Critic’s Notebook: Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’ Is Haunted by Ghosts of Rejection

In November 2016, at the 50th annual Country Music Association Awards, Beyoncé performed “Daddy Lessons,” her first explicit foray into country music. On the emotionally intimate, vervy album Lemonade, the song felt inspired by the singer’s Southern origins. Onstage, accompanied by The Chicks and a band wielding the full power of acoustic guitars, horns and harmonicas, it became a full-throated declaration — an affirmation of all that came with Beyoncé’s roots in Alabama, Louisiana and Texas.

The backlash to her performance was swift and predictably racist. In a recording of that moment, the camera quickly cuts away from parts of the audience largely unmoved by Beyoncé’s enthusiastic invitation to clap along. On social media, detractors expressed their anger at the musician’s inclusion. A month later, the Recording Academy rejected “Daddy Lessons” as a country entry for the Grammys, setting the stage for a contentious battle about who and what could be considered part of the predominantly white genre.

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Cowboy Carter, Beyoncé’s eighth studio album, confronts these snubs with a wholesale refusal of genre. Although the Americana fantasy is the second installment of the artist’s planned trilogy, she recorded the 27-track project before Renaissance, her boisterous ode to dance music, released in 2022.

The gritty defiance of a woman scorned runs through parts of Cowboy Carter. With this album, Beyoncé tries to build a regenerative narrative around the CMA controversy and Grammy snub. But she can’t shake the ghosts of those rebuffs long enough to let the project soar to the heights of Renaissance or lean into the contradictions that made Lemonade so visceral.

The album opens with a cursory elegy to America’s broken promises and the singer positioning herself as a divine heroine: “I am the one to cleanse me of my Father’s sins,” she declares at the end of “Ameriican Requiem.” She closes with a similarly lamenting verse on “Amen.”

Between these mournful bookends, Beyoncé embarks on an exciting journey through country music’s grooves and ridges with the help of genre elders (Linda Martell, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton) and relative newcomers (Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy, Reyna Roberts, Tanner Adell, Shaboozey, Willie Jones). The musician also takes detours into more pop-country terrain, courting the commercial on tracks featuring Miley Cyrus and Post Malone.

Cowboy Carter, a project more than five years in the making, is tense with competing desires and haunted by the sting of the musician’s institutional rejection: It can feel like defensive posturing couched in righteous reclamation.

There are glimpses of Beyoncé’s frustration, which lends itself to a handful of seductively cocksure and thrillingly disobedient tracks, “Riiverdance,” “II Hands II Heaven,” “Tyrant” and “Sweet Honey Buckiin’” among them. On these songs Beyoncé, a zealous student of craft, bends genre to her will, flaunting her deep appreciation of country, hip-hop and dance to create the funkiest chapter on Cowboy Carter. The crisp transitions and jolting vocal layering are some of her best.

But there are moments when she capitulates to the same forces for approval. On songs like “Bodyguard” and “Levii’s Jeans,” she channels contemporary country, but she also sounds bored while doing it. Those songs function as inoffensive window dressing. What does it mean that an artist of Beyoncé’s stature still feels compelled to vie for institutional recognition? What does it say about the people who need her to?

It’s almost a cliché at this point, but Toni Morrison’s sentiments on the functions of racism are useful. The writer often talked about the freedom in refusing the white gaze. Most famously, she called racism a distraction, but it’s what she said immediately after, during that same 1975 speech at Portland State, that is most haunting: “For there is a deadly prison: the prison that is erected when one spends one’s life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths, and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your history, your habits.”

Renaissance was a bouncy intra-community conversation honoring the Black queer roots of house, disco and techno music within the walls of the artist’s imagined club. Everyone was invited, but Beyoncé seemed to find personal liberation — stretching the bounds of voice as instrument, experimenting with production — in that fictive communion.

Cowboy Carter addresses her detractors and most of the album is weighted by this bid to disprove them. There’s less room for the artist’s imagination unmediated by those ghosts. It makes the handful of moments of explicit Black country music inclusion, like “Blackbiird,” a cover of The Beatles’ Civil Rights-inspired lamentation featuring Adell, Spencer, Kennedy and Roberts, falter when they should lift the spirit.

These artists are mostly relegated to the background, a missed opportunity to harness the power of their voices and to underscore their respective contributions to country music’s fraught terrain. That Post Malone and Miley Cyrus are offered more room is disappointing considering Beyoncé’s call on “Ameriican Requiem” to take up space.

And what to make of Cowboy Carter’s projected images and narrative? This is not a question for Beyoncé, the billionaire pop star whose albums engage only tenuously with politics, but for us, her listening audience. In the cover art (shot by Blair Caldwell) she sits sidesaddle on a horse, clutching a partially visible flag, projecting the image of a rodeo queen.

As she did in her CMA performance, the singer doubles down on belonging by claiming her cultural and national heritage. She is surrounded by a dark nothingness, but here I imagine the ghosts are not too far off. They haunt the edges of the cover and the pastoral image of America projected throughout Cowboy Carter. She addresses them directly on “Ameriican Requiem.” “Can you hear me,” she asks. “Or do you fear me?”

The battle has been staged between Beyoncé and the specters; that she will join the struggle to cleanse the nation of its sins feels like merely an afterthought.

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