album review

Lil Nas X Deserves a Better Industry

The six-month shitstorm following Lil Nas X throughout the rollout of Montero has been a clinic in the intersecting moral inconsistencies you see in American culture and how they’ve trickled down and settled in hip-hop. Photo: Columbia Records

I spent a good amount of time in the last six months wondering why Lil Nas X pays any attention to haters and homophobes online. It’s a goofy question. I already know the answer. When you’re queer and comfortable in your skin, you are scrambling somebody’s circuits, someone who grew up believing “gay” meant “weak” or “bad,” who “has trouble accepting your lifestyle” because they’ve been socialized into believing you have chosen to reject a holy, natural order of cisgender, heterosexual love and procreation. Maybe you grew up this way, too, and adolescence was complicated by the terror of realizing you are the thing you were taught to avoid, and you’ve spent your entire life dismantling the logic that tells you you’re not okay only to bump heads with people who haven’t had to or wanted to do this work. You go toe-to-toe with these people because they need to be challenged, and you need to be affirmed, and because there’s a kid like you somewhere who deserves to know they can fight back. You give bigots smoke so they know that you know that theirs is an ideology of fear and lies and conformity and boredom. It bears repeating.

The six-month shitstorm following Lil Nas X throughout the rollout of his debut album Montero — starting at the release of the racy music video for “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” in March and gaining fuel in the controversy over the “Satan shoes” collaboration with Brooklyn’s MSCHF collective and later with the homoerotic prison video for follow-up single “Industry Baby” — has been a clinic in the intersecting moral inconsistencies you see in American culture and how they’ve trickled down and settled in hip-hop. Over the last decade, as the Supreme Court rendered legal opposition to same-sex marriage unconstitutional, and as we’ve met artists like Frank Ocean who’ve kept same-sex relationships at the heart of their work, it’s become easier to talk openly about queer experiences in hip-hop than in the ’90s and ’00s, when rumors about gay rap stars reached a fever pitch and even the wokest rhymers couldn’t resist a homophobic jab. There are less slurs in circulation, and marginally less hateful rhetoric in public circles, but it’s hard to know what is a result of goodwill and incremental societal change and what’s just everyone wisening up to what they can and can’t say in mixed company. (“It is politically correct to be accepting, but behind closed doors, people are still hating,” Wendy Williams told vlogger DJ Vlad in 2013. Note Williams’s own history on that front. In her 2016 autobiography My Voice: A Memoir, rap radio veteran Angie Martinez recalled the failed quest in the late ’90s that Williams, her former co-worker, embarked on to expose closeted gay men she thought had infiltrated rap: “Every rapper you could think of in that era, I had heard Wendy Williams call them gay.”)

Lil Nas X blew everyone’s cover, tapping on pressure points and drawing out revealing overreactions. The trip to hell in the “Montero” video is only about facing your fears. “Industry Baby” was just a cheeky reaction to the backlash from the first video (and maybe a love letter to the subdivision of hip-hop music videos that prominently featured glistening, shirtless men lifting weights in yards). If your takeaway from those videos was concern about occult themes and sexually explicit content in hip-hop and whether or not kids should have access to the stuff, and you didn’t raise the same objections over strip club scenes and black-metal fashion aesthetics popping up elsewhere in the culture, you told on yourself. If you’re worried about music videos turning your kid into a homosexual, you ignored a few decades of developments in science. What’s frustrating about this — beyond the proliferation of pseudoscience and misinformation, the learning who is perturbed by the mere sight of same-sex affection in public spaces, and the many ways this “save our children” posturing dovetails with conservative political talking points in 2021 — is that it has fuck all to do with Montero, a short, sweet album about learning to love yourself and demanding all the respect that you deserve. It is so rare to see Black gay men living in their truth at the top of Billboard charts that we’ve had to run defense throughout what should’ve been a peaceful rollout. Even in triumph, there’s a fight.

(Never forget that Lil Nas has said many of his Black male peers in hip-hop don’t care to work with him. The sentiment tracks when you consider the long list of rappers who have voiced disapproval with his music, his fashion sense, and his expressions of queerness, a list including but not limited to Boosie Badazz, Dave East, Tekashi 6ix9ine, Joyner Lucas, and Glasses Malone. Is there a sort of silent protest happening here? Early projections for Montero’s first-week sales invite the question of whether or not some listeners are deliberately sitting this release out.)

