Beyonce pulls off her greatest feat yet in sprawling, surprising new album

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“This ain’t a Country album. This is a ‘Beyoncé’ album.”

So said the woman herself, in an Instagram announcement a week ago teasing some scant details about her eighth studio album Cowboy Carter, released worldwide yesterday.

And – of course – she was absolutely right.

Despite the title and the yee-haw lead single Texas Hold ‘Em, Beyonce’s new album – the second in a planned trilogy that began with 2022’s dancefloor opus Renaissance – is a sprawling, sometimes overwhelming record drawing from a vast array of influences.

Much like her Renaissance world tour, which opened with a suite of ballads before moving on to the bangers, Beyonce starts Cowboy Carter with a bit of a fakeout too: Early songs like the sweet ode to motherhood Protector, the self-mythologising single 16 Carriages, and a faithful cover of The Beatles classic Blackbird will have you thinking you know what’s in store:Ah, Beyonce does country = lovely, tasteful ballads. How nice.”

But as the album stretches on (and on – clocking in at 79 minutes, this is by far her longest offering yet), it morphs into something altogether weirder and harder to pin down.

“Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?” guest vocalist Linda Martell asks playfully at the start of Spaghetti, a hard-edged rap track that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Bey’s underrated 2018 collab album with husband Jay-Z, Everything Is Love.

A few songs later, we’ve arrived at perhaps the album’s strangest song, Riverdance: Michael Flatley is nowhere to be seen on this propulsive ode to the joys of, ahem, bouncy, hands-free sex. “Bounce on that s**t, no hands,” Beyonce instructs us, over and over again … Carrie Underwood this is not.

While the guest list was kept tightly under wraps ahead of release, it turns out Cowboy Carter is an all-star affair: Her Miley Cyrus duet II Most Wanted is an instant career high for both artists, sounding like a future classic from the opening notes, while the Post Malone duet Levii’s Jeans is one of the record’s genuinely sexy moments (“I can’t explain it but it sounds like she made post malone shower before recording,” one fan tweeted).

And country queen Dolly Parton also appears several times, although Bey’s much-talked-about Jolene cover is a rare misfire: It feels like something of a cop-out to hear her rewrite most of the song’s lyrics, eschewing the desperate pleading of the original and turning it into another ode to Beyonce’s fabulousness (a sample: “I’m begging of you, please don’t take my man / Please don’t take him just because you can” becomes “I’m warnin’ you, woman, find you your own man / I know I’m a queen, Jolene, don’t try me”).

Throughout, Beyonce also gives her flowers to Black artists already working in the country genre that many of her fans probably haven’t heard of before. You may not have heard the name Linda Martell before, but at 82, the African-American country music pioneer’s voice – and name – is now centre stage on a Beyonce album.

Younger Black country artists like Willie Jones, Shaboozey and Tanner Adell also share the mic. A few listens in, Beyonce’s measured, gospel-inflected duet with Jones, Just For Fun, reveals it to be one of the album’s best songs.

And Adell’s appearance, duetting on Blackbird, makes for one of the most satisfying moments of this Beyonce album release. Here she is on social media back in February, a little-known independent artist shooting her shot for a Beyonce country collab:

Some on social media mocked her at the time for dreaming big – now she’s had the last laugh (and hopefully some Bey fans who like Cowboy Carter will check out her excellent debut album, Buckle Bunny).

It feels a little greedy to be asking the question just a day after this album’s release, but one has to wonder: What on earth does Beyonce have in store to close out this three-album project?

There have been rumours that a rock album would see out the trilogy, but it feels like Beyonce’s already more than covered that genre here: Opener American Requiem is a psychedelic rock epic, while the wonderfully bonkers Ya Ya is Beyonce going full Tina Turner, complete with Beach Boys and Nancy Sinatra interpolations.

Listening to Renaissance and Cowboy Carter back to back, one thing is certain: Wherever Beyonce takes us next, you’d best pay attention.

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