album. Beyoncé uses hip-hop to question the racism entrenched in the US through the vehicle of country music, the most ‘American’ genre there is. 

We already know that Cowboy Carter represented a mission to reclaim the stolen Black origins of country music. The same music that Black artists were then denied access to. Beyoncé’s motive to make the album was born from a time when she didn’t feel welcome in country music. “Used to say I spoke too country/Then the rejection came/Said I wasn’t country enough … If that ain’t country tell me what is,” Beyoncé says on ‘AMERIICAN REQUIEM’. 

But instead of trying to fit into what they wanted her to be (which was impossible) or cut her losses and move on, Beyoncé sought to change the very foundation of country music. She wanted to burn down the fence that kept Black artists out. One album, full of these rich and profound references, has done just that. 

And it’s not just country music Beyoncé wants to change. It’s country culture. She’s even sought to redefine the term ‘cowboy’, freeing it from its previously derogatory usage. “[Cowboy was a] way to describe former slaves as ‘boys’, who were the most skilled and had the hardest jobs of handling horses and cattle,” Beyoncé said in a press release. In using cowboy in her album title, she’s reclaiming “the strength and resiliency of these men who were the true definition of Western fortitude”. 

Cowboy Carter takes you on a journey through the variations of country music. Each song transports you to a different time and place. ‘YA YA’ is the perfect example of this. Within the one song, Beyoncé samples Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ and interpolates The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ and Mickey & Sylvia’s ‘Love Is Strange’. Beyoncé pulls it all together in a soul-rock banger that feels very Tina Turner-inspired. 

It would be remiss of me to not briefly discuss the song that has made me cry several times. I’m of course talking about ‘DAUGHTER’. The one where Beyoncé decides to slip into a haunting cover of ‘Caro Mio Ben’. I truly think Beyoncé sang opera simply to show off her vocal capabilities and to prove that other artists can’t come close to such effortless singing. 

Beyoncé Wanted To Uplift Black Country Musicians And She’s Done Just That 

If the goal of Cowboy Carter is to ultimately reclaim the history of Black country music, then a part of that would be to uplift the Black artists currently working in the genre. Since Cowboy Carter was released, all of the Black country singers featured on the album have charted. In fact, it’s the first time six Black country acts have appeared on Spotify’s US Daily Top artists chart. 

Not only are these artists charting, they have more than doubled their streaming audience. Beyoncé has invited us to educate ourselves not only about the history of Black country music, but also its future. It’s a really cool way to recognise those who paved the way for her and to do the same for others. 

‘Cowboy Carter’ Is Already Breaking Streaming Records 

To pour so much history into an album is one thing, but to have it break streaming records is another feat entirely. Cowboy Carter became Spotify’s “most-streamed album in a single day in 2024 so far”. It’s the first country album to hold that title. Speaking of Spotify, for the first time in her career, Beyoncé was the most streamed artist on Global Spotify on the album’s release day. Cowboy Carter also earned the biggest first day streams for an album by a Black female artist in Spotify history.  

Cowboy Carter is also Beyoncé’s biggest album debut on Amazon Music with “the most first-day streams for a country album by a female artist”. And it’s broken the record for the most simultaneous top 100 of US Apple Music charts among women. All 27 songs charted. 27

Although scores and reviews don’t determine whether an album is actually good or not, Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé’s most critically acclaimed studio album on Metacritic, which gave it a score of 93

There Is No Culture Without Beyoncé 

A Beyoncé album is a culturally defining movement. 

Beyoncé (commonly called Self-Titled) changed the way artists release music. Dropping on a random Friday in December 2013 without any promotion, any leak, or any lead singles, the album caused mayhem. It became the fastest selling album ever on iTunes and went Number 1 almost immediately in 100 countries. She literally changed the day that music releases from Tuesdays to Fridays. 

Yet another surprise album followed by its visual album, Lemonade was the biggest pop-culture moment of 2016. The album and visual album dominated public conversation, the charts, and YouTube. It inspired a fiery discourse around Jay-Z’s alleged infidelity, trying to decipher the messages behind the music (including who “Becky with the good hair” was), all while empowering African-American women and celebrating Black culture. In many ways, Lemonade was the album of the year, even if the Grammys (wrongly) disagreed. 

