After much fanfare in recent months—and a creative process stretching back five yearsBeyoncé has released her “country album,” Cowboy Carter, a 27-track collection featuring guest appearances by country icons like Willie NelsonDolly Parton, and Linda Martell in addition to contemporary sorta-country pop hitmakers like Post Malone and Miley Cyrus, country up-and-comers like Willie JonesBrittney Spencer, and Shaboozey, and more.

The album serves as Act II on a creative reinvention the superstar singer began with her 2022 dance music album, RENAISSANCE and, per The Associated Press, was inspired by what Beyoncé has called “‘an experience that I had years ago where I did not feel welcomed … and it was very clear that I wasn’t,’ most likely a reference to a 2016 CMA Awards performance that resulted in racist backlash.”

Cowboy Carter has already generated widespread praise in its short time in the wild. “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM”, one of the LP’s two pre-release singles, is currently enjoying a run at #1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. However, the track hasn’t exerted as much force on country radio as it has on the charts, which track streams and other on-demand consumption methods. On the Radio Wave Monitor Hot Country 100 chart dated 3/24/24, “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM” sits at #63 most-played, indicating a deviation between what “country music” people are listening to and what music country radio deems “country” enough to populate its airwaves.

There are more than a handful of surefire hits on this record that are bound to stick around on the charts for the foreseeable future. That feels like a certainty. Less certain is how those hits will be scored, and that’s sort of the whole point. Beyoncé made a “country album” that sounds like a Beyoncé album—wide-ranging stylistic wanderings included—and dares the country establishment to disagree.

The album addresses the clearly expected pushback to her country turn almost immediately. On the opening track. “AMERIICAN REQUIEM”, Beyoncé lays out her roots as the “grandbaby of a moonshine man, Gadsen, Alabama” with “folk down in Galveston, rooted in Louisiana.” She continues:

Used to say I spoke, “Too country”
And the rejection came, said “I wasn’t country ‘nough”
Said I wouldn’t saddle up, but
If that ain’t country, tell me what is?
Plant my bare feet on solid ground for years
They don’t, don’t know how hard I had to fight for this
When I sang my song. 

The extensive set is impeccably curated, with many songs flowing imperceptibly into the next and thematic threads running throughout to keep listeners engaged in the ride. Its various skits (“SMOKE HOUR – WILLIE NELSON”, “SMOKE HOUR II”, “DOLLY P”, “THE LINDA MARTELL SHOW”) don’t just give Bey country street cred—they add thought-provoking context to her anti-status quo pursuits in a notoriously rigid lane.

A toking Willie Nelson provides the intro for “TEXAS HOLD EM'” on his first of two “SMOKE HOUR” interludes, then tries to level with the average country fan on the second: “If there’s one thing you can take away from our set today, let it be this: Sometimes, you don’t know what you like and then someone you trust turns you on to some real good s—. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I’m here.”

On “DOLLY P”, Dolly Parton herself checks in over the introduction to her iconic “Jolene” to relate her world to Beyoncé’s: “You know that hussie with the good hair you sing about? Reminded me of someone I knew back when, except she has flamin’ locks of auburn hair, bless her heart. Just a hair of a different color, but it hurts just the same.” Bey’s vitriolic recreation of “Jolene” follows in full, with lyrics updated to change the tone of the narrator’s pleas from “begging” to “try me, b—.”

She takes a country classic and makes it hers, and the way her life lays so neatly across the iconic song’s thematic framework is an a-ha moment of its own. As Dolly said on Friday in a post on social media, “Wow I just heard Jolene. Beyoncé is giving that girl some trouble and she deserves it!”

The album’s recreation of another famous song, The Beatles‘ “Blackbird” (“BLACKBIIRD”), further goads would-be deniers of its country credentials. Sure, the original version of this song isn’t a “country song,” but who can say it’s categorically “not country” when it features vocal contributions from a slew of rising Black women in country (Brittney Spencer, Reyna Roberts, Tanner Adell, Tiera Kennedy). The cover choice perhaps relates more closely to Beyoncé’s own journey—and latest “act”—than the album’s running “country” theme: Paul McCartney has noted on various occasions that the song’s titular “Blackbird” should be interpreted as “Black girl” and its moving lyrics as a reference to 1957’s Little Rock Crisis and the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. It’s a song about societal racism, defying naysayers, and seizing a moment with grace—themes to which Beyoncé can clearly relate.