Montero, as often as it chooses to commit to a single theme, is a song cycle where our 22-year-old narrator navigates the pressures and insecurities that come with being famous, with being queer, and with the intersections of queerness and fame. The title track lampoons party culture, swearing off casual drug use with such a clarity that it remains preposterous that some people thought the messaging of the single was worrisome. “Scoop” teams up with Doja Cat to celebrate the gains earned from a strict workout regimen; situating that one after the “Art of Realization” interlude, where Lil Nas says he feels like he’s speeding forward with no idea who it even benefits, gives “Scoop” a pop of drama. “That’s What I Want” pines for someone to share the spoils of success with; “Dead Right Now” reflects on the struggle to build this career and what it took to get over his parents’ disapproval of his choice to pursue it. Elsewhere, over songs like “Dolla Sign Slime” and “Industry Baby,” Montero addresses people who didn’t believe in Lil Nas just as flippantly as he does almost daily on Twitter. “One of Me” is the other side of the coin, a moment of self-doubt where the guy who made “Old Town Road,” who was relentlessly scolded and attacked for making it, wonders if the audience will flake on him before he can get a whole album out. The front half of the album covers all the bases you want a debut album to touch on in hip-hop, the believing in yourself when no one else would and the painstaking payoff. It’s the back end of Montero that bucks convention.

Starting with “Lost in the Citadel,” a plaintive and muted rock jam about a love connection growing frayed, Montero delivers a series of heartbreaking tunes about hurt and pain and doubt, where the slipperiness of “Old Town Road,” a hip-hop track whose sample of a rock star’s ambient album gave off faint country airs, shows face again. Across “Tales of Dominica,” “Sun Goes Down,” “Void,” and “Life After Salem,” Lil Nas X outlines and exorcises his troubles, shaking off pressure to shrink into a brand of masculinity that never fit quite right and encouraging others in similar predicaments by comforting and uplifting himself. “Sun Goes Down” goes for broke: “These gay thoughts would always haunt me / I prayed God would take it from me /
It’s hard for you when you’re fighting / And nobody knows it when you’re silent.” In “Void,” he’s “trapped in a lonely loner life / Looking for love where I’m denied.” The lyricism here is more assured than on 2019’s patchy 7 EP, where Lil Nas professed love for a Cartoon Network character and wrote awkwardly in the perspective of a drug dealer on “Kick It”: “Come / Get weed from me / It’s good.” (And somehow 7 still earned him six Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year.) The mixture of genres is less gimmicky and more natural here, doubtlessly the work of Take a Daytrip (the production duo behind Sheck Wes’s “Mo Bamba,” 7’s “Panini,” and more, whose Twitter clapbacks are periodically as cold as Lil Nas’s) and John Cunningham, XXXTENTACION collaborator whose credits include the hit “Sad!”

While Lil Nas is delving into personal trials and generational trauma, pushing his voice and lyrics to new heights, Daytrip and Cunningham are surveying the landscape of modern music, pulling in the bits and pieces that seem appropriate. Montero builds on emo-adjacent SoundCloud rap, pop music with a flair for rock guitars, the bubbly hip-hop powering Doja’s Planet Her, ’90s grunge and shoegaze, and the specific brand of plush gospel-rap heard on recent Kanye records. (Ye co-produced “Industry Baby,” but it’s “Dead Right Now,” which features vocals from Stellar Award nominees Jason McGee and the Choir, that sounds like it could fit comfortably on Donda.) The blend is careful; it rarely feels like Lil Nas is fishing for obvious hits or trying to recapture the magic of “Old Town Road” (as it did with 7’s Cardi B linkup “Rodeo,” fun as that was). It doesn’t feel like he’s cosplaying as a rocker or shuffling through musical styles for the express purpose of reaching a new market. Montero is aware of its strengths and committed to refining them. He devotes less time to throwaway lines and much more on personal, capable singing.

The only real issue here is that the stuff on the back end is so cohesive and vital and necessary that it makes the front end feel too loose, too scattered. On Twitter this week, Kevin Abstract asked Lil Nas how he approached balancing fun and introspection on the album, and we learned that cohesion wasn’t the core focus. The effortless flow from the downcast reflection of “Sun Goes Down” to the soul-searching of “Void” to the rousing determination of “Don’t Want It” suggest that Lil Nas X has the full potential to make an album as balanced, flawlessly sequenced, and insightful as the best stretches Montero hint at. When that happens, here’s hoping the entitled bigots who made this rollout about themselves and their personal comforts have fucked off.

Lil Nas X Deserves a Better Industry