Is there anybody out there who isn’t riding with Lil Nas X? No, Tucker Carlson does not count. Just a couple of years ago, Montero Lamar Hill was a 19-year-old college dropout from Atlanta, and even after his banjo-trap landmark “Old Town Road” became the longest-running Number One song ever, there was still a reasonable chance he’d go down as a historic one-hit wonder.
Instead, he’s become a subversive legend for the ages — a gay pop-rap star who scandalized conservative America with the lap-dance-in-hell music video for his summer single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” and a master of keeping the internet glued to his every winking, rule-breaking swerve, from his verses to his tweets.
On his full-length debut, he keeps searching for new roads, knowing his greatest commodity is his own elastic charisma. On “Dead Right Now,” Lil Nas X gives his music-biz dreams a life-or-death drama, recounting how his dad once sat him down and gave him one-in-a-million odds, in a scene that seems tailor-made for the Oscar-winning biopic that’s surely coming his way soon enough. The triumphal “Industry Baby,” with Louisville, Kentucky, rapper Jack Harlow, gives Nas’ career travails a similar underdog vibe, noting “I blew up/Now everybody tryin’ to sue me.” Coming from any other young star, that kind of sentiment might feel like pro forma celebrity griping. Coming from Lil Nas X — whose demonic Nikes really did cause a high-stakes court battle so absurd it might as well have been postmodern performance art — it’s just honest.
Unsurprisingly for an artist who blew up by gliding between long-standing racial hierarchies in American pop, Lil Nas X doesn’t show a ton of interest in respecting genre boundaries — from the flamenco guitar that undergirds “Call Me by Your Name” to the Eighties-rock bombast of “Lost in the Citadel,” to emo laments like “Void.” Doja Cat sprinkles some sidelong sass all over the hyped up “Scoop,” and Elton John tickles the ivories as Nas complains about people telling him how to act on “One of Me” (a sweet moment of inter-generational glam brotherhood that keeps the momentum going after their solid Uber Eats ad collab). He has the most fun when the record is at its most playful and absurd; on “Dolla Sign Slime,” a joyously cocky team up with Megan Thee Stallion, he enters to farts of court-jester brass, dropping new-money brags and camping out in the rap-royalty throne room. It’s like his new buddy David Lee Roth once said: “Who cares about the money you’ve made? I wanna know how much money you’ve spent.” Stay frosty, Monty.
Lil Nas X isn’t the most engaging lyricist, and he’s a pretty anonymous (if amiable) vocalist. Despite a big-ass budget and assists from co-writers and producers like Ryan Tedder, Take a Daytrip, and Kanye West, Montero doesn’t contain any “Old Town Road”-scale musical coups. This has always been the paradox at the heart of the Lil Nas X project. His music — including 7, the EP he put out in 2