(April 1, 2024).  Frankly speaking, calling Cowboy Carter Beyoncé’s magnum opus wouldn’t be a stretch.

It is truly an album of sublime quality — both thematically and musically — from an artist who is now 21 years and eight studio LPs into a solo career that stands among the most influential and most important in pop culture.  

But placing Cowboy Carter — Bey’s multi-genre (but mostly country) tribute to the music of both her and America’s southern heritage — on the level of one of the greatest albums of all time by one of music’s true geniuses is a claim only I will likely be bold enough to make, one that will surely illicit some jeers from readers who‘ll see the headline and immediately think I’m off my rocker by comparing the two.

I’m not.

I’m not off my rocker, that is.  And I’m only slightly not comparing the two. 

Look, as you read further, you’ll see I’m simply making the case that, from an artist’s own repertoire’s standpoint, Cowboy Carter is to Beyoncé’s catalogue what Songs in the Key of Life was to Stevie Wonder’s (and there are some musical similarities too, which I’ll get to later in the article).

Both albums are the culmination of a series of unprecedented artistic achievements (from within their own sets of albums) that include roughly three or four successive stellar releases that are capped by strokes-of-genius, pure masterpieces (yes, Cowboy Carter is a masterpiece).

Stevie Wonder’s classic album period included Talking Book (1972), Innervisions (1973), Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974), and Songs in the Key of Life (1976)

Here’s the argument.

Stevie’s Songs in 1976 famously followed iconic albums in Talking BookInnervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale, released in that order between 1972-74.

They were albums so critically and commercially successful that the two-year gap between Fulfillingness and Songs prompted Motown Records to run full-page ads in music trade magazines proclaiming “We’re almost finished” in the months leading up to the latter’s eventual September 1976 release. 

Diversion: Which R&B artists had the greatest four-album sequences of the 20th century? See our ranking!

By contrast, the 22 months separating Cowboy from its Renaissance predecessor must feel like a gift to Beyoncé fans — or the Beyhive in their most ardent form — who had to wait more than six years between Renaissance and its 2016 foremother Lemonade.

Like Wonder’s four-album “classic period” during the 1970s (which arguably includes a fifth LP, 1972’s Music of My Mind), Beyoncé’s stretch from her self-titled 2013 LP to LemonadeRenaissance and now Cowboy Carter is easily her four-album iconic period (and, as with Stevie’s Music/Mind, some might dare throw Bey’s 2011 album 4 in her classic mix for good measure).

Beyoncé, the 2013 album, is still largely viewed as one of the greats of the 21st century — and definitely of its era — as it graces nearly every best-of list known to millennial critics.  The album’s mature sexual exploration and experimentation in sound was a complete pivot for Queen Bey, whose repertoire before then consisted mainly of pop, dance and R&B bops that made her one of the most commercially successful artists of the early 21st century.

Even the album’s release was groundbreaking, coming as a surprise on a Friday (when albums were still being issued on Tuesdays).  Beyoncé singlehandedly shifted how albums were marketed from then on, with the industry moving its standard release date from Tuesday to Friday and other artists employing the same surprise-release strategy that Bey had successfully navigated.  

The universally acclaimed followup, 2016’s Lemonade, was an even more powerful statement from a woman eight years into a marriage where infidelity had reared its head.  Beyoncé would tackle this unwelcome guest head-on while simultaneously addressing issues of gender and race.

Coming on the cusp of both the #MeToo and first #BLM movements, as well as an election year featuring Hillary Clinton — the first female presidential nominee of a major political party (and the infamous First Lady in her own husband’s notorious White House affair two decades earlier), not to mention who her 2016 election opponent was — Lemonade was as timely a musical statement and social commentary as there ever was in an album.  

It has simply been considered one of the greatest albums of all time, eclipsing even its predecessor in praise.

Beyoncé’s classic four-album period? Beyoncé (2013), Lemonade (2016), Renaissance (2022), Cowboy Carter (2024)

Renaissance came next, a full 75 months after Lemonade (and after an intervening reconciliation/duet album with her husband, billed as The Carters), where Beyoncé took a deep dive into her Black house music roots, exploring (and celebrating) its various sub-genres and its sub-contexts of sexual and gender identity and fluidity.

