In retrospect, the signs were already there that Beyoncé’s Renaissance project might have a country music element – indeed, they were signalled in a most Beyoncéan manner. She rode a horse, albeit one covered in mirrored glass and suspended in mid-air above a stadium audience; she wore a cowboy hat, albeit one covered in mirrored glass and paired with similarly styled lingerie. At last week’s Grammys she wore a Stetson and a cowboy-inspired suit, albeit one custom designed for Louis Vuitton by Pharrell Williams.
And sure enough, two very enjoyable new songs suggest the “second act” of Renaissance – a new album due on 29 March – looks set to lean towards country, with its tropes doubly rhinestoned by Beyoncé’s glamour, poise and anti-ironic feeling.
Texas Hold ’Em is made for do-si-doing on a dusty dancefloor, with banjo, line-dancing commands, and exclamations of “woo hoo!” that might as well be “yee haw!” There’s a whisper of another recent pop-hoedown, Jonas Brothers’ What a Man Gotta Do, to the firmly resolved melody, but also something much more rootsy and authentically country to the arrangement, with its closely harmonised backing vocals and admirably restrained feel.
The track 16 Carriages, meanwhile, begins with an earthy thwack like a gloved hand on a horse’s flank, and there’s the unmistakably poignant drone of pedal steel. But the song quickly becomes Halo-proportioned, as Beyoncé looks back on the graft of her career since her mid-teens. Those 16 carriages are perhaps the caravan of tour buses and lorries heading out for the Renaissance tour, with Beyoncé “overworked and overwhelmed” but with “art to make / I got love to create on this holy night”.
Country is arguably more of a departure for Beyoncé than the house and disco sound of Renaissance: Act One, but the heartache, homilies and drinking songs of the genre are actually a great fit for her. Like country greats, she has such skill in delivering both wistful poetry and plainspoken sentiment, and the relaxed good-times gal of – for example – Cuff It is not really so different from someone crushing their 10th Natural Ice at a tailgater.
Cynics will say that it’s a detour to help her amass further Grammys in an area she’s not yet commanded (in 2016, the Academy’s country music committee rejected her country song Daddy Lessons as ineligible). Gossips will say it’s to assert her supremacy amid a (media-moulded) rivalry with Taylor Swift, who has long had her country music bona fides. More compelling is the sense that Beyoncé is – with a sure but light hand – claiming country as part of Black musical expression, rooted as it is in African American blues and gospel alongside white folk music. The trudging, sturdy, blues and gospel-infused 16 Carriages, about the labour she’s put into her career, recalls the work songs – an entire, complicated subgenre – performed by Black field labourers, here with a triumphantly epic bent. Playing the banjo on Texas Hold ‘Em is Rhiannon Giddens, who has done so much to deepen our understanding of the roots of American music – including how the banjo was a Black invention brought from Africa to the Caribbean and onto the US.
Renaissance will have a third act, and after the house and disco of act one and the country of act two, you can imagine her returning to her core zone of R&B, pop and power ballads for a satisfyingly rounded finale. Or perhaps there’ll be room for another genre excursion – maybe into rock? Or a deeper foray into rap following her dizzying bars on Savage (Remix) and Heated?
That would certainly be in keeping with the awe-inspiring but relaxed figure you currently see on stage. The imagery from the Renaissance tour – elegant robotics, sci-fi exploration – positioned Beyoncé as superhuman, and her dancers’ breathtaking choreography enhanced that, their martial rigour offset by individual expressions of freedom. And yet what made the tour so appealing was how normal she also was, bantering and breezy rather than clenched and professional as she has occasionally been in the past. Queen B she may still be, but there’s something refreshingly un-regal in her manner, and in the way she is trying on genres.
Sure, there’s undoubtedly a sense that her country music is another demonstration of her artistic might: inverting society’s expected post-natal career arc into an exponential curve as she surges upward on another stylistic adventure. But the gentle, even homely feel of this new music feels in keeping with a woman who is palpably in touch with her personal history, her family, her African American artistic heritage – and her own even rather ordinary humanity.
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