Beyoncé's Cowboy Carter : Our In-Real-Time Takes on the New Album

James Devaney

Beyoncé's new album, Cowboy Carter, is finally here; we've been processing it in real time while hanging on to the saddle of the bucking bronc that is Bey's creativity.

Kicking out the footlights at the Opry

Beyoncé had her Tina Turner and James Brown wig on tight in the booth when recording “YAYA.” With her Bible and pistol on the dash, she busts down the walls of country music’s all-white club. “My family lived and died in America, hmm/Good ole USA,” she reminds all the naysayers who denied “Daddy Lessons” was a country song. “History can't be erased,” and with this album, she asserts her birthright to this genre as a Black Southern woman. Furthering the themes of celebration and catharsis after a period of major despondence, she demands nothing but electric vibes. Did your house burn down? Can’t pay your phone bill? The Man got you down? Come down to Mrs. Carter’s hoedown and shake some ass. —HEVEN HAILE

The Miley of it all, part 1

Miley Cyrus, at the ripe age of 31, has recently gotten really into singing about her (our?) fleeting youth. We see that again on “II MOST WANTED” (“I know we’re jumpin’ the gun and we’re both still young / But one day, we won’t be”), which is one of my early favorites. She and Beyoncé are both singing like divas here and I’d love to see them perform this song together if Miley does end up playing the Super Bowl halftime show next year… And speaking of the Super Bowl, I guess: I was thrilled to see noted jeans wearer Post Malone featured on the next track, “LEVII’S JEANS,” which is as fun and silly as a song about how good someone looks in a pair of body-hugging pants should be. I can only hope that Bey and Posty trading flirty lines in the chorus—“Boy, I’ll let you be my Levi’s jeans / So you can hug that ass all day long” to “Oh, girl, I wish I was your Levi’s jeans / The way you poppin' out my phone”—is goofy enough to warrant a “Telephone”-caliber music video. However, I had higher hopes for my freaky king Post Malone’s vocal presence here, which feels a little squeaky for the subject matter. If I was the producer in the booth, I’d have told him to put some more growl in it. —EILEEN CARTTER

The Miley of it all, part 2

Beyoncé heard “You’ll Always Find Your Way Back Home” and “Hoedown Throwdown” from the critically acclaimed and cinephile-beloved Hannah Montana: The Movie and knew she had to make some calls to Miley’s team. Seeing that all of the Hannah Montana albums were snubbed by the Grammys, this is as much of a moment of reclamation for Miley as it is for Beyoncé. —HH

It’s country as in “Jolene,” but also country as in Shania

“LEVII’S JEANS” feels like a hat tip to the breezy '90s country radio sound that helped the genre cross over to the pop charts. That breakthrough—a moment that presaged the genre fluidity that country enjoys now—was built on the backs of women who were often treated as outsiders by country establishment, like the Chicks (former Beyoncé collaborators, of course) and Shania Twain—whose 1998 blockbuster Come On Over loomed large during that decade. There’s some of Come On Over’s signature goofy sexuality on “LEVII’S JEANS,” an ode to trading dirty pics and becoming the centerfold of some dude’s iPhone. On this song and on cuts like “Bodyguard,” we hear Beyoncé tap into a laid-back looseness that we haven’t heard her do in a while. Consider this an early contender for song of the summer. —RAYMOND ANG

Sheriff Swizz is the best cameo

We knew B was gonna get some iconoclastic genre pairings off on here, but it does not get more hilariously thrilling than rap ad-lib extraordinaire Swizz Beatz dropping his trademark “riiiiight” after Linda Martell intones that “genre is a funny concept.” (There are laymans who hate it when showman Swizz shows up to whoop and holler on a track, most notoriously Kanye’s “Famous”—these people are sadly mistaken.) Then Beyoncé saunters onto the track in her Everything Is Love bag flowing crazy, talking shit like only she and Jay-Z can, hence her shoutout to Hova. It’s over just as it’s getting fun—reminiscent of that time Jay relegated the best track on one of his more mixed-bag albums to a runtime of just under a minute, almost as a troll. Cowboy Carter is no Magna Carta for sure and the album has bigger fish to get back to frying, like ushering in rising artist Shaboozey on the breakdown—but man, a second verse would’ve gone crazy. —FRAZIER THARPE

