Hot-Take Reactions to Beyoncé's 'COWBOY CARTER': Country Cred and Pop Music's Flop Era

After the masterpiece that was 'RENAISSANCE,' we weigh in on the amazing soundscapes and on-the-nose covers of its follow-up

BY Megan LaPierre and Alex HudsonPublished Mar 29, 2024

Beyoncé's COWBOY CARTER is the first true "event" album of 2024 — the kind of moment where the rest of the music world grinds to a halt and everyone spends the day listening the album (and debating its merits online, of course).

The big story here is that Beyoncé has gone "country" — a genre that we put in scare quotes since the artist herself has distanced herself from the label, asserting, "This ain't a country album. This is a 'Beyoncé' album." That being said, the single "TEXAS HOLD 'EM" topped Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, prompting debate among people who care about things like what counts as "real" country music.

Far more important than any question about genre tags is this one: is it any good? It certainly is long, with 27 tracks and a 78-minute runtime (that's 16 minutes longer than the also-epic RENAISSANCE). It's a splashy, star-studded affair: Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson have their own spoken-word breaks, Miley Cyrus and Post Malone sing duets, and there are covers of "Blackbird" and "Jolene."

While it's too early to properly review such a sprawling, ambitious album, Exclaim!'s Associate Online Editor Megan LaPierre and Editor-in-Chief Alex Hudson spent the morning listening to the album on repeat and offered their hot takes in a DM chat, which has been edited and shared below.

Is It Country? (Yes.) And Does It Matter? (Also Yes.)

Alex: Since it's the main talking point about the lead-up to COWBOY CARTER, let's address it off the bat: is this a country album? Does it matter? 

Megan: Right into the nitty gritty! For all intents and purposes, it certainly plays with the tropes of a country album. I was struck by how many of her little radio audio things spoke directly to genre and its pitfalls, and it reminded me again that she said she made this because she didn't feel welcome in the world of country music — which I assume stems back to Lemonade and her Chicks collaboration, "Daddy Lessons." Which, for the record, is probably a better song than any of these? (Please don't kill me, Beyhive.)

Alex: I agree. My knee-jerk reaction is "who cares about genre?" Only metal fans and country fans seem to actually care about if something counts as a "real" representation of the genre. But it clearly matters to Beyoncé. That's why she has those Linda Martell breaks, which directly discuss the boundaries of the genre, and why she works with other Black country artists on her "Blackbird" cover. The inclusion of Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton seems to be her way of getting the blessing of some of the genre's most famous figures, especially since they have speaking roles rather than musical ones. It's a co-sign that perhaps legitimizes COWBOY CARTER in the eyes of the country establishment. It's sad she even feels she needs to, but it's obviously an important issue in our post-"Old Town Road" world.

Megan: Exactly. It does seem like an act of legitimization. But I appreciate the balance of both sides — some groundbreaking Black country figures, some of the white-dominated institution's biggest names (and, in Parton's case, hair) — because it feels like Beyoncé also knows just how much power she herself wields as a legitimizing force. She may not be from the country music world, but she has a country radio hit on her hands with "TEXAS HOLD 'EM" anyway. And, well, she's fucking Beyoncé. Speaking of featured guests and what that selection signifies, I think the inclusion of Miley Cyrus and Post Malone is interesting, because they're both artists that, ostensibly, are operating outside of quote-unquote country music, but have always had something a little bit country about them. More generally, they also have tended to not been able to be neatly slotted into genre categories throughout their careers, too.

Sounds > Songs

Alex: I don't know about you, but I think the album gets more interesting the further it gets away from anything remotely traditional "country." "AMERIICAN REQUIEM" has gospel harmonies and psychedelic, almost sitar-sounding tones. "SWEET ★ HONEY ★ BUCKIIN'" uses acoustic guitar samples for the backdrop of a rap banger. And my favourite on the first couple of listens is "II HANDS II HEAVEN," which is an electronic R&B song that could have been on RENAISSANCE if only the beat was mixed a little louder. "TYRANT" is another neat use of genre. The fiddle over top of that 808 beat sounds cool as hell.

