Lil Nas X Conquered Pop On His Own Terms

Charlotte Rutherford

Lil Nas X Conquered Pop On His Own Terms

Charlotte Rutherford

Lil Nas X was going to be a one-hit wonder. This much seemed obvious to me. “Old Town Road” had all the makings of a fleeting career. A half-rap, half-country novelty hit about a lean-drinking cowboy who’ll ride ’til he drops, made viral through savvy promotion on TikTok and Twitter, buoyed by controversy over whether it should qualify for Billboard‘s country charts, then sent into overdrive by a remix featuring the “Achy Breaky Heart” guy — it was more a meme than a song, a joyous joke adults and children alike could be in on. After the track spent a record-breaking 19 weeks at #1 on Billboard‘s Hot 100, its momentum extended by an assortment of star-studded alternate remixes and videos, it also started to seem like an albatross. Despite everything the “Old Town Road” saga said about this guy’s musical and promotional skills, it was hard to imagine where he could possibly go next. But Montero Hill is nothing if not imaginative.

At this point, about two years after “Old Town Road” ended its run at #1, not only is Lil Nas X not a one-hit wonder, he’s one of the surest things in mainstream music. He nabbed a Album Of The Year nomination for an EP. He landed three more songs in the top five, including one that debuted at #1 and another that was only blocked from the top of the chart by an aggressive BTS stan campaign. He has expertly stirred controversy with some of the most vividly rendered music videos in recent memory and strategically outrageous merch, weaponizing his sexuality, inciting a lawsuit from one of the world’s largest corporations, and throwing in some satanic panic for good measure. His debut album Montero will surely spin off more hits, partially because it shows him wielding the ruling rap, pop, and rock sounds of the moment with expertise. “Funny how you said it was the end,” he raps on “Industry Baby” in a rebuke of skeptics like me. “Then I went did it again.”

Even LNX’s most fervent supporters would agree his promo acumen has been inextricable from his success. During the Montero cycle, that has included descending into hell for sex with Satan, leading a jailhouse full of naked men through a dick-swinging dance routine, donning a prosthetic pregnancy bump ahead of “birthing” the new album, and selling modified Nikes that feature pentagrams and drops of human blood. As he puts it on one song featuring his fellow attention magnet Doja Cat, “I’m just tryna be the daily scoop.” But Montero, released last Friday, affirms that he’s musically adept as well. The album is hooky and energetic, with versatile songwriting and production that maintains a recognizable imprint despite all the genre morphing. Although parts of it edge up to the cheesier corners of the modern pop landscape, it’s an undeniably fun, engaging debut with some depth to it — the kind of album that bodes well for a young star’s future.

Lyrically, Montero largely presents a mix of “hell yeah I’m famous now” and “oh shit I’m famous now” common among budding superstars, delivered with a personal touch and some raw vulnerability that adds some freshness to the usual proceedings. That he’s achieved this success as a gay Black man makes elements of the album’s story feel culturally significant and new, starting right up front with a lustfully flirtatious #1 single named for the queer coming of age movie Call Me By Your Name. As others have pointed out, queerness colors the darker, heavier side of the album as well. Throughout, Lil Nas X revels in the pursuit of both fleeting pleasure and more enduring partnership. But there’s real pain on display too, as on the moody standout “Dead Right Now,” which finds him spitefully telling his old acquaintances, “You know you never used to call/ Keep it that way now.”

That song’s arrangement blooms when a choir bursts forth to sing, “Hallelujah, how’d ya do it?” — one of several great flourishes from Lil Nas X’s core team of collaborators. Like many songs on Montero, it was produced by Take A Daytrip, a duo whose signature sound feels like a synthetic horn-blaring triumphal procession, a regal and ostentatious wave sweeping across the land. Like LNX, they show off their range here. “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and “Tales Of Dominica” boast Latin guitar flourishes. “Scoop” matches booming digital bass with a snaking, effervescent keyboard melody. Against the colorfully melodic trap backdrops of “Dolla Sign Slime” and “Industry Baby” — the latter with a production assist from Kanye West — LNX the MC shows he can keep up with newly minted rap stars Megan Thee Stallion and Jack Harlow. Closer “Am I Dreaming” — a duet with Miley Cyrus (daughter of “Old Town Road” costar Billy Ray) — is a dreamy acoustic ballad that manages to sound dramatic rather than treacly.

The songs not helmed by Take A Daytrip are mostly handled by John Cunningham, best known for his work with the late XXXTentacion. Cunningham’s contributions range from the crystalline hip-hop ballad “One Of Me” (laced with Elton John’s piano) to the rock dirge “Life After Salem.” The best of them is “Lost In The Citadel,” which deftly weaves pop and rap’s current pop-punk influence into a synthpop ballad like a runaway train. Speaking of pop-punk’s recent mainstream infiltration, also all over Montero is Omer Fedi, the Israeli guitarist who has recently been accumulating writing and production credits on smash hits at an impressive clip. Fedi worked on 24kGoldn’s “Mood” and the Kid Laroi’s “Stay” as well as Machine Gun Kelly’s #1 album Tickets To My Downfall. He was involved with about half of these songs, too, helping them to thrive within the current parameters of the Top 40.

Montero succeeds as a big-ticket pop-rap album, but not all of the touchstones it evokes are positive. Despite a tidal wave of a chorus and crisp production that makes acoustic guitar chords sound otherworldly, new single “That’s What I Want” — which credits OneRepublic dude and hit-making songwriter Ryan Tedder among others — is the sort of high-fructose pop-rock track that would be ridiculed by tastemakers if, say, Maroon 5 or Jason Derulo released it. LNX’s knack for melody is undeniable, yet when he digs into his lower register, his hooks remind me of the mush-mouthed Kid Cudi at best and Flo Rida at worst. Even though the album burns through 15 tracks in just 41 minutes, the tracklist gets bogged down with too many darker, slower tracks in the final third.

