Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” Might Herald A Whole New Era For Country-Rap
For decades now, people have been trying to make country-rap happen. It’s an amorphous concept: a fusion of the two styles of music that, since the advent of the Soundscan era, are probably the two most popular and the two most widely disrespected and lampooned genres of music in America. At least theoretically, one appeals to urban black audiences, while the other appeals to rural white ones. But the listening habits of Americans are never as simple or clear-cut as that, and that’s where all the crossover attempts come from.
Some of those attempts have even been successful. In 2004, Nelly and Tim McGraw teamed up for the single “Over & Over,” which made it to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 without even getting any country-radio play. Eight years later, Nelly jumped on a remix of Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” helping push that song to #4 on the Hot 100. But when Nelly attempted to remake himself as a country artist, Darius Rucker-style, nothing came of it. And when Bubba Sparxxx — a white rural rapper who’d already made hits — attempted to fuse country and rap on the 2003 album Deliverance, the combination turned out to be an outright commercial failure. Deliverance is something like a masterpiece, with producers Timbaland an Organized Noize working to find some far-out common ground between the two genres and Bubba telling life stories with real grit and eloquence. But it went nowhere, and Bubba didn’t score another hit until he went back to rapping about butts.
Pimp C used to say that UGK made “country-rap tunes” — organic gutbucket anthems about black life in the provincial boonies. But the hermetic country-music establishment never saw it that way. Country has come to accept rap music, but it’s only been rap music from country insiders. Kid Rock, not really a rapper or a country singer, found himself a home in the Nashville establishment when the rest of the world moved on. Big & Rich once tried to push their protege Cowboy Troy, a towering black dude who wore a cowboy hat and made extremely corny rap songs. A few years ago, there was a little mini-wave where country stars like Jason Aldean and Blake Shelton were quasi-rapping on singles. And that begat Sam Hunt, the country megalith who sounds more like Drake than like Kenny Chesney.
And then there’s hick-hop. This has been going on for a few years: a whole thriving quasi-underground scene of dudes rapping over country music. The mini-genre’s big names — Colt Ford, the Lacs, Big Smo — aren’t exactly stars, but they can tour vast swaths of the US, and their videos reliably rack up millions of views. Last year, there was a fascinating Rolling Stone feature about that whole scene: backwoods white dudes who wave Confederate flags onstage, crowds who chant about Donald Trump at the slightest provocation. This scene has attempted to adapt Bubba Sparxxx as a founding inspiration. Bubba doesn’t want any part of it.
Given all that, it’ll be fascinating to see what, if anything, comes of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” the viral hit that’s currently fucking up any perceptions about how genres are supposed to work. “Old Town Road” is a tiny little sketch of a song, one that’s less than two minutes long. Lil Nas X — and no, I don’t know why he named himself that — is a young Atlanta college dropout whose other songs are pretty standard trap stuff. But on “Old Town Road,” he puts on a fake white Southern drawl and plays around with Old West iconography: “My life is a movie / Ridin’ bull and boobies / Cowboy hat from Gucci / Wrangler on my booty.” The beat has a warm, gooey melody and a sprinkling of banjo, but it doesn’t come from country music. Instead, producer YoungKio sampled one of the tracks from Nine Inch Nails’ 2008 instrumental collection Ghosts I-IV.
So “Old Town Road” is not a country song. Instead, it’s part of a long tradition of goofy rap songs about cowboys. It belongs in the proud tradition of Kool Moe Dee’s “Wild Wild West,” Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West,” the Fugees’ “Cowboys,” Mo Thugs Family’s “Ghetto Cowboy,” and Kool G Rap and Marley Marl wearing Old West drag in the video for “The Symphony.” There’s no proper video for “Old Town Road”; there’s just a video that sets the song to footage from the video game Red Dead Redemption 2. But when Lil Nas X posted the song on SoundCloud and iTunes back in December, he labelled the genre as “country.” This has led to some hysteria.
“Old Town Road” blew up. Or maybe I should say that it is currently, this moment, blowing up; the process is not complete yet. It’s one of those organic things: A song catches on with kids on the internet, and the rest of the world scrambles to catch up. In the case of “Old Town Road,” kids were apparently using the song to make memes on TikTok, and I am much too old to further investigate this phenomenon. (It’s apparently part of a larger thing called the Yee Haw Agenda. Again: too old. Sorry.) But the song is massive. Right now, as I type this, it’s at #32 on the Billboard Hot 100. On the Apple Music singles chart, it’s at #1, finally ending the notoriety-driven weeks-long reign of YNW Melly’s “Murder On My Mind.” (The success of that song, after Melly’s arrest for murder, is a whole other column, and it’s one that I really don’t want to write.) Last week, Lil Nas X signed to Columbia for what I imagine was a whole lot of money. “Old Town Road” is starting to crest just as the weather is getting warm. We can probably expect to hear it a lot this summer.
Funny thing about “Old Town Road”: A couple of weeks ago, it debuted at #19 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, despite not being a country song. Country stars like Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley have endorsed it. Last week, the website Saving Country Music wrote an editorial imploring Billboard to remove “Old Town Road” from the country charts, calling the track a “viral ‘song’ that is really nothing more than an internet meme.” (Choice quotes: “There appears to be absolutely no credible reason to include this song on a country chart aside from a bigoted stereotype bred from the fact that horses and cowboy hats are referenced in the lyrics,” “Sometimes these memes are just fun, but some appear to be demeaning or lampoon cowboy and rural culture.”) And Billboard actually did just what the editorial wanted. As Rolling Stone reports, Billboard is no longer considering “Old Town Road” a country song: “While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”
“Old Town Road” is an enormously catchy song — catchy to the point where it leaves genre boundaries smudged and incomprehensible. I have no idea whether Lil Nas X is capable of making another song like that, or indeed if he even wants to. But “Old Town Road” is going to change things. And maybe it’ll even change that border between rap and country music. Because unlike all those other crossover attempts, “Old Town Road” does not attempt to find some common ground between these two disparate genres. It simply exists, and it leaves anyone too old to be on TikTok wondering how the fuck this just happened.
1. DaBaby – “Baby On Baby Out Now Freestyle”
Here’s an interesting way to market your new album: Release a really good song that isn’t on the album, and give it a convoluted title that plugs the new album’s release. Baby On Baby out now!
2. Megan Thee Stallion – “Sex Talk”
The old Trina is still great, but let’s all welcome the arrival of a whole new Trina. There can never be enough Trinas.
3. Maxo Kream, Ghost Magneto, & BG Kenny Lou – “Trap Relays”
There are many good things about this song, but the best of them is the revelation that there is now a rapper who is seriously named Ghost Magneto.
4. Injury Reserve – “Jailbreak The Tesla (Remix)” (Feat. Aminé)
“Your engine go vrooooom! / And my engine go [prolonged silence].” If Elon Musk isn’t paying these guys, he should be.
5. Don Q – “Quick Reminder”
“I plan on keeping my my name from ‘in memory of’ / I swear, this game will break up a bond with some people you generally love / The way they be moving, man, I cannot tell if they jealous, or is it a grudge? / They see me excelling, or is it because they picture me failing? / Well picture me sailing through Italy, pouring a pitcher of mud.” New York dudes will still make you make that somebody farted face.
IT WAS ALL GOOD JUST A WEEK AGO
blueface, baby, i'm every woman's fantasy pic.twitter.com/ATEUsrkd2c
— Al Shipley (@alshipley) March 19, 2019