Megan: Yeah, that fiddle over the "TYRANT" 808 is definitely one of the coolest examples of that. It's weird as hell and sounds sick! On principle, it would typically be more interesting to hear someone's stuff that was furthest outside of their comfort zone, which I think speaks to the genre-less-ness Beyoncé has always cultivated in her music. I likewise think "AMERIICAN REQUIEM" is beautiful and harmonically interesting, to the point where it kind of made the rest of that section of the album fall flat comparatively (although the "16 CARRIAGES" into "PROTECTOR" part is quite lovely). "II HANDS II HEAVEN" is such blatant Alex Hudson bait; I also thought it sounded the closest to something that could've been on RENAISSANCE. The fact that she had planned on releasing this album first and its progression makes sense in that context. As much as I understand this, I kind of wish that more organic blending of some country tropes and instruments getting unexpected use in more typical Beyoncé tracks happened more consistently throughout.

Alex: I notice we're talking a lot about the sounds of the album, rather than the songs themselves. My takeaway from this album is more about the arrangements — the way she layers voices so beautifully, or nicely contrasts country elements with modern electronic production. It's an expensive-sounding album. So often, modern mainstream pop music just sounds cheap to me, like the vocalist did one take and the producer just pitch corrected and quantized the whole thing with a single click. But this album sounds big-budget and beautiful. Obviously it's still the first day of listening, but I can't say than there are many lyrics or melodies that stand out to me. I can see why "TEXAS HOLD 'EM" was released a single, even though it's kinda boring Lumineers stomp-clap car commercial music. Its hook is apparent right away, which isn't the case with the other, uh, 26 tracks.

Long Live the Album

Megan: The thing about a Beyoncé album — or perhaps a 2020s Beyoncé album, rather — is that it never fails to feel like an album experience, you know? I sound like an old man, but when so many kids nowadays are just making songs, it's kind of nice that Beyoncé is in the business of making albums. With COWBOY CARTER in particular, I'm definitely reminded of the Weeknd's Dawn FM, as much as the whole radio show concept is a little less fleshed-out. But the point I'm trying to make is that, yes, the opulent arrangements are more compelling than the songs themselves; it's more about moments — and their cumulative impact — than songs. Which is kind of a shame, despite appreciating the wholistic album experience. I feel like RENAISSANCE was better about being a body of work while also having a lot more tracks that could stand alone. "BREAK MY SOUL" absolutely towers over "TEXAS HOLD 'EM". Sorry, but it'll never have what the Franklin theme song has

Alex: I instantly dragged "II HANDS II HEAVEN" into my "2024 favourites" playlist, though.

Megan: As much as COWBOY CARTER is long as hell, it doesn't really overstay its welcome. But at 16 tracks shorter, RENAISSANCE absolutely flies by. Even not speaking comparatively, I always find RENAISSANCE is over before I know it and I need to listen to it again. Beyoncé end-weighted COWBOY CARTER a bit, which is what you always tell me about my features.

Alex: We all need an editor! Even Beyonce, perhaps.


Alex: It was all a misunderstanding

TMegan: I think we need to talk about "BODYGUARD" at least briefly. Taylor Swift feature conspiracy theories aside, it's one of the more single-primed tracks to me.

Alex: I agree about "BODYGUARD." It's kinda classic rock! I love those songs where the Rolling Stones have a barroom piano, and this kinda reminds me of that. That bass is so sproingy, and mixed obtrusively high in a way that I love. I'm into it! I kinda like the suggestion that it's Taylor on backing vocals — it does sound like her, and I wouldn't put it past her to make an uncredited cameo. Billboard is saying it's not her but they don't cite a source, so I don't know who to believe!

Megan: I just realized "BODYGUARD" is almost a bit cabaret rock-y. No wonder I like it. As much as Swifties come up with some wild theories, I don't think this is too far fetched! I hope it never gets confirmed nor denied and we just get to live and wonder.