The ripples from this one will be vast

Somewhere in the Philippines, a quartet of pintsized singers with mutant lungs are studying the harmonies to “II MOST WANTED” and preparing for a future showdown on a noontime talent show. —RA

It will win her ~98 Grammy awards, but still

“Jolene” is fine; deeply felt and technically consummate performance of a great song, sure, but also the one gimmicky moment on an album that could have felt gimmicky and almost never does, the one track that feels like somebody else's idea of what Beyoncé would do on her country album. Compared to the rest of what's going on here it feels small, partly because it comes right before “Daughter,” which feels vast, unlike anything Beyoncé's done before, a murder ballad full of opera, full of weed smoke, full of mystery. Need to know whose blood was on the bathroom floor, and what Western movie was on the moodboard for this one, and if it was Johnny Guitar. —ALEX PAPPADEMAS

We’re calling it: the next one is Celtic Carter

“Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?” country legend Linda Martell asks about halfway through Cowboy Carter. We hear that thesis over and over again throughout the album and especially on cuts like “RIIVERDANCE,” which sounds like Jamie XX remixing bluegrass, with Beyoncé’s stacked vocals suggesting a heavenly barnyard rave. And with the title’s overt reference to the ‘90s Irish dance phenomenon, what better way to jig through Hot Irish Guy Summer? —RA

Sing about Beyoncé, she might Upgrade U

Kentucky artist Tanner Adell is truly angelic on “Blackbiird.” I love that her 2023 song “Buckle Bunny” has the lyrics “Lookin' like Beyoncé with a lasso.” I know B was queening out when she heard that. —HH

It’s not not her country record, but what else is it?

Martell is one ghost voice floating through this album’s supporting cast of radio revenants; another is Chuck Berry, who shows up on “Smoke Hour * Willie Nelson” the same way he did in the album trailer, singing a little bit of “Maybellene.” Like the split second of Son House doing the primordial no-new-friends anthem “Grinnin’ in Your Face” on that same tour of the dial, this is less a sample than a footnote—we’re supposed to think about history, the lineages that genre breaks and obscures. Berry did as much to invent the late twentieth century as, I don’t know, Robert Oppenheimer, but before that he had a blues combo in St. Louis that also worked the country hits of the day into their set list and started to pull a more and more mixed crowd; country was another language he could master, the way he’d assimilated Nat King Cole and Muddy Waters, and when he brought “Maybellene” into Leonard Chess’s studio, Chess was bowled over to hear a Black man had written something so hillbilly. This is one origin story for rock-n’-roll, which became just “rock,” an open-ended genre that encompasses every other genre, an unlimited highway for individual geniuses brave enough to barrel across genre lines by sheer force of personality, a “sound” whose only through-line is (sometimes) the presence of guitars. Sound familiar? There’s talk—already, inevitably—that act iii will be when Beyoncé finally makes her rock record; what I’m saying is that with this one, maybe she already has? —AP

The last stretch is when things get really fun

When Beyoncé teed up act ii with the hardbody kicker, “This ain’t a country album, it’s a Beyoncé album,” the implication was that despite the Yeehaw Agenda being the leading aesthetic, she was about to get weird in ways only she is capable of (successfully, at least), strapping all of the different sonic modes she excels in to a mechanical bull and present a dizzying mismash of organized chaos. But she actually spends a lot of the first half paying more homage and being more straightforwardly acoustic than shaking shit up. Then the gears finally shift in the album’s home stretch and, man, is it worth the wait. We get the gleeful dissonance of Mrs. Cowboy Carter commanding you to “bounce on that shit” on a song named after Irish line dancing, Tyga’s party-starter architect D.A. Got That Dope (remember “Taste”?) giving twang-trap on “Tyrant” and fellow Rodeo Revivalist Pharrell going deep into aughts guitar bag he favored on early N.E.R.D. and Justin Timberlake cuts on the rollicking “Sweet Honey Buckin.” And the ethereal odyssey that is “II Hands to Heaven” might send me out on a dolo dusk-time drive through the desert with nothing but my thoughts and a bottle of shine. I can’t wait to sit with the entire album more, but the ending is indisputably when the Calicos really ring off at the Alamo. —FT

RE: “Spaghetti”

Beyoncé is the best rapper alive. –HH

Originally Appeared on GQ

More Great Stories from GQ