COWBOY CARTER: ROUNDING UP THE SONGS

In addition to being a deep dive into musical territory she’s only touched on before, Beyoncé’s COWBOY CARTER (Parkwood/Columbia) is a dense tapestry of thematic threads, cultural conundrums and harmonic history. Miles Marshall Lewis boots up for a track-by-track exploration.

“AMERIICAN REQUIEM”

Musical bookends with COWBOY CARTER’s closing reprise “Amen,” this slow-burning hymn gradually rises to a crescendo with messaging appropriate for an election year: “Can we stand for something?/ Now is the time to face the wind.” She asserts her Southern bona fides straightaway, claiming her familial roots in Alabama, Louisiana and Texas, identifying herself as the “grandbaby of a moonshine man,” and questioning, “If that ain’t country, tell me what is?”

“BLACKBIIRD”

African American country songbirds Brittney Spencer, Tanner Adell, Tiera Kennedy and Reyna Roberts assist Queen Bey on this faithful cover (complete with squeaky acoustic guitar) of the famous Beatles ballad, written by Paul McCartney with direct inspiration from the civil rights movement. Beyoncé marks this version as her very own with some immaculate gospel harmonizing.

“16 CARRIAGES”

Continuing the slow build of Cowboy Carter, the steel pulse of this classic country ballad (partially co-written and co-produced by Raphael Saadiq) undergirds a song about a loss of innocence connected to leaving home at an early age.

“PROTECTOR”

Starting off with her seven-year-old daughter Rumi’s request for a lullaby, poetic lines about marigolds, flowing garden rivers and summertime sunlight float over another plaintively plucked guitar. Lyrically, Beyoncé promises her kids to be their protector and projector, “even though I know someday you’re gonna shine on your own.”

“MY ROSE”

Less than a minute long, Beyoncé sings beautifully of self-love and self-acceptance with some jangly guitar accompaniment and a healthy amount of la-la-la-la-las.

“SMOKE HOUR”

A radio dial scans different stations’ songs (Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” Son House’s “Don’t You Mind People Grinnin’ in Your Face,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Down by the River Side” and “Don’t Let Go” by Roy Hamilton) before resting on the fictional KNTRY Radio Texas, where country legend Willie Nelson (as DJ) flicks his Bic and welcomes listeners to The Smoke Hour Show.

“TEXAS HOLD ’EM”

Amidst handclaps, foot stomps and some whistling, Beyoncé references whiskey (the first of a few times on COWBOY CARTER), card games, hoedowns, dive bars and, of course, Texas on this rootsy, up-tempo single, which features genre-jumping multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens on banjo and viola.

“BODYGUARD”

Naked acoustic guitar kicks off a song that—like Prince and the Revolution’s “Raspberry Beret” or “Purple Rain”—might sound like pure pop or country, depending on who’s listening. “I could be your bodyguard” she offers a lover, alternately threatening someone else to “John Wayne that ass” over a groove recalling ’90s-era Sheryl Crow.

“DOLLY P”

On this interlude, Dolly Parton appears via voicemail, mentioning “that hussy with the good hair” (from Lemonade’s “Sorry”) and comparing Beyoncé’s Becky to the infamous Jolene, the flirt from Parton’s 1973 hit of the same name.

“JOLENE”

Beyoncé updates the lyrics of this Dolly Parton classic (“you don’t want no heat with me, Jolene,” “I’m still a Creole banjee bitch from Louisianne, don’t try me,” “You a bird,” etc.), flipping it into modern-day country soul and making clear that no femme could possibly be more fatale than Queen Bey.

“DAUGHTER”

This foray into revenge fantasy (“I ripped your dress and you’re all black and blue,” “If you cross me, I’m just like my father”) is accompanied by a simple guitar line and keyboard melody—with an Italian bridge from the aria “Caro Mio Ben” presaging the reference to spaghetti westerns in the next song.

“SPAGHETTII”

Pioneering Black female country singer Linda Martell introduces this country-rap hybrid by criticizing the usefulness of music genres before Beyoncé drops bars with Shaboozey, an artist who knows all about bridging hip-hop and country.

“ALLIIGATOR TEARS”

COWBOY CARTER’s catchiest highlight since “Bodyguard,” this midtempo track features a strong country guitar riff running through Bey’s meditation on being susceptible to a lover’s fake waterworks. The outro’s romantic mantra? Beyoncé’s repetition of “I adore you.”

