A Comprehensive Guide to Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter

10 minute read

Beyoncé releasing a new album is an event. Not only because she is one of the biggest pop stars in the world, but also because her music begs to be dissected with a fine-tooth comb. We started seeing her develop projects more focused on looking at a particular subject from different angles and exploring new genres with her music in 2016 with the release of Lemonade, a vulnerable album on which she openly calls out her husband’s infidelity. In 2022, she released Renaissance, a treasure trove of samples, interpolations, songwriters, producers, history, references, glitz, and glamor celebrating the queer ballroom community that had a hand in igniting the house genre. Cowboy Carter, released today after seven weeks of growing anticipation, builds on this idea of paying homage to the Black musical pioneers who paved the way.

This album has been in the making for the past five years. When Beyoncé released the album artwork earlier this month, she wrote in an Instagram caption that the project was “born out of an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed.” Many speculated that she was referring to her 2016 CMAs performance of “Daddy Lessons” with the Chicks, who themselves had their own rocky history with the country establishment. The performance was divisive, and some detractors did not even bother to hide the racism baked into their rejection of it.

She went on to write in the caption, “The criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me. Act II is a result of challenging myself, and taking my time to bend and blend genres together to create this body of work.” In a press release put out on Friday, Beyoncé said that she initially planned to release Cowboy Carter before Renaissance, but the COVID-19 pandemic made her change her mind. “There was too much heaviness in the world,” she says. “We wanted to dance. We deserved to dance. But I had to trust God’s timing.”

Read More: Everything We Know About Beyoncé's New Album Cowboy Carter

Cowboy Carter is dense with cultural references—incorporating the voices of country legends like Linda Martell, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton while also uplifting younger Black country talent like Tanner Adell, Shaboozey, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy, and Reyna Roberts. On the album, Beyoncé also reveals a bit more of herself in a few songs including, in one, her feelings on losing out on Album of the Year at the Grammys.

Here’s everything we learned from Beyoncé’s new album, Cowboy Carter.

Beyoncé traverses through country music history

Just as Renaissance can be seen as a textbook for understanding the early years of the house music genre, Cowboy Carter functions similarly, stretching across country history with a particular eye toward the contributions of Black artists. The opening track, “American Requiiem,” begins with a proclamation that country music needs to change to keep it from going extinct. “Hello, my old friend,” she says, seemingly addressing the genre as a whole. “You change your name but not the ways you play pretend.” The song symbolizes the birth of the genre and the genesis of country is further touched upon with the inclusion of Willie Nelson, who helped popularize the genre of “outlaw country” in the 1960s. 

As the album continues, we get voice notes from two women—who are arguably the most influential female country music artists—Linda Martell and Dolly Parton. Parton has sold over 100 million records worldwide, making her one of the best-selling musical artists of all time. Martell is the first Black woman to achieve commercial success in the country music space after getting a song in the top 25 of the Billboard Country Songs chart in 1969 with “Color Him Father,” though her later career was stymied by what she described as blacklisting. She was also the first Black woman to play the Grand Ole Opry. Beyoncé goes on to highlight the future of country music as one that embraces dalliances with other genres, as she blends hip-hop into tracks on the last third of the album (and “Spaghettii,” which is on the first half of the album).

Her “Blackbird” cover holds deep significance

Beyoncé has become more intentional in more recent years with every facet of her musical projects. She isn’t known to cover songs, so to have two covers on her latest album is noteworthy. One of the covers is of the Beatles’ 1968 song, “Blackbird” (which she stylizes as “Blackbiird”) and features four young Black female country artists: Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy, and Reyna Roberts. Beyoncé’s decision to cover the song holds significant meaning given that McCartney has said it was inspired by Black women in the civil rights movement. For more on the history of that song, read an explainer by my colleague Cady Lang, here.

Beyoncé gets personal on tracks about being both a parent and a daughter 

Fans of Beyoncé got a taste of what the new album would touch on in February when she announced Act II was on its way and released two singles, “16 Carriages” and “Texas Hold ‘Em.” The former is a pensive track that sees Beyoncé thinking about how quickly she grew up as her star ascended at such a young age when she was in Destiny’s Child. On the album, this song sweetly flows into “Protector,” a track about maternal love, which features the voice of her daughter, Rumi, asking if she can hear a lullaby. Beyoncé gracefully croons about being proud of who she is and proud to be a good mother because she knows her kids need her.