From Renaissance came one of the most cohesive musical statements any artist had made in the 2020s.  It also included “Break My Soul,” the empowering dance anthem that returned Bey to the top of the Hot 100 singles chart as a lead artist for the first time since “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” 13 years earlier.

All three albums — BeyoncéLemonade and Renaissance — were envelope-pushing masterstrokes, with all three hitting No. 1 (as have all of Beyoncé’s major solo releases) and all three being Grammy-nominated for Album of the Year, a fate that likely awaits Cowboy Carter as well.

On the other hand, Wonder’s triple-pack of albums from 1972-74 (prior to Songs) equally found him on a creative ascendancy, each album sonically and lyrically taking him where he hadn’t been previously.

All were commercial and critical successes, with the latter two — Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale — not only nominated for but winning AOTY Grammys, respectively, in 1974 and ‘75 (it should be noted that Talking Book and Innervisions were eligible for the same year’s awards in ‘74, with the latter likely cancelling out the former but the singles from Talking Book taking home three trophies of their own that year).

Stevie would eventually pull the hat trick with Songs in 1977, taking home his third-consecutive Best Album Grammy with the LP that is largely considered his career peak performance, both commercially and critically speaking. 

But, of course, music critics, historians and trade publications have had nearly half a century to ponder the importance and significance of Stevie’s Songs, a work of art so magnificent that Wonder devoted whole concert tours to performing it in its entirety 40 years later.

Contrarily, we’ve had just four days (as of this writing) to digest Cowboy Carter, lending some legitimacy to any concerns that this article might be jumping the gun with its titular assertion and its exaltation of Bey’s new deep dive into country.

But it’s not that much of a stretch to compare Cowboy Carter and its potential cultural influence and social impact to that of Songs in the Key of Life, given both albums’ musical and lyrical themes and messages.

Consider the following:

Both albums open with anthemic, cautionary songs about the elusive nature of love… not romantic love, but the kind of universal love found in acceptance of others.

It’s the lack thereof that prompts Wonder to begin his whole album with this wake-up call: “Good morn or evening, Friends. Here’s your friendly announcer. I have serious news to pass on to everybody.”

Wonder’s “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” with its complex chord patterns and well-harmonized, gospel-like backing vocals, found Stevie preaching his sermon about the absence of true love and how it could lead to world disaster, pleading with listeners to “send yours in right away.”

Similarly, Beyoncé’s “Ameriican Requiem” begins with the singer sounding an alarm about the state of things in her home country, addressing listeners directly in a manner similar to what Wonder had: “Hello, my old friend. You change your name but not the ways you play pretend.”

In “Ameriican Requiem” we find Bey self-harmonizing in an equally gospel-like and chord-progressive tune — with the singer coming “in peace and love” and challenging listeners to “let love in” as Wonder had almost 50 years earlier, and with her country cadence taking on the roles of both announcer and singer, similar to her musical forefather.

With each tune setting the tone for what was to follow, both songs could’ve easily served as the titles of their respective albums.

“Ameriican Requiem” is among the best cuts on Cowboy Carter.

There are other parallels as well.

Both Beyoncé (to Rumi) and Stevie (to Ayesha) give odes to their young daughters in “Protector” and “Isn’t She Lovely,” respectively.  Both girls’ voices are heard on the songs, and both singers pay homage to the partners with whom their daughters were conceived.

Stevie famously sang “darling, it could have not been done, without you who conceived the one.”  While, Yoncé croons, “I first saw your face in your father’s gaze, there’s a long line of hands carrying your name.”

On Songs, Wonder additionally waxes nostalgic about how he was reared on “I Wish,” while Beyonce does the same on her new album’s “16 Carriages,” albeit from a darker perspective.

Then there are the broader history lessons, both implicit and otherwise, contained in both albums.

Stevie gave us “Black Man,” an unapologetically assertive rundown of the contributions to American and world history by people not only of the Black race, but of every color and race one could envision at the time.  If a song could embody what DEI might have been in 1976, Wonder’s “Black Man” was it.

He also famously paid tribute to great jazz/big band musicians such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Glenn Miller in the No. 1 smash “Sir Duke.”

Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is more implicit in its lessons, with a guest list that includes Linda Martell, the first Black woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry and the first to reach the top 40 of the country chart more than half a century ago.  Bey also gives nods to other Black country singers and includes legendary figures Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson as curators.

She also invokes history by reworking Parton’s “Jolene” (on which Wonder plays harmonica) and the Beatles’ classic “Blackbiird” (double-i spelling intentional in keeping with the album’s Act II theme). Of course, Paul McCartney wrote “Blackbird” in the wake of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

Whereas Beyoncé’s song “Daughter” sees the singer unexpectedly (and pleasantly) delving into an Italian-sung aria about two-thirds of the way through, Wonder went multilingual on “Ngiculela-Es Una Historia-I Am Singing.”

And as Beyoncé warns about the dangers of extra-marital philandering — both for the man (in “Daughter”) where she sings of recurring thoughts of violent revenge, and the woman (in the script-flipping rendition of “Jolene”) whom she dares to try and take her man — Wonder delivers “Ordinary Pain,” a two-part perspective on lost-love told both from the forlorn, cheating protagonist (Stevie) and his ex-lover (guest singer Shirley Brewer) whose answer is both a scathing reminder of why he lost her in the first place and a detailed account of the personal revenge she’s exacted with his friend.

Even the sublime “As,” arguably the best tune on Songs, has its Cowboy Carter counterpart, albeit in a much shorter form and with a subtle plot-twist.  

Stevie sung of a love so strong that it would survive the impossible coming true, like the “day that 8x8x8 is four” or “the day that Mother Nature says her work is through.”

In Beyoncé’s new “Alliigator Tears,” she similarly equates the strength of her love to feats unimaginable, which she’ll make come true to retain her love: “you say move a mountain, and I’ll throw on my boots. You say stop the river from runnin,’ I’ll build a dam or two.”

Then there are the guest musicians who appeared on both albums.  Wonder famously collaborated with 130 people on Songs, including famous names like Deniece Williams, Minnie Riperton, George Benson, Michael Sembello, and Herbie Hancock.

Beyonce features artists like the aforementioned country superstars plus contemporary singers Miley Cyrus, Post Malone, and up-and-coming Willie Jones and Shaboozey, as well as dozens of writers and producers.

And finally, there are the albums’ lengths.

Songs was easily Wonder’s longest at the time, both in duration (1 hour, 45 minutes) and in the number of songs (21).

Cowboy Carter is equally Beyoncé’s longest at 1 hour, 18 minutes, and 27 tracks (several of which are less than 90 seconds in length).  Only a re-released, deluxe “platinum edition” of 2013’s Beyoncé clocks longer at 1 hour, 33 minutes (still with fewer tracks).

So what does all of this mean?

While I am no way asserting that Beyoncé’s latest effort is either better than or even in the same league as an album that has been cited by generations of musicians and fans alike as one of the greatest albums of all time, I am offering that the passage of time could fairly render such a conclusion.

And there are certainly enough parallels to draw structural comparisons, at least, between Cowboy Carter and Songs in the Key of Life.

Similarly, the importance of each album in the artist’s long, storied catalogue of classic LPs leading up to and including them cannot be overstated.

Each album will ultimately have its own unique place in history as well.

Stevie’s Songs was the first album by a Black artist to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in October 1976, back when only Elton John had done it previously.  Bey’s Cowboy will be the first LP by a Black female to debut at No. 1 on the Hot Country Albums chart next week.  

Only time will tell whether Cowboy Carter will be revered in the same way nearly half a century from now as Songs is today.

The first step in creating its legacy may be that elusive Album of the Year Grammy win, something that Songs did in 1977 and for which Cowboy is clearly already a favorite for 2025.

We shall see.


”Bodyguard” is the blog’s pick for best cut on Cowboy Carter.

Ps: The blog’s pick for best tracks on Cowboy Carter are the following: 1. “Bodyguard” 2. “Ameriican Requiem” 3. “Blackbiird” 4. “Daughter” 5. “II Most Wanted”

DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, disco, pop, rock and country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

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By DJ Rob

2 thoughts on “‘Cowboy Carter’ is Beyoncé’s ‘Songs in the Key of Life’… seriously”
  1. On point! I love what Beyoncé is doing and I simply without question keep Stevie Wonder on my daily playlist. Thanks for that.

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