Related: Paul McCartney, Dolly Parton Weigh In On Beyoncé Covers Of Their Songs On Cowboy Carter

Linda Martell, the first Black woman to achieve mainstream country success in the early 1970s, also weighs in on Beyoncé’s country aspirations. “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?” the 82-year-old asks on “SPAGHETTI”. “In theory, they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand. But in practice, well, some may feel confined.” Carter runs with that concept, moving into a drill-rap verse like her name is Cardi Bey.

“DAUGHTER”, one of many acoustic guitar-driven songs on the album (+1 country point) winds up floating in an operatic cloud of choral voices (-1 country point). “TYRANT” sports old-school country-sounding lyrics about heartbreak and the hangman, but also lush Beyoncé harmony; a fiddle part, but also hip-hop 808s and ad-libs (that’s hip-hop, not country, even if she’s shouting, “Giddyup, giddyup”).

The bassline on “DESERT EAGLE” sounds like Thundercat (-1 country point), but the lyrics name-check both the rodeo and the general size difference of things in Texas (+1 country point). “RIVERDANCE” builds out from a bluegrass intro but quickly morphs into smokey R&B. Still, lyrics about staring down the barrel of a shotgun and running through the river bring things reliably back to the Cowboy assignment. “II HANDS TO HEAVEN” deals in horses (+1) and fast cars (+1) but dwells mostly in swirling electric piano and hip-hop beats (-1). Still, a subtle slide guitar part (whatup Robert Randolph!) surfaces periodically to remind you that we haven’t strayed too far.

Later, in a skit entitled “THE LINDA MARTELL SHOW”, Martell adds, “This particular tune stretches across a range of genres and that’s what makes it a unique listening experience. Yes, indeed.” The ensuing track, “YA YA”, delivers on that promise. It starts like an old-school country cowgirl tune, calls out the “rodeo chitlin circuit,” eases into an early-rock and roll pulse, flies through soulful verses, quotes The Beach Boys, takes off with blazing horns and guitar solos, and pools into uplifting gospel.

As much as the contemporary “country music” establishment is famously closed-minded when it comes to artists on its fringes, the current moment in the country world has been defined by unlikely success stories of that ilk. Don’t forget, the reigning CMA Song of the Year winner is a Black woman (Tracy Chapman) and the song she won for isn’t exactly a country song, either. (The driving force behind her country resurgence was a white guy covering her, but still). Plus, what’s “country” today looks and sounds a lot different than the country of Willie’s outlaw heyday, or the glitz and glam that made Parton famous, or the proper aesthetic of Martell’s rise to prominence.

Beyoncé’s “country album” sounds like a Beyoncé album—and I mean that in the best possible way. She set out to make an album that reflects her country roots and ambitions, and the album is fantastic. It’s not necessarily not country—though many of its prevailing musical traits have typically been categorized in other ways—but it sounds like she knows that. It sounds like she’s here to consciously turn those categorizations on their heads, just like Willie and Dolly and Linda did before her. To quote a notable country star, “If that ain’t country, tell me what is?”

And look, this is what one person came to after one solitary listen to the album—and I’m not even a person who particularly loves Beyoncé or country music. There are certainly layers and layers of intrigue and significance and brilliant musicality in this record, a record that already seems destined for Grammy glory when the time comes to highlight the biggest stars in the music world writ large. What will the CMAs and the country world have to say about it? Well, that’s more of a mystery.

Is this a country album? To be honest, I’m not sure. But it is a great album, and one I look forward to unpacking with Beylievers and skeptics alike for years to come—just as long as we can listen to Cowboy Carter while we do it.

Beyoncé – Cowboy Carter – Full Album