On “Daughter,” she gives the world a taste of her operatic vocals as she sings the famous Italian aria “Caro Mio Ben.” The song seems to call back to her 2016 track “Daddy Lessons,” in which she talks about how children learn behaviors from their fathers. In “Daughter,” she says, “If you cross me, I’m just like my father,” and describes the aftermath of a violent altercation.

Read More: Beyoncé’s Album of the Year Snub Fits Into the Grammys’ Long History of Overlooking Black Women

She reflects on losing Album of the Year at the 2023 Grammys

Over time, Beyoncé has become less concerned with chasing accolades, at least overtly. She is the most awarded artist in Grammy history but has yet to win a statue in the Album of the Year category. She doesn’t seem too concerned, though, and makes that nonchalance known on “Sweet Honey Buckin’,” on which she raps, “A-O-T-Y, I ain't win (That's cool)/ I ain't stuntin' 'bout them/ Take that sh-t on the chin/ Come back and f-ck up the pen.” Her most recent loss at the Grammys highlighted a long history of the Recording Academy’s overlooking Black women in the major categories. Jay-Z mentioned the snub at this year’s awards ceremony, “I don't want to embarrass this young lady, but she has more Grammys than anyone and never won Album of the Year.”

The first time we heard Beyoncé say she doesn’t worry about accolades was on “Nice,” off her 2018 collaboration album with her husband, The Carters. She says, “If I gave two f-cks, two f-cks about streaming numbers, would have put Lemonade up on Spotify,” referring to how she initially only had the album available on Tidal for the first three years of its release. In 2023, Beyoncé seemed like a shoo-in for Album of the Year, after multiple publications named Renaissance as their top pick for best album of the year.

Beyoncé changed the lyrics of “Jolene”

Recently, Dolly Parton teased that Beyoncé had recorded a cover of her hit 1973 song “Jolene.” But in Bey’s version, she changes the meaning of by swapping new lyrics into the famed tune—instead of a plea, it’s a warning. Read more about the significance of Beyoncé’s version of “Jolene” here.

She makes a literal connection between Act I and Act II

Thematically, the connection between these two albums is clear. Beyoncé is utilizing her platform and extensive knowledge of music history to highlight underrepresented figures in genres pioneered by Black artists. She does that in the samples she chooses, as well as the artists she invites to be songwriters and collaborators. As everyone sifts through the references Beyoncé hid throughout Cowboy Carter, featured artist Post Malone makes that connection quite literally. On the outro of “Levii’s Jeans,” he says: “Need you all night long, you're my Renaissance.”

She makes brilliant use of interludes 

Three country music icons act as guides for the listeners on Cowboy Carter. They break up the album and introduce a few of the tracks. Willie Nelson gets two “Smoke Hour” show interludes, Dolly Parton leaves a sweet message for Beyoncé in a voicemail and calls her “Honey B,” and Linda Martell is honored with “The Linda Martell Show.” Read Cady on the significance of these interlude and artists here.

She makes a field day of breaking genre conventions on “Spaghettii,” “Riiverdance,” “Tyrant, and Sweet Honey Buckiin’”

On Cowboy Carter, Beyoncé highlights the future of country music by not only inviting young Black country acts like Willie Jones, Shaboozey, and the women featured on “Backbiird,” but by exemplifying some of the ways in which the genre is being flipped on its head. She builds on the sentiment she shared that this album isn’t a country album, “it’s a Beyoncé album.” “Spaghettii” is a fascinating track, on which she fires off a rant against those who claim she’s not country enough. In a braggadocious rap, she compares herself to Thanos (referencing his quest to collect all six Infinity Stones—this could be a nod to her easily navigating different genres and collecting each one in the same way). “Riiverdance” also takes influences from and fuses together house and a funky, plucky banjo. “Tyrant” and “Sweet Honey Buckiin” push country to its limits as Bey mixes trap and hip-hop sounds across the two songs.

Cowboy Carter is a spectacle in its expansiveness and being a country album no less, a genre we have seen Beyoncé seldom explore. With one more project left, the rumor mill has been circulating that the third album will be a rock album—another genre pioneered by Black people where their history is often erased. But before that, Beyoncé fans are waiting to see if music videos will be released with this album, since she didn’t put out videos with Renaissance and instead released a concert tour movie. So few things are as exciting as waiting to see what surprises Beyoncé has up her sleeve.

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Write to Moises Mendez II at moises.mendez@time.com