“SMOKE HOUR II”

Willie Nelson introduces “Just for Fun” on this interlude, with a thinly veiled message for country fans who side-eyed Beyoncé at the 2016 Country Music Awards: “Sometimes you don’t know what you like until someone you trust turns you on to some real good shit. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m here.”

“JUST FOR FUN”

This duet with 26-year-old Black country singer Willie Jones is the centerpiece of the most country section of COWBOY CARTER—a slow, guitar-strumming lament about prayer, perseverance and time healing all wounds.

“II MOST WANTED”

Beyoncé and guest-star Miley Cyrus promise “I’ll be your shotgun rider” on the album’s second consecutive duet, a slow-simmering, country-pop update to “’03 Bonnie & Clyde.” Once again, it’s two lovers against the world.

“LEVII’S JEANS”

Both Miley Cyrus and Post Malone have taken heat for appropriating Black culture at different points, yet Cowboy Carter slyly sequences their duets back-to-back, as Bey uses them for her own ends. The chorus to this slinky pop ode to sexy backsides in blue jeans should prompt plenty of karaoke and cover versions.

“FLAMENCO”

Clocking in at just under two minutes, this brief ditty about the temperamental nature of love and appreciating it before it’s gone is framed by a jangly flamenco guitar pattern.

“THE LINDA MARTELL SHOW”

Another brief 30-second interlude, this intro once again stars the legendary Linda Martell preparing us that the next song “stretches across a range of genres, and that’s what makes it a unique listening experience.”

“YA YA”

This rave-up (in the style of Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope”) features great lines like “Keep my Bible on the dash / His pistol in my seat just in case I gotta blast/ I just wanna shake my ass,” all of which sums up life in America as well as anything else she’s ever written. The refrain here also borrows lines from the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”

“OH LOUISIANA”

A 52-second snatch of Chuck Berry’s 1971 blues tune “Oh Louisiana”—vocals sped up chipmunk style, à la early Kanye West—marks his second appearance on COWBOY CARTER (after “Maybellene” on “Smoke Hour”). The father of rock & roll’s presence is once again welcome.

“DESERT EAGLE”

Transitioning out of country into more of a Renaissance vibe towards the album’s end, for less than two minutes Beyoncé vamps over a funk bass line about “soft kisses on some fat lips” and a “desert eagle in the backseat” (which certainly refers to the legs akimbo sex position, not the pistol).

“RIIVERDANCE”

Beyoncé initially intended COWBOY CARTER to precede the release of RENAISSANCE; the end of this record sounds transitional to the latter’s disco flavor. “Riiverdance” exhorts listeners to dance and bounce over a track full of keyboard chords and a four-on-the-floor beat that leaves square dancing behind for Saturday night fever at Studio 54.

“II HANDS II HEAVEN”

The whiskey is back (“Bottle in my hand, the whiskey up high” starts the chorus) and, lyrically, so are wild horses, rhinestones, wolves and coyotes. But the rhythm of this love song returns to the territory of 2013’s eponymously titled Beyoncé, complete with a beat change halfway through.

“TYRANT”

Introduced by Dolly Parton, the sexy come-on “Tyrant” mixes R&B production from D.A. Got That Dope with references to cowboys, saddles, juke joints and an occasional “giddy up.” A “Tyrant” video starring Beyoncé suggestively riding a mechanical bull is all but guaranteed.

“SWEET HONEY BUCKIIN’”

Bey begins this Pharrell-produced dance track quoting Patsy Cline’s immortal 1961 ballad “I Fall to Pieces” and makes room for opening rhymes by Shaboozey before wrapping up the song’s first part with thematically conclusive verses: “We’ve come a long way from the rough ride / From the railroads to the rodeos, sweet country home.” Part two is a smooth extended bridge before a segue back to RENAISSANCE territory on the song’s horny part three, which celebrates “au naturel buckin’.”

“AMEN”

Of a piece with the opening “AMERIICAN REQUIEM,” this prayer of a song asks for mercy, alluding to America as a “house…built with blood and bone,” (possibly Confederate) monuments that “were lies of stone” and a promise that “we’ll be the ones to purify our fathers’ sins.”

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