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The inspirations behind Beyoncé's genre-defying album 'Cowboy Carter'


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William Brangham: Beyonce Knowles-Carter has just dropped her latest album. It's called "Cowboy Carter," and it's quickly becoming one of the most talked-about records of the year.

Jeffrey Brown has more on how this superstar's new work is deeply rooted in country music.

Jeffrey Brown : If it's Beyonce, it's big. And if it's venturing into an unexpected arena of music, it's even bigger.

"Cowboy Carter" checks both of those boxes and features some of country music's biggest stars.

Candace McDuffie covers race, gender and entertainment for The Root and joins us now.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Well, you know, Beyonce herself said recently, this ain't a country album. This is a Beyonce album.

But the attention, of course, is because she is going into the country music world. What do you see going on?

Candace McDuffie, The Root: Before she released "Cowboy Carter," Beyonce vaguely referenced performing at the 2016 Country Music Awards with The Chicks and how unwelcome she felt in that space.

Even though the performance was the highest rated 15-minute segment in the show's history, it was still pulled down from the award show's Web site, as well as their social media, because people were so outraged that she performed.

So here we have this 27-track album. It's very vast, very experimental, almost 80 minutes' long, where she reimagines country music, not in a traditional way, but in a Beyonce kind of way. She puts her own spin on what country music means to her.

Jeffrey Brown : Well, so she has said that past experience caused her to -- quote -- "take a deeper dive into the history of country music." Tell us a little bit more about what you hear, what kind of sounds, what kind of people are included. What has she done?

Candace McDuffie: Well, she pays homage to Linda Martell, the first commercially successful Black woman in country. She was also the first Black woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry.

So she's introducing certain songs on the record and even talks about genres and how confined they can be for Black artists. Dolly Parton makes an appearance as well. Beyonce covers "Jolene." And Dolly said back in 2022 she would love for Beyonce to do this, that she would make it as big as Whitney Houston made "I Will Always Love You."

And we get that on "Cowboy Carter."

Jeffrey Brown : Well, this does, as you say, play into country music's often difficult history with Black musicians and music, with women musicians often not getting a lot of airplay.

What is the thinking about how much impact Beyonce can have?

Candace McDuffie: I mean, she already made history when "Texas Hold 'Em" became the first song from a Black woman on the hot country songs chart earlier this year.

We already see Black artists having their records streamed more. More people are buying their music because Beyonce gave them that cosign and that push. And I'm excited to see, especially when it comes to awards season, how "Cowboy Carter" will be recognized.

Jeffrey Brown : Beyonce herself, I mean, keeps experimenting, new sounds, new surprises often. Where do you see her going? Or where is all this coming from? What drives her?

Candace McDuffie: What drives Beyonce is, I want to say the element of surprise.

Every Beyonce project is very unpredictable. You don't know what you're going to get, but it's going to be a history lesson. And it's very exciting. She keeps music exciting, regardless of the genre. We saw that with "Renaissance." She paid homage to disco music and to house music from a Black female perspective. Now we're seeing that continuation with "Cowboy Carter."

Jeffrey Brown : And she clearly knows she has the power to get attention.

Candace McDuffie: Absolutely.

And I feel like, whether it's visual or just the way she uses language, her lyricism, she knows how to captivate her audiences. But it's also really important because she makes everyone feel welcome. Black and brown people feel free when it comes to not only her music, but her shows as well.

And then also incorporating the LGBTQ community has been really, really just liberating from -- for all types of people.

Jeffrey Brown : All right, "Cowboy Carter," it's out today.

Candace McDuffie of The Root, thank you very much.

Candace McDuffie: Thank you.

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