Lil Nas X‘s superstardom should, by all accounts, be implausible. Everything from his stage name – a tongue-in-cheek reference to rappers who came before – to his journey from Nicki Minaj stan to viral hitmaker, only to end up on the Glastonbury Pyramid Stage and the Grammys podium feels less like a real-life story and more like a flight of fancy. Rather than becoming a boulevard of broken dreams, ‘Old Town Road’ was his ticket out. It was one the biggest selling number-one singles of all time, but paradoxically that has never been a determiner of long-lasting success (case in point: Psy and the once ubiquitous ‘Gangnam Style’). All signs pointed to a meteoric rise and a meteoric fall and the longer ‘Old Town Road’ spent at number one, the more it felt like Lil Nas’ eventual obscurity was certain.
So what do you do in the face of such an immutable inevitability? Lean into it, of course; market every successive single as a one-hit-wonder until you’ve got nothing but hits and a pair of Grammys on your shelf. With his debut album ‘Montero’, stacked with utterly undeniable pop-rap belters, Lil Nas X is an overnight superstar with a permanent residency. He’s still here to ride ’til he can’t no more.
If the record’s first two singles, ‘Montero’ and ‘Industry Baby’ were a statement of intent, then ‘That’s What I Want’ is the follow-through. A jaunty acoustic guitar riff drives the standout track, coupling Lil Nas X’s cheekiness with the bone-deep loneliness of the early Smiths and the kind of earnest pop song that Taylor Swift might have hidden in her vault. As always, his accompanying visuals take it to the next level: venturing from an All-American locker room sex scene sponsored by Durex to Brokeback Mountain heartache to shredding the electric guitar as a bride in a wedding for one. Somewhere in the simulation, RuPaul is surely looking down and trumpeting “if you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”
Lil Nas’ bold sexuality has been such an undeniable part of his appeal that it’s easy to forget how recently he hid his queerness from the public for fear of rejection. The gay god of mischief facade we’ve come to know and love often lifts throughout ‘Montero’ – transitioning from “I don’t fuck bitches – I’m queer” to “These gay thoughts would always haunt me / I prayed God would take it from me” as a reminder of his vulnerability. Mainstream hip-hop remains largely and woefully intolerant and whilst the tide is definitely turning – would DaBaby have suffered any consequences for his homophobic and serophobic rant had it happened ten years ago? – Lil Nas’ Black queer bravado is still nothing short of a miracle.
Rather than a frivolous bonus, his unreal levels of internet literacy (knowing precisely what will shock, delight and ensure he’s the “daily scoop”) are as much a part of the appeal as the music. In releasing remixes of his own tracks with titles like “MONTERO but ur in the bathroom of hell while lil nas is giving satan a lap dance in the other room” and quite literally birthing his album in a delivery room, there’s a recognition of what fans genuinely respond to in 2021. Beginning life as a Barb, “stanning Nicki morning into dawn”, it’s all too easy to picture the alternative universe where the rapper is taking on Chris Whitty to defend the honour of Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend’s swollen balls. But with his debut album, Lil Nas has a platform even better than Twitter to show off his irreverent wit.
On ‘Dolla Sign Slime’, Megan Thee Stallion retraces Nicki’s footsteps on Kanye’s ‘Monster’ by upstaging a lead artist on his own album, with a slick verse that injects yet more charisma: “Damn, watching me gotta turn you on / I should have my own category in porn”. Alongside Meg, the record’s feature list is a who’s who of young superstars – Jack Harlow, Doja Cat…Elton John – but it’s Lil Nas’ solo vocal on ‘One of Me’ and its sing-song hook that both sticks in your brain and offers a new perspective on the rapper; he’s not immune to the “you’s a meme, you’s a joke” criticism or the fear that he’ll never reach the heights of ‘Old Town Road’ again.
The beats on ‘Montero’ aren’t particularly revolutionary; hi-hat triplets and brass samples abound and nothing stands out quite like the ‘Old Town Road’ beat he bought for 30 bucks, but it hardly matters. Musically, the record goes down as smoothly as Lil Nas on that pole straight to hell. In closing, he pays homage to his beginnings by recruiting another member of the Cyrus family for the final track. Miley Cyrus joins on acoustic ballad ‘Am I Dreaming?’, covering the mournful side of fame where the pair are “shattered inside but…still gotta smile” – a far cry from the pomp and bombast of ‘Call Me By Your Name’.
It’s a melancholy finale for an artist built up as the living embodiment of a meme, indicating how all the media stunts (coming to the Met Gala ‘pregnant’, ripping off Nike with a line of trainers injected with a drop of his own blood) fit into his wider narrative. “Never forget me / And everything I’ve done” he croons, just another artist yearning for a legacy. With ‘Montero’, he has the start of one.