Renaissance had a profound impact on the queer community, especially those from the Ballroom and POC communities. It was an album dedicated to the love, light, and resilience of queer people. It allowed us to feel like we could dance through uncertain times and embrace the breadth of our sexuality. While there had been other forays into queer dance music, like Lady Gaga’s Chromatica, Renaissance was a historical love letter to queer people around the world. It was an especially powerful reminder that many Black trans people were at the forefront of dance music in the 80s. 

Cowboy Carter is, once again, a Beyoncé album bubbling over with cultural impact. It hasn’t even been out for a full week and it’s already breaking barriers. Even before she released the album it sparked fierce public discussions about country music. Now that we have it, we can appreciate the full extent of its place in Black history. It kicks down the door for Black artists to make whatever music they want to, just as white artists have been doing for years. It’s already become deeply meaningful to those within the country music industry. Even to those from Texas

The Greatest Living Performer 

Considering it as part of her wider discography, it’s hard not to listen to Cowboy Carter and see Beyoncé as anything less than the greatest living performer.

My use of “performer” here encapsulates songwriting, powerhouse vocal capability, dancing, showmanship — recorded or live. To me, there is no one better at all of this than Beyoncé. Rolling Stone has repeatedly named Beyoncé as the world’s greatest living entertainer. She’s dominated the music industry for over 20 years. She operates in a league of her own design.

She’s also considered one of the best singers of all time, and her live performances have been nothing short of iconic. Remember Beychella? The XLVIII Super Bowl Halftime performance? When she belted out ‘Love on Top’ as she was pregnant? When she delivered an unbelievable rendition of ‘I Will Always Love You’ and ‘Halo’ — after recovering from tonsillitis? Or when she performed with the late great Tina Turner? Yes, they’ve shared the stage, but isn’t it time we also put Beyoncé on the pedestal we reserve for Tina? For Whitney? For Aretha? 

People have been quick to judge Beyoncé for having many songwriters on her albums, especially Renaissance and Cowboy Carter. But as TIME pointed out, those accusations are an attempt to diminish her creativity. These collaborations have more to do with intellectual property law and songwriting credits as she samples and interpolates several songs. On Cowboy Carter, you’ll find that many of the listed songwriters are people like Dolly Parton, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Lee Hazlewood (who wrote ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’’), and Brian Wilson and Lee Hazlewood (who wrote ‘Good Vibrations’) because she used their songs. 

It’s always been said that greatness recognises greatness and it should come as no surprise that Beyoncé is revered amongst those whose footsteps she followed in. When Stevie Wonder (who played harmonica on Beyoncé’s ‘JOLENE’) presented her with the iHeartRadio Music Innovator Award, he said that Cowboy Carter may end up being the “most talked about album in this century”. Just imagine Stevie Wonder talking about you like this:

Nancy Sinatra, a 60s legend, said it was “very meaningful” to have “a little piece of one of my records” in a Beyoncé song. I don’t think Nancy Sinatra would say that just anyone “represents what is great about today’s music”. It’s this mutual respect that’s allowed Beyoncé to perform and collaborate with so many “greats” in the industry throughout her career.

Beyoncé has flawlessly woven herself into different genres with such ease that it’s almost frightening. Each album feels so different from the rest that it’s hard to comprehend what direction she’ll go in next. That anticipation is part of her starpower.

Not many people can say they’ve sustained a music career for 27 years. Even fewer can claim to have hit so many new heights so late in that career. Beyoncé started releasing music in the 90s with Destiny’s Child on cassette tapes. Now she’s dominating the streaming era. When so many of her peers have struggled to adapt to the changing landscape of music, Beyoncé’s star has only grown brighter. That, to me, is the definition of a living legend. 

Ky is a proud Kamilaroi and Dharug person and writer at Junkee. Follow them on Instagram or on X.

Image: Getty / Beyoncé

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