When Beyoncé released “Daddy Lessons” as a track on the “Lemonade” album in 2016, the country flavor she baked into the tune felt too right to be limited to a mere one-off. But what were the odds she would ever return to that kind of genre influence for an entire album? Probably less than they would have been if anyone had ever tried calculating the odds of the Rolling Stones following a singular country song like “Faraway Eyes” with a whole project leaning in that direction… which, obviously, they never did. The chances would’ve seemed infinitely dimmer in the immediate wake of a brilliant dance/club collection rooted as heavily in Black sounds and queer history as “Renaissance.”
So, even if she had shown a fleeting interest in exploring a different side of her native Texas. has any superstar ever laid down a more surprising hand than the cards Beyoncé just put on the table with “Texas Hold ‘Em” and “16 Carriages”?
Maybe, but not in recent memory — and beyond the sheer surprise of it, “Renaissance Act II” shows every sign of being as thrilling and provocative as Act I, if this two-fer teaser is a real indication of what might be in store for “Renaissance’s” totally un-soundalike sequel.
Actually, these two tracks are so dissimilar from one another that it’s hard to guess exactly what might be in store for the rest of the March 29 album. For fans who welcome this detour, it’s going to be a long month and a half, wondering whether the full-length project will veer toward the more explicit country tropes of “Texas Hold ‘Em,” or toward the more delicate, exquisite and hard-to-define Americana of “16 Carriages,” or unveil different flavors yet unhinted at. The only things that seem certain from this initial rollout are that the focus will involve shades of Lone Star acousticism, and that she will undoubtedly look spectacular in a hat and any other form of cowboy drag for the duration of the campaign.
Actually, there’s one more thing that seems likely to be a throughline through this project, and it’s the idea of “country” music as Black music. As if that weren’t already probable from her inclinations to date, it’s crystal-clear from the inclusion of Rhiannon Giddens as a guest instrumentalist on “Texas Hold ‘Em” playing banjo and viola. Giddens has been the leading educator in the nation in making the public aware that the banjo was a Black instrument before it became a white one, and Beyoncé would hardly be unaware of that righteous crusade in picking her for this project, whether it turns out to be on just one song or for a wider swath of the album. On “16 Carriages,” she chose another legendary Black roots musician, Robert Randolph, as one of two credited steel players.
Beyond these two, there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount in common among the other producers and co-writers she’s assembled for “Act II,” from what we see in these credits. There’s one of the modern soul greats, Raphael Saadiq, of course — and Canadians galore!, in the form of Bülow and ex-Stills frontman Dave Hamelin (who worked on the last album’s “Alien Superstar”). The dispersion of talent in the known listings just tells us that she didn’t pull up to Music Row and see if Dave Cobb was available, or anyone else who might count as a usual suspect in maneuvering a crossover move. A place on the CMT Countdown doesn’t seem to be her goal (although, given CMT’s eagerness to welcome genre outsiders, she’ll probably get one anyway).
Both these tracks can be seen as taking off from what was promised with “Daddy Lessons” and running with it — musically, in the case of the more playful “Texas Hold ‘Em,” and lyrically, in the overt growing-up narrative of the reflective “16 Carriages.”
“Texas” has a kind of four-on-the-floor country stomp to it; once the banjo opening gives way to a serious beat, it’s easy to imagine a line-dance taking place: “It’s a real-life boogie and a real-life hoedown / Don’t be a bitch, come take it to the floor now.” Come the song’s coda, Bey readily concedes that there’s a fashion aspect to this (as you can tell from the dozen-plus shots already populating her website): “Spurs, spurs, boots / Photogenic, photogenic, shoot,” she sings at the close. But the agility of her self-harmonizing over Giddens’ viola in that last stretch makes it clear she’s too serious to just be settling for lazy genre tourism, even if the pictures did come out great.
“16 Carriages” is even more tantalizing as a pointer to where Beyoncé might be headed. At the outset, it sounds a hell of a lot more like a Joni Mitchell number than a Shania tune, to say the least, and even when the twin steels kick in, they’re low-key and sweet, not thrown in as easy C&W signifiers. She explore daddy issues, again: “At 15, the innocence was gone astray / Had to leave my home at an early age / I saw Mama prayin’, I saw Daddy grind” (lines that become “I saw Mama cryin’, I saw Daddy lyin’” the second time around). Any sense of family expose is just a sidelight, though, in a song that’s mostly just about having become a workhorse that got rode too hard before she had a chance to be a teenager. It’s one of the oldest stories in the world, or at least oldest in show business, and one that makes for a good country song.
“Act II” will inevitably be seen, and rightly so, as part of a small but mighty tradition — the R&B singer making a move to claim country as their own, as happened most famously with Ray Charles’ landmark “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” in 1962. But there, Charles was led to Nashville in the process of looking for a different classic songbook to cover. What Beyoncé may be looking to do here, with a set of genre-embracing and -transcending original songs, still feels like unexplored territory, at least in the mainstream and outside the niche realms of Americana, where everything is possible but not always highly visible.
It could even count as radical (and it could be upsetting to a few people, if the mixed reaction to her collaboration with the Dixie Chicks on the CMA Awards telecast in 2016 is any indication). But with any luck, no one will be so foolish as to call it carpetbagging. As a Houston native, Beyoncé has as much natural right to do something country — or country-adjacent — as the exurban cowboys who mix bro-country with trap sounds nowadays. With Lana Del Rey having her own country album in the offing, this could be a landmark year for post-modern sounds in country and Western music. As fine as the genre has been doing commercially lately without outside assistance, it could stand a serious shakeup from an alien superstar.