American Idol Audition Covers

Alex: While the songs aren't always quite as instantly memorable as I might hope, something that definitely does grab my ear is her choice of cover songs. What do you think of them?

Megan: I mean, "Jolene" was so obvious. It makes sense in every version of this universe, and I appreciate the way she came for Jay-Z's ass with those lyric changes! To be honest, though, I didn't like her voice on it as much as I expected to? And "Blackbird" was a powerful statement, especially to be made with the second track of the album. I kind of appreciate the sparser parts of the arrangement more than the orchestral ones, but I do think they mixed them low enough that it's not overdone. Like, imagine this a cappella? Not that anyone would dare do "Blackbird" without that acoustic riff, but still.

Alex: They're well done, of course. Beyoncé's quality control is high. But I found them a little... on the nose? Those are songs I expect to hear at an open mic, not on a blockbuster pop album. Her version of "BLACKBIIRD" is so similar to the original that it almost sounds like they're singing over the Paul McCartney's guitar. And "Jolene," while I appreciate the Lemonade-like sentiment, feels like a real Beginner's Guide to Country Music moment. Like, making a country album and then covering possibly the most famous country song ever? Can't we go a little bit further outside the box than that? "YA YA" feels like a total gimmick in the way it mashes up "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" and "Good Vibrations." And yet, in spite of myself, I kinda like it. It's a bit of fluff and I find my toe tapping.

Megan: They're definitely not subtle choices and I kind of didn't expect them to be full-ish length versions of the songs. I thought they'd be more similar to that "YA YA" interpolation, which I also enjoyed in spite of myself (but I am an absolute bitch-ass sucker for "Good Vibrations" so we can't be too surprised), or like interlude-length renditions. It does feel a little ridiculous for Beyoncé to be doing American Idol-audition covers.

Alex: Oh my god, American Idol audition covers is the absolute perfect way to put it. Beyoncé... (dramatic pause) You're going to Hollywood!

Megan: Thank you Ryan Seacrest!!

Is Poptmism Over?

Alex: With the caveat that this album is a lot to absorb in one day — what grade would you give COWBOY CARTER if you were to rate it today?

Megan: I hate you for making me do this. I don't know, a light 7? Like I said, I love that it's an experience and that it felt important to Beyoncé to make a statement like this — and I do think it's kind of perfect timing, so I'm glad she did RENAISSANCE first. We're obviously going through a country boom, and I find it particularly pertinent to Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" becoming the hit that it did last year while being performed by Luke Combs, a bearded white guy who, at the very least, is a big fan of Chapman and holds a lot of reverence for her. COWBOY CARTER feels like a timely response to music history consistently repeating itself, and country as an institution being one of the worst offenders. And the arrangements are very nice! I just wish the rest of the execution was up to par. What about you?

Alex: Here's something I've said privately to you and Kaelen, but I'm going to bravely go on the record and say it here: pop music is in its flop era. Poptimism was fun, but now mainstream pop music is bad again. Midnights was the beginning of the shift, or possibly Harry's House, and "Flowers" was the rock bottom.

Megan: "Pop Music's Flop Era" would be a good headline...

Alex: COWBOY CARTER isn't nearly as weak as those. At least it has ambition. I'm excited about "II HANDS II HEAVEN." Judging this album in a vacuum, as objectively as I can, I agree that it's a 7. It's a beautifully produced album with a few standout songs that's too long and has a couple of corny covers. But I'm being a little harsher to it than I would most albums because it's Beyoncé. If this was someone's debut album, I would be really impressed. But we gave RENAISSANCE a perfect 10 (a score I still agree with), so for her to release an album that is simply good leaves me a little deflated.

Megan: That just reminded me that Midnights won AOTY but, as Beyoncé points out, she still hasn't. It's a sad world we're living in. Also I should go on record and say that, when I reviewed Midnights, I was overly kind (and low-key fearing for my life). It is a 6 at best.

Alex: Yeah, Midnights stinks. We were way too nice. Speaking of which — I'll see you back here in our Hot Takes column on April 19.

Megan: It's us, hi, we're the Tortured Poets Department.

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