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Lil Nas X Is Reinventing Pop Stardom

Even amid the new generation of Gen Z music stars, Lil Nas X’s Black queer perspective is breaking ground. Montero confirms the emergence of a new voice.

Posted on September 17, 2021, at 10:12 a.m. ET

Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic

Lil Nas X attends the 2021 Met Gala.

“I want to say thank you to the gay agenda!” Lil Nas X proclaimed as he won the Video of the Year award at the MTV VMAs on Sept. 12. “Let’s go, gay agenda!”

He was half joking about the controversies that have embroiled him since his ubiquitous, record-breaking 2019 hit “Old Town Road” took over pop culture. Since then, the one-time member of the Barbz came out and — in an era of downcast pop doldrums — has become pop’s most consistently surprising provocateur.

Whether he’s turning his album rollout into a parody of pregnancy announcements or selling Satan shoes as tie-in merch to a devil gay lap dance video, he’s excelled at what pop stars used to do before they started selling everything but themselves: crossing new lines of commodifiable transgression that make us see the world differently.

“Hee-hee, I'm bad as Michael Jackson,” he sang on last year’s “Holiday.” “Pop star, but the rappers still respect me.” That a queer rapper has become a monocultural symbol of pop transgression is the result of numerous historical forces, including the undeniably dominant role of hip-hop in the streaming era and the increased visibility of LGBTQ artists.

Yet even amid a newer generation of queer acts, ranging from Troye Sivan and Sam Smith to Frank Ocean, Lil Nas X has already reached an unprecedented level of commercial success and industry recognition. He’s achieved two No. 1 pop hits, last month he was the most-streamed rapper on Spotify, and he’s currently one of the top 10 most-streamed artists on the platform, period.

In the run-up to his new album, Montero, out today, the 22-year-old garnered all the markers of pop success: No. 1 hits, magazine covers, Grammy awards, SNL music guest spots, VMAs — a tall order in music’s ruthless attention economy era. Montero, his dreamy, evocative portrait of a former stan turned vulnerable superstar, is another sign of his talent. “Who would've thought I'd get there anyway?” he sings at one point, seemingly alluding to the summit he’s reached. The album is a reminder of why his voice as a young queer artist is so important, and it hints at the struggles he’s endured in order for the industry to make space for him.

Kevin Mazur / Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Billy Ray Cyrus and Lil Nas X perform "Old Town Road" during the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Jan. 26, 2020.

Young white pop stars usually follow an established narrative. First, there’s the corporate era of their launch, when they build a big tween following. Then they turn from pop to hip-hop to renounce their industry manufacturing and claim a new kind of artistic authenticity, often signaling a refusal of Disney innocence and industry conventions.

That metaphor of freedom only works for those who were built up within the system in the first place. In contrast, Lil Nas X broke through with the genre-crossing Trojan horse of “Old Town Road.” The song felt more like a meme or gambit — blending together rodeo Americana and trap — than a traditional bop. It raced to the top of the charts thanks to TikTok, which had not yet started elevating the same formulaic pretty young women.

But as the song became an undeniable monocultural hit, the industry’s debate over its genre — was it rap or country or just an internet thing? — stole the focus from the artist himself. Amid the industry’s sense that Lil Nas X was a one-hit wonder, he signed with Columbia. Billy Ray Cyrus jumped on the song’s remix, and the song broke records held by Mariah Carey and “Despacito.”

More importantly, he started collaborating with the Take a Daytrip production team, and their wide musical influences — from grunge to gospel to classical music — were a perfect fit for Lil Nas X’s own genre-blurring aesthetic. They quickly scored a win with “Panini,” which borrows from Nirvana’s “In Bloom” to create a paean to fans about not abandoning Lil Nas X as he blew up. The song already hinted at the compelling way Lil Nas X makes pop stardom feel intimate.

