Beyonce Ya Ya with Hat

Beyoncé in terms of her musical expression? This question remained unanswered until this week. While we’ve gained insight into the cultural significance of country music to her through her few public remarks leading up to “Act II: Cowboy Carter,” the true essence of her musical exploration awaited us. Amidst the myriad think pieces flooding the discourse over the past two months, sparking crucial discussions about Black representation and reclamation within this quintessential American art form, “Cowboy Carter” emerges as more than just a topic of conversation. It stands before us as a tangible musical creation. So, what does this potentially groundbreaking album of the 21st century actually sound like?

“Cowboy Carter” sounds kinda country, and kinda not — in a way that feels wholly country. Because what is modern country music if not a cornucopia that’s a long way past being defined by a single sound? “Act II” feels a lot like a 27-course meal, difficult to describe in whole, but endlessly easy to digest, serving by serving. There are moments throughout where she’s embracing the tropes and traditions of country as we’ve known it, and just as many where you’re thinking she decided to abandon the concept, until suddenly Willie Nelson or Dolly Parton pop up for one of their intermittent spoken cameos, or there’s a fleeting Patsy Cline interpolation, and suddenly she’s veered back into C&W mode again. No one will mistake this sprawling set for ever following a straight path, or having a remotely dull moment.

It’s as if Beyoncé observed the recent transformations and challenges within the realm of country music, as it continuously pushes its boundaries — as it has always done — and confidently proclaimed, “Watch me shine.” Yet, it’s not merely about Beyoncé’s impact on country music; it’s about how her interpretation of the genre can elevate her own musical domain and further enrich her already refined identity. It’s a monumental undertaking.

While “Cowboy Carter” explores various musical avenues, it remains anchored by a common element across the majority of its tracks: acoustic instrumentation. (If you had “Beyoncé Semi-Unplugged” on your prediction list, 2024 might just be your year.) However, Beyoncé predominantly draws support from her pop, R&B, and hip-hop roots, so the album may not align precisely with the Americana genre, but it certainly comes close in certain aspects. This departure offers a unique advantage beyond the typical acoustic guitar allure — by decluttering tracks that might have been dominated by beats, Beyoncé fills the void with something equally captivating: intricate layers of vocal harmonies.

In its entirety, “Cowboy Carter” stands out as a remarkable feat of intricate vocal arrangements, set against predominantly minimalistic band tracks. Beyoncé has always excelled at this technique, even in albums like “Renaissance” that lean towards dance-centric sounds. However, in “Cowboy Carter,” her exceptional talent for layering self-harmonies takes center stage, reminiscent of the enchanting holiday tunes from Destiny’s Child’s rendition of “Carol of the Bells.” It’s sheer bliss.

Despite these shared elements, each track on the album embodies its own distinct identity. Who could have anticipated that Beyoncé’s exploration of Black Country would evoke shades of the iconic White Album? Or that it would resemble a country-infused rendition of Side 2 of “Abbey Road,” especially as the latter half of the album transitions into a series of brief, sometimes unconventional songs that find greater resonance within a captivating medley than as standalone Spotify singles. In its own unique way, “Cowboy Carter” demonstrates the same level of brilliance in sequencing as “Renaissance,” despite the latter feeling more like a DJ club set, while the former delves deeper into eclectic songcraft.

By Jammy

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