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Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’ Settles the Score With Haters — and With History

Beyoncé released a genre-bending country album, “Cowboy Carter,” last week. After listening to it in all the requisite settings — on a walk, in a car and on a plane — I finally understand what Beyoncé, a notoriously enigmatic pop star, wants to say to the world. She wants to be more than popular. She wants to be legendary. But first, she isn’t through taking everyone who has doubted her to the woodshed.

In outlaw country tradition, “Cowboy Carter” settles scores with haters and with history. Beyoncé has trilled, growled, marched, stepped, sweated and sung her heart out for almost 30 years. It is, this album argues, in conjunction with the others in her in-progress three-act “Renaissance” oeuvre, time for a little respect, for Black artists generally but also for her specifically.

Just by being Black, a woman, popular and impervious to country music’s gatekeepers, Beyoncé has made a political album. Puzzling over who is country enough to sing love songs to wheat fields and big trucks only seems prosaic. Big Country — the Nashville-controlled, pop-folk music that commodifies rural American fantasies — is the cultural arm of white grievance politics. In 1974, President Richard Nixon described the genre as being “as native as anything American we could find.” That must have been a shock to actual Native Americans. But the message was not for them. It was for the white Southern voters Nixon needed to win over amid massive resistance to Black enfranchisement. Today’s Republican Party continues that tradition. Embracing country music is a loyalty test for conservative politicians and right-wing pundits whose career ambitions align with white identity politics. Beyoncé singing country music in this political climate was always going to cause a stir.

I went into this album release expecting, like many cultural critics, that the biggest question would be: Is it country? She is from Texas, which should be enough. She also has that voice — not her singing voice, but her speaking voice. It is molasses slow and heavy-toned like Southern humidity. Doubting Beyoncé’s country bona fides is like insisting that the realest Americans can only be found in small-town diners. It is a convenient shorthand for dismissing people you would rather not think about.

“Ameriican Requiem” is a solid opening track that addresses anyone who discounts Beyoncé’s Southern résumé. Big Country produces a stylized set of tropes that artists, producers and marketing executives slather on top of meter and rhythm. In good hands, those tropes can be signposts for a road trip through a sonic postcard. In lazy hands (and so many of the hands are lazy these days), they are paper dolls of cheap sentiment. You name your small town for legitimacy. You gesture to your family for kinship to rural America’s fictive family tree. Then you sprinkle in your proprietary mix of trucks, dogs, sunsets and beer for distinction.

Beyoncé takes on these tropes in “Ameriican Requiem.” Her identity gives them weight. She sings that her small-town roots are by way of “folks down in Galveston, rooted in Louisiana.” As the “grandbaby of a moonshine man” she has a right to sing the white man’s blues, because as a Black Southern woman she can legitimately claim the blues. Turning back to the audience of doubters, she sings: “Used to say I spoke ‘too country’/And the rejection came, said I wasn’t country ’nough/Said I wouldn’t saddle up, but/If that ain’t country, tell me what is?” Given the pedigree she has just laid out, the only honest answer is that country music is everything she sings about minus the Black woman singing it.

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