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Beyoncé experiments with country music, blending the female, Black and Texan in uncharted territory

The artist announced at halftime of the Super Bowl that she will release the second part of her ‘Renaissance’ trilogy in March. Her first song, ‘Texas Hold ‘Em,’ is a Southern-sounding track

Beyonce
Beyoncé at the Grammy Awards held in Los Angeles, California, on February 4, 2024.Kevin Mazur (Getty Images)

Beyoncé may be a global star, known for her dance tracks, big ballads, choreography, silver glitter and impeccable looks, but there is something else about her as a person and as an artist that cannot be overlooked: she is a Texan. Born in Houston 42 years ago, the singer has worked with all the genres she wanted to, playing mostly commercial pop in her youth — especially with her band Destiny’s Child — and experimenting with a multitude of genres, especially R&B. But there was one thing deep inside her that still eluded her: country. On Sunday night, she filled that gap.

Beyoncé tapped into an audience of 110 million people to tell her story. The Super Bowl, which was held in Las Vegas and broadcast around the world, is a football game, but it is also a huge billboard in which the halftime show (this year, Usher headlined) and commercials (at a rate of $7 million per 30 seconds of broadcast) are key. One of those breaks featured Beyoncé advertising a phone company and joking about how to “break the internet” by becoming president of the country, Barbie or being the first to perform in space; at the end of the ad, she realized she could only do it by releasing new music. The joke could have ended there... but less than half an hour later, she posted a one-minute video on her social media announcing a new album, which will be the second part of the announced Renaissance trilogy. The release date is March 29.

In the images, she could be heard singing for just 10 seconds, but then she posted another picture to announce that she was releasing two songs: Texas Hold ‘Em and 16 Carriages. The first one could be heard on Spotify; the second one only on Tidal, the music platform owned by her husband, entrepreneur and musician Jay-Z, among others. In less than an hour, Texas Hold ‘Em had debuted and showed that the artist’s Texan aesthetics in the images announcing the song and the word Texas in the title made sense. The queen of pop (or the mother of pop, as the Zeta generation would say) has gone all in on country, a genre that she had left practically unexplored until now.

The first thing you hear in Beyoncé's new song is a banjo, an easily identifiable instrument that belongs to the world of country. The lyrics leave no room for doubt: the artist cites Texas and talks about tornadoes, whiskey, boots, spurs; a step to the right, a step to the left... We still do not know how many tracks this second act of Renaissance will have (there will be three albums, as she said when she released the first one, two years ago; she had gone six years without a new album) or how important country will be in it, but the first single is a declaration of intentions in its title, sound and aesthetics, as well as in its collaborators.

The banjo player is Rhiannon Giddens, a well-known musician, and, more importantly, an educator about the importance of this stringed instrument as an original part of the Black community that, she argues, the white community appropriated to make country music, a genre that for decades has belonged exclusively to whites and where Blacks have had very little place. Beyoncé has chosen Giddens for more than just her mastery of the instrument, and she knows the importance of the message. And although 16 Carriages is more pop, she has another important Black musician, Robert Randolph, who in addition to playing the pedal steel guitar has a powerful gospel band.

So far Beyoncé had only explored this sound in one song, Daddy Lessons (on her 2016 album Lemonade), which has a bit of country as well as southern music, beginning with wind instruments that give it a very New Orleans touch. The Houston native did a version with the band The Chicks — who are also Texans but hail from Dallas — with whom she sang it live at that year’s country music awards. It was another moment in her career, and she appeared on stage in a big see-through dress with large tulle sleeves and pearl necklaces.

However, Beyoncé is much closer to classic country in these songs’ aesthetics: in the short video, and in the two photographs (both Texas Hold ‘Em and 16 Carriages, which is a more classic ballad) she appears in wide-brimmed hats. That’s an image similar to the one she sported at the Grammys last week, which gave a hint about this album that few picked up on and many saw simply as a nod to her origins. The rise of Texas is powerful in the United States. It is the second-largest state (after Alaska) and the second most populous (with 30 million inhabitants, second only to California, with nearly 40), and its music, customs, foods and styles reign throughout the South.

All indications are that Beyoncé will be a powerful revivalist for the genre. Country is a particular kind of music: it has its own stations and its own awards, its own territorial demarcation, its own lexicon and its own style. You either love it, or you hate it. The fact that one of the biggest pop stars of recent times has come to shake it up from within and give it greater visibility can be a source of pride or a slap in the face for those in Nashville. It is also significant that this artist is a woman. In the last 40 years, the most important award of the Country Music Awards, the Entertainer of the Year, has only been won by a woman five times, bookended by Reba McEntire (who sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl on Sunday) in 1986, and Lainey Wilson in 2023. In between were Shania Twain, in 1999, the Dixie Chicks in 2000 and Taylor Swift in 2011. Swift started her career in country and she evolved into pop and other genres from there. Beyoncé is now making the reverse journey, although we will have to wait until March to see her complete evolution in this unchartered territory.

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