“I told you long ago on the road / I got what they waiting for” Lil Nas X sings on the chorus of ‘Industry Baby’, asserting his place in mainstream pop while referencing his break-out single. A playful spin on country-western meets rap, 2019’s ‘Old Town Road’ samples Nine Inch Nails’ track ‘34 Ghosts IV’ and overlaid it with crisp trap beats and drawling verses about Gucci cowboy hats and tractor rides.
After quickly gathering steam on TikTok as part of the yee-haw challenge (in which TikTok-ers swig from a carton of yee-haw juice and transform into Stetson-slinging cowboys), the self-released track eventually crossed over to the Billboard charts four months later. Radio programmers reportedly ripped the track off YouTube in order to get it on air, and labels scrambled to sign the Lithia Springs artist well after he’d already gone viral.
While major labels and radio once cooked up smash hits in cooperation and dictated the trends, the rise of Lil Nas X feels representative of how the music industry has shifted in recent years. He’s seemingly an artist with a forensic understanding of how music spreads online through a combination of word of mouth and algorithm – as well as one who posses a deft grasp of how to catch hold of quick attention-spans with a strong visual element.
Even so, you wondered where Lil Nas X could possibly go next – viral moments like ‘Old Town Road’ that take on a life of their own are difficult to engineer. An appearance with Miley Cyrus at Glastonbury 2019 seemed to hint at the answer: performing the day after nonchalantly telling fans that he was gay on social media, Lil Nas wore a denim jacket emblazoned with the word “statement”. All-too-predictably, he was met by keyboard-bashing homophobes telling him to go to hell, and earlier this year, the single ‘MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)’ took that suggestion and ran with it. What better comeback imaginable than a video that depicted him pole-dancing down into the depths of Satan’s lair before enthusiastically lap-dancing on the devil to your own track?
His next video, for ‘Industry Baby’, was just as strong visually, showing an imprisoned Lil Nas and his fellow inmates dancing naked in the showers. When furious commenters accused him of pushing a “gay agenda”, he had another quip prepared: “If someone influences you to suck cock you probably already wanted to suck cock.” With both singles, he took people’s deepest shame-fed fears – of sin, rejection, eternal damnation, punishment – and turned them into jubilant celebrations of selfhood.
‘Montero’, meanwhile, frequently reflects on Lil Nas X’s rise to fame: on ‘Don’t Want It’ a skittering beat makes way for indistinct, muffled applause, and a procession of radio presenters and award hosts crowning the artist with a series of impressive accolades. ”I wanted fame, and I wanted riches,” Lil Nas interjects, “wanted happiness and wanted forgiveness”. Atop menacing horn parps, ‘Dead Right Now’ reflects on his burning desire to make it as an artist: “Songs wasn’t doing numbers,” he sings, looking back to 2018, “whole life was going under”.
And ‘Industry Baby’ takes the idea of Lil Nas as a manufactured industry plant, interrogating why his presence in the mainstream as queer Black man actually makes certain people uncomfortable: “I don’t fuck bitches,” he raps, “I’m queer.” The string-adorned ‘Tales of Dominica’ is another understated standout, detailing his reluctance to revisit the past after living on “an island made from fame”.
Lil Nas X has sometimes being accused of gimmickry and style-over-substance – ‘Montero’, meanwhile, sees him opening up on a more personal level, and asserting himself as an artist with serious creative pull. Often, he demonstrates this by nonchalantly inviting some of the biggest names in contemporary music along for the party; he duets with Miley Cyrus on ‘Am I Dreaming’, casually recruits Elton John to play keyboards on ‘One Of Me’, has Kanye West co-produce ‘Industry Baby’, enlisting Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion as featured guests elsewhere. In many ways, it’s the perfect power move.
But on ‘Dolla Sign Slime’, Meg crams her verse full of the kind of wit (“Damn, watching me on gotta turn you on / I should have my own category in porn”) that can feel missing elsewhere on the record. While it’s an interesting proposition to hear Lil Nas casting off the costumes and high-production visuals, ‘Montero’ can also feel slightly one-note. Without visuals to add a knowing wink and a flourish of pop absurdity, it sometimes settles into a comfortable groove of trap-influenced drum beats, moody instrumentals, Frank Ocean-y electric guitars and percussive brass peals. Rarely deviating from earnestness, this is at odds with the absurd brilliance of his defining moments thus far.
Mostly, it’s refreshing to see Lil Nas X in a different, more reflective light, but in asserting himself so strongly as a Serious Artist, he occasionally forgets about the touch of magic that made him one in the first place.
Release date: September 17
Release label: Columbia