That success started generating more interest in the young artist at the center of it all. Based on his digital footprint, speculation started building that he once ran a Nicki Minaj stan account and that he was gay. On the last day of Pride month in 2019, Lil Nas X pointed out a rainbow building on the cover of his then-new EP. “Deadass thought I made it obvious,” he tweeted.

Lil Nas X’s provocations are part of a tradition of queer POC artists who engage in what critic Jose Esteban Muñoz describes as dis-identification; rather than rejecting an exclusionary pop culture, they reinterpret its existing meanings to make something new. This is evident not just with “Old Town Road,” where Lil Nas X reclaims country nostalgia through trap, but also with “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” which reinterpreted popular culture from a queer Black perspective.

The song’s title references the hit movie about desire between white men, while the video stages a brilliant homoerotic reinterpretation of heaven and hell, with seriously liberating theological ramifications. The stripper pole, usually a sign of hetero fantasy, becomes an instrument of cosmic travel, and the lap dance a conduit of gay flirting. The lyrics offer a queer perspective on hip-hop’s celebration of the spoils of success: “I wanna feel on your ass in Hawaii / I want that jet lag from fuckin’ and flyin’ / Shoot a child in your mouth while I’m ridin’.” (When he performed the song onstage during the BET Awards in June, he kissed a backup dancer onstage, bringing out the lyrics’ sensuality while also paying homage to ’90s Michael Jackson with his monarchical garb.)

That queer perspective also came out in the quieter single “Sun Goes Down.” He sings about mental health struggles and self-image around racist beauty standards. In the video, Lil Nas X plays a dejected Taco Bell service worker by day and excited stan during class. He seems to reimagine his high school dance as queer prom, and the video places the Black queer stan into a narrative of self-making and ambition rather than pointless hysteria.

It’s as if Lil Nas X had to build up his stardom first — and set his transgressive credentials — before he could perform the kind of Disneyfied earnest statement meant for younger queers hungry for role models. When he released “Montero,” he also published an open letter that served as a coming-out letter for the public, mixing Tumblr-esque intimacy with culture industry universality: "I know we promised to never come out publicly, I know we promised to never be ‘that’ type of gay person, I know we promised to die with the secret, but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist.”

YouTube

Lil Nas X in the music video for "Montero (Call Me by Your Name)"

“That type” of gay person seemed coded to mean a flamboyantly out star who is often derided within a gay culture that prizes masculinity, and a mainstream culture that expects performances of hypermasculinity from men of color. But Lil Nas X knows how to speak both in in-group specifics while also inviting everyone to join him in the universe of queer feelings he’s been creating.

The album Montero is a compelling portrait of a young man grappling with the instabilities of fame, success, and desire. Though “Old Town Road” is not on the album, the road metaphor recurs throughout. In a spoken interlude, he talks about not being sure where he’s driving to, and it conveys the album’s vulnerable vibe.

The singles “Sun Goes Down,” “Industry Baby,” and “Montero,” which is the opener, are all here. But the artfully evocative “Dead Right Now,” the second track, is more true to its themes. Like “Sun Goes Down,” it’s something of an autobiographical meditation, but this one is more about the post-fame disappointment of people, including parents, who now want things from him.

That theme of having to deal with expectations is perhaps the most prevalent theme of the album, from “One of Me,” a song about defying what the public expects from him, to “Tales of Dominica,” a moody, string-driven tune about being out on his own and the weight of the scary thoughts in his head. “I’ve been living on an island made from fate,” he hum-sings. “Can’t go running back to home / Can’t face her face.”

The album Montero is a compelling portrait of a young man grappling with the instabilities of fame, success, and desire.

There are some bops, like the rocking, rollicking direct plea for love, “That’s What I Want,” or “Scoop,” where he sings about a glow-up, doing Pilates, and trying to be the daily scoop, a nice metaphor for himself as erotic object and an allusion to his role as a figure of fascination and desire in the social media economy. “Dolla Sign Slime,” featuring Megan Thee Stallion, is a trumpeting bop about being the same guy he’s always been despite shopping at Neiman Marcus.

