Music Reviews


(Parkwood / Columbia) Rating - 8/10
Did we ever reach a consensus on whether The Age of Pleasure, the most recent Janelle Monáe album, was any good? At the time of writing, it was released less than 12 months ago, yet it already feels like a lifetime. While much of her previous work was daring, adventurous and era-defining, The Age of Pleasure felt like a collection of breezy bops about the joy of getting laid on the regular. And this is where the difficulty of assessing the record originates. Can you judge an album in isolation or should it be considered in the context of something wider, like what it says about society, or how it stacks up against the rest of the artist’s career? Does it matter that we know Janelle Monáe is capable of better? The Age of Pleasure could have been made by a number of artists, but records like The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady are uniquely her. Does anyone care given that a half hour of instant, sex-positive jams is always going to be a welcome addition to any day?
There is a link here between The Age of Pleasure and COWBOY CARTER, and it’s the question of how we should view a volte-face by such a singular artist. To review COWBOY CARTER by saying what it isn’t would be to miss the point, but we’re creatures of habit, and it’s difficult to not feel a little downhearted when it becomes clear that we’re not going to be getting any generational bangers like Crazy In Love or Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it) across this album’s 27 tracks.
It’s also a record that it’s extraordinarily easy to be cynical about. Beyoncé has been releasing solo albums since 2003 (and you can go back to the 1990s if you consider her output as part of Destiny’s Child) yet it’s only now she decides to create something with such explicit country references. Country has always been a phenomenally popular genre, particularly in the USA, but it’s only recently that it’s become a fixture at the top of the charts throughout the Western world. Thank Taylor Swift, thank Lil Nas X, thank Garth Brooks cosplaying as Chris Gaines if you want, but here, at the end of April 2024, Noah Kahan and Benson Boone are in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 with tracks that have already been number 1 in both the UK and Australia.
There’s also no getting away from the fact that country is generally seen as a white genre and, without wanting to retread old ground, the Old Town Road furore and associated remix brouhaha aren’t too far in the rear view mirror. But Beyoncé is nothing if not meticulous and she knows the history and heritage of Black artists in country music. Ray Charles’ 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, was an era-defining success that shaped much of how we’ve viewed and experienced country music over the last six decades. Moreover, Beyoncé is a Texan who has performed at the Houston Rodeo on two separate occasions.
Anyway, you don’t need some white dude sat behind a keyboard to convince you of Beyoncé’s credentials, and it’s plain to see she truly knows her heritage. In fact, she arguably knows it a little too well. Radio DJ-style cameos from Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton are perhaps too on-the-nose, the album equivalent of breaking the fourth wall or showing how the rabbit gets into the hat. Similarly, while The Beatles’ Blackbird is a fantastic song – hot take alert – inspired by Paul McCartney’s thoughts on the Civil Rights Movement, its inclusion on COWBOY CARTER feels like a nod to its significance rather than because it adds to the project as a whole, or because Beyoncé has anything new to add to the track. Elsewhere, the inclusion of Black country pioneer Linda Martell feels important, but when she opines, “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?” on SPAGHETTII, it's as subtle as being smashed over the head by a banjo.
People of more charitable dispositions may enjoy these small nods (they’re too front-facing to be considered easter eggs) but even if you don’t, they’re little more than minor irritations. Their main issue is they risk obfuscating the star of COWBOY CARTER, which is Beyoncé’s voice. With the Beyoncé industrial complex being such a phenomenon, the fact she’s a singer first and foremost often gets overlooked. Her vocals throughout this record are a revelation, particularly on exultant opener AMERIICAN REQUIEM and Miley Cyrus duet II MOST WANTED. On LEVII’S JEANS, she even manages to make Post Malone seem palatable, which is no mean feat.
While it’s clear from the off that COWBOY CARTER isn’t like any other Beyoncé record, it still very much is a Beyoncé album. And, despite country’s present-day popularity, it’s still a risky album which, if attempted by practically anyone else, could come across as desperate. TEXAS HOLD ‘EM would likely sound ersatz or hokey in anyone else’s hands, but Beyoncé sells it, aided by great work by Rhiannon Giddens. Plus, Beyoncé can still augment an ostensibly country album with a track like YA YA, which is a rabble-rousing call to arms that manages to show Beyoncé is still unfuckable-with while simultaneously interpolating Good Vibrations.
Yes, it’s probably too long and yes, a couple of the songs are largely forgettable, but COWBOY CARTER is, overall, a pioneering work. It’s the mark of a true artist to reflect the world around them and, with COWBOY CARTER, Beyoncé puts herself in the same bracket as David Bowie when it comes to reinvention. The Age of Pleasure could have been made by an artist other than Janelle Monáe, but there’s no way COWBOY CARTER could have been made by anyone other than Beyoncé. We’re lucky to have her.