“It’s been a long time coming – thanks for coming to see me be gay!” says Lil Nas X towards the end of his first-ever UK headline show. The cultural disrupter from Atlanta, Georgia broke through nearly four years ago with ‘Old Town Road’, a country-rap banger so unstoppable it sparked a debate about racism in country music and topped the Billboard Hot 100 for a record 19 weeks. Since then, the artist born Montero Lamar Hill has come out as gay, released a genre-busting debut album (last year’s ‘Montero’) and built a reputation as the provocative king of full-choreo awards show-esque performances.
Tonight’s gig, the only UK date on his first headline tour, is a skilfully crafted showcase for his formidable stagecraft and giddy, mischievous charisma. The 5,000-capacity Eventim Apollo is far from intimate, but it’s also smaller than the enormous hangar (hello, The O2!) that Lil Nas X could feasibly have filled: ahead of tonight’s show, tickets were listed for an eye-watering £200 on resale sites.
His 70-minute set isn’t generous in length, but it’s definitely lavish in terms of production values. A massive double bed appears on stage during ‘Sun Goes Down’ (though Lil Nas X never so much as jumps on it), while during ‘Old Town Road’ he’s joined by what looks like the world’s most glamorous pantomime horse. He later emerges from a teardrop-shaped cocoon at the start of ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)’, the lusty transatlantic chart-topper that proved ‘Old Town Road’ was no fluke. The result feels like a near-filler-free arena show squeezed into a large theatre, which is smart not just because it adds to the sense of occasion, but also because it gives Lil Nas X room to supersize his vision with future tours.
It’s also a show that prizes dazzling pop spectacle over humdrum musical authenticity. There’s no live band in sight and Lil Nas X makes no pretence that he’s delivering every line live: sometimes he holds his mic up to his lips, sometimes he doesn’t. Like every great pop star from Beyoncé to Britney, he understands that he looks even more powerful flanked by a precision-tooled troupe of backing dancers.
This show’s choreography is often breathtaking and nearly always inventive: his dancers even pull off a full routine to a downbeat punk-pop bop, ‘Lost In The Citadel’. When Lil Nas X and one of his male dancers kiss at the end of the randy pop-rock banger ‘Thats What I Want’ – in silhouette behind a curtain, which heightens the drama – it draws one of the loudest cheers of the night. Given that his diverse crowd seems to range in age from five to about 55 and include fans from across the gender and sexuality spectrum, it’s a gloriously unifying moment.
Framing a show with an overarching concept is always a risk – too often these can feel vague and confusing – but this one keeps things admirably simple. It’s divided into three “acts” of roughly equal length – Rebirth, Transformation and Becoming – that effectively mirror Lil Nas X’s career trajectory to date. During the final act, Lil Nas X offers a glimpse of the future by performing “a still unfinished” track from his as-yet-unannounced second album. He introduces ‘Down Souf Hoes’ as a “twerk song”, then invites a handful of brave audience members on stage for a joyous twerking contest. One of them is enterprising enough to grab him for an impromptu selfie, something the star of the show takes in his stride.
The main set ends with a jubilant extended version of ‘Industry Baby’ complete with backing dancers dressed as American football players – albeit American football players with glittery knee pads and bare midriffs. It’s a reminder that part of Lil Nas X’s brilliance is his ability to queer the mainstream with a lightness of touch and infectious sense of fun. He’s not afraid to be a little bit cheesy, either, by firing a T-shirt gun into the crowd at the climax.
Even his slightly surprising choice of encore song turns out to be spot-on. ‘Star Walkin” – a glistening electro-rap banger recorded for the League of Legends World Championship, another example of Lil Nas X’s flair for riding the zeitgeist – hasn’t been his biggest hit. But positioned at the end of the show, its lyrics feel like a statement of intent: “Why worship legends when you know that you can join ’em?” he raps in the second verse. On tonight’s evidence, Lil Nas X is already well on his way.
Lil Nas X played:
‘Tales Of Dominica’
‘Sun Goes Down’
‘Old Town Road’
‘Dead Right Now’
‘Don’t Want It’
‘Thats What I Want’
‘Lost In The Citadel’
‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)’
‘Down Souf Hoes’
‘Star Walkin’ (League Of Legends Worlds Anthem)’