Like “Montero,” there are other songs about romantic intimacy. “Lost in the Citadel” is a rock-inflected meditation on an affair that’s ending. One of the most surprising songs is “Life After Salem,” a slice of metal-flavored opera, where he sings to a partner: “Kick me when I have to crawl / Ooh, I love it when you show no love at all.” In the chorus, he experiments with his voice, as the refrain “Take what you want from me” turns into a scream of “what you want from me.” There’s something hypnotic about the song’s emphasis on anger and desire and submission.

But it’s the most vulnerable songs that stick in the brain the most. “Void” is a plaintive, intimate ballad where he sings what sounds like a letter to himself about how he’s been “feeling small,” pleading, “See I'm getting tired of the way I been living / I'd rather die than to live with these feelings.”

His collaboration with Miley Cyrus on “Am I Dreaming,” a ballad duet, is one of the loveliest songs on the album. In an interview with Zane Lowe this week, Lil Nas X spoke about how the prevalence of deaths in the hip-hop community, alongside the marginalization of gay artists in the music industry, makes him think about his legacy. And that mourning permeates the album and, perhaps especially, the last song.

He sings, delicately and sincerely, “Ooooh, never forget me / And everything I’ve done.” The song is also an ode to art-making itself, as he says, “As I’m sinking I relive my story,” and then he and Cyrus repeat together, “As I’m singing, I rewrite my story.” There’s a lot of pain in this album, but also hope.

Bennett Raglin / Getty Images for BET

Lil Nas X performs onstage at the BET Awards 2021 at Microsoft Theater on June 27, 2021, in Los Angeles.

If the album’s lyrics make it sound like Lil Nas X is under a lot of pressure, it makes sense when you look at the music industry. It’s much easier for straight white (and white-adjacent) music stars to experiment and get major support from the beginning of their careers. (Think of how young women like Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo effortlessly move across trap-pop and pop-punk, indie pop, and ballads.)

Conversely, last year, Tinashe tweeted about how she had to fight to be treated like a pop act by her label. Normani has spoken about feeling boxed in by genres: “I feel like people are so quick to put me in a box and create barriers but I've always been expressive of the fact that I want to be genre-less, I can do it all.” Lizzo refers to herself as “America’s next bop star” in her Twitter bio, a commentary on her own genre-crossing stardom that mixes flutes and rap and isn’t just pop but also is pop.

Two years ago, right before Lil Nas X’s rise, YouTube musician Todrick Hall called out the particular way the music industry wasn’t investing in queer artists. “The world is in a place right now where we need people like Sam Smith, like Troye Sivan — we need huge artists out there to represent the gay community,” he said.

A friend of Taylor Swift, he called out Scooter Braun’s management firm in particular: “He doesn’t have a lot of people of color — and, if he usually represents them, they are usually people that are already at an established level in their career — and he doesn’t have a lot of people in the queer community.” It’s a quote that might as well apply to the whole industry.

This question of who gets the investment and time to develop an artistic career from the beginning — and not just get support once they’ve broken through — is still very alive. Sam Smith got their monocultural bona fides before opening up about their nonbinary identity; Ocean built up his career through a hip-hop collective and EP before coming out.

Lil Nas X has made the most of bypassing industry gatekeepers with that once-in-a generation memeable country-trap hit. He’s had to have a perfect sense of timing — of what to hold back and what to unveil, how to feed into the rhythms of white cis hetero industry so as not to induce panic. (He recently tweeted: “after i drop the album i will be finish with my gay era and returning to my cowboy era.”)

The fact that it’s unimaginable that he could’ve found an entry point into the music world without TikTok should be less a cause for celebration of the industry than an indictment of why it took so long. “I'm fading,” he sings in “Am I Dreaming,” as he pleads, “never forget me.” But there’s no risk of that now. ●

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.