For Beyoncé, that’s quite a first. The flagship singles from her two previous studio albums — “Formation,” from 2016’s “Lemonade,” and “Break My Soul,” from 2022’s “Renaissance” — each seemed to explode into our consensus reality, simultaneously speaking to the heightening tensions in our national mood while still asserting their own distinct sense of pop futurism. This woman is an auteur who knows full well how to make exciting, new, detail-minded, zeitgeisty stuff. These two songs are not that.
It feels as if they were released as a pair because neither could stand on its own. Made with steel guitars, a church organ and a string section, “16 Carriages” is a plodding ballad about a beleaguered working mother struggling to make progress through life’s drudgery (“I might cook, clean, but still won’t fold”), but as Beyoncé’s voice flutters from plight to plight, the song goes nowhere. Meantime, “Texas Hold ’Em” feels like a lower-stakes redo of the vivid country dabbling she did on “Daddy Lessons” back in 2016, a song about the pains of a challenging childhood. “Texas Hold ’Em” is about dancing happily in a dive bar, its banjo twinklings punctuated with shouty “Woo!”s and “Hey!”s that sound needy and cosmetic.
To be clear, there’s no reason to object to Beyoncé making country music. But it needs to be Beyoncé-grade. That’s what’s tripping the wires, here. Instead of stepping toward a new creative vista, she sounds like she’s simply tapping a new market. Also, why now? And who for? Why, as a self-branded artist-advocate for human rights, would she choose to immerse herself in a musical idiom defined by its sense of nostalgia and tradition while the world outside continues to burn?
Obviously, a huge part of her politics has involved reclaiming the Black roots of various American music forms, so maybe “Act II” will eventually make these questions moot. But until then, let’s not forget that Beyoncé — along with just about every other contemporary pop star who appeared at the Grammys earlier this month — has kept completely silent over the killing of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza. If anyone at the top of the pops happens to be interested in singing about this world we share, please giddap.