Still, in a year where so many of music’s biggest stars are opting for quiet, small, depressive listens seemingly arisen from pandemic isolation, it’s nice to hear one of pop’s new princes really going for it, and doing so on his own terms. Even the lesser parts of Montero never feel like the result of churning out tracks in bulk, the way, say, Post Malone albums often do. Even the most on-trend moments show a Drake-like ability to reshape musical currents in his own image. This is clearly and unmistakably the album Lil Nas X wanted to make, and it has already helped him to escape the shadow of “Old Town Road,” to the point that I sometimes forget his origin story entirely. I am intrigued to see just how far he can ride.

Republic Records

CHART WATCH

Surprising no one, Drake’s Certified Lover Boy remains at #1 on the Billboard 200 for a second straight week. Per Billboard, the album tallied 236,000 equivalent album units, 227,000 of which derived from 305.43 million on-demand track streams. Kanye West’s 79,000 units for Donda just narrowly beat out Kacey Musgraves’ star-crossed, which debuts at #3 with 77,000 units and 47,000 in sales.

After Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour comes a #5 debut for Baby Keem’s The Melodic Blue with 53,000 units, almost all of them via streaming. Doja Cat, the Kid Laroi, and Morgan Wallen are next at #6, #7, and #8 respectively. Then Metallica’s self-titled “Black Album” from 1991 shoots back up from #158 to #9 due to its 30th anniversary reissue. The album notched 37,000 units, including 29,000 in sales. Billie Eilish rounds out the top 10.

On the Hot 100, the Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber’s “Stay” is back at #1 for a fifth nonconsecutive week following Drake’s historic top 10 domination last week. Drake, Future, and Young Thug’s “Way 2 Sexy” falls to #2. Ed Sheeran’s “Bad Habits” is back to #3, while Drake and 21 Savage’s “Knife Talk” jumps up a spot to a new #4 peak.

Two weeks ago, when this column was off for Labor Day, country singer Walker Hayes’ “Fancy Like” — the TikTok hit about Applebee’s that has since become an Applebee’s ad incorporating TikTok footage — climbed into the top 10. Now that Drake’s grip has loosened a bit, it’s up to a new #5 peak, in part thanks to a new remix featuring Kesha. Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow’s “Industry Baby” is at #6, followed by Olivia Rodrigo’s “good 4 u” at #7 and Doja Cat and SZA’s “Kiss Me More” at #8. Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” and Drake and Lil Baby’s “Girls Want Girls” close out the top 10.

POP FIVE

Tems – “Found” (Feat. Brent Faiyaz)
Deservedly hyped R&B singers from Lagos and Baltimore link up, and unsurprisingly it’s a vibe. I’m surprised Babyface was not involved with this.

Sam Smith & Summer Walker – “You Will Be Found”
Get that bag, Summer Walker, but this trash ballad would be trash even if it wasn’t affiliated with the ridiculous-looking Dear Evan Hansen movie.

G-Eazy – “Breakdown” (Feat. Demi Lovato)
Not the worst discount “Love The Way You Lie” pop-rap song I’ve ever heard. I don’t imagine I’ll ever actively seek it out, but that aggressive chorus melody works well, and the lyrics actually made me feel bad for these two, momentarily.

Jonas Brothers – “Who’s In Your Head”
I just realized Jonas Brothers are the new Maroon 5.

LILHUDDY – “Partycrasher”
That “I’m not sorry that I crashed your party” hook is pretty persuasive. Was about to call for an end to the pop-punk revival before the chorus hit.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Kelly Clarkson announced a new single with the ingenious title “Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You).” [Instagram]
  • Kehlani teased a new album, Blue Water Road, coming in winter. [Twitter]
  • Here’s the teaser for Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling starring Harry Styles and Florence Pugh. [Instagram]
  • Ed Sheeran on awards shows: “It’s a really horrible atmosphere to be in. I always walk away feeling really sad, and I don’t like it.” [Audacy]
  • Swedish House Mafia teased a collab with the Weeknd. [Instagram]
  • Beyoncé sings “Moon River” in a new Tiffany & Co. ad with Jay-Z. [YouTube]
  • Bruno Mars performed at the wedding of Motorola’s CEO’s son. [TMZ]
  • Olivia Rodrigo played her first concert as part of iHeartRadio Festival over the weekend. [iHeart]
  • BTS spoke at the United Nations General Assembly as presidential special envoys for South Korea. [Soompi]
  • Halsey released a performance video for “I am not a woman, I’m a god.” [YouTube]
  • Billie Eilish live-debuted a bunch of Happier Than Ever tracks at Life Is Beautiful. [YouTube]
  • Speaking of Eilish, Shawn Mendes covered “Happier Than Ever” in the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge. [YouTube]
  • Kacey Musgraves released a “very unofficial” video for “Breadwinner.” [YouTube]
  • Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” soundtracks a new anti-gun PSA. [Twitter]
  • A man with a knife was arrested outside Ariana Grande’s house in LA. [TMZ]
  • Disney+’s animated The Proud Family revival will include Lizzo, Lil Nas X, Normani, and Chance The Rapper in its voice cast. [Comic Book]
  • NCT 127 did “Sticker” on Corden. [YouTube]

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