When a new artist is coming off a massive Number One breakout hit, the burning question is always whether or not they can shake that multi-platinum devil off their back and prove they have something more to say that can keep our attention. With Lil Nas X that’s an especially big problem: of the hundreds of millions of people who’ve fallen in love with “Old Town Road,” virtually none of them had previously heard of the Atlanta-born memelord-turned-artist behind his borderline-gimmicky country-rap smash. For being an EP whipped together quickly in an effort to beat the one-hit wonder clock, Lil Nas X’s 7 is, above everything, a solid, promising start. Still it leaves more questions than answers about what and who Lil Nas X wants to be.
With 7, instead of blurring the country and rap lines further, he takes the well-trod path to the rock and rap border. Like country-rap, rap-rock is a genre we’ve endured for a long time, maybe too long. Lil Nas X’s version is much more nuanced, if a tad straight-laced. He interpolates Nirvana’s “In Bloom” on the anti-hater, pro-sandwich anthem “Panini,” calls up Travis Barker of Blink 182 for the punk-ish “F9mily” and enlists Ryan Tedder for the 2009 Coachella-core “Bring U Down.” Even the non-rock star co-signed tracks have a hint of guitar-and-drum driven heaviness, especially the twisted, brooding Mariachi tones of the Cardi B-assisted, surefire hit “Rodeo.” Above all, the mid-Aughts pop-rock sound of the EP feels reminiscent of early, Kid Cudi’s collaboration with MGMT in its carefully balanced earnestness and playfulness.
The EP is of course bookended by the two main versions of “Old Town Road,” this year’s boundary-breaking behemoth. It cracked the code for the type of song that can make listeners question an entire industry’s systemic racism while also being incredibly joyful to listen to. Where would — and could — he go next in a culture that values and encourages the fast pace of its content? With his history of social media fam, Lil Nas X may know better than most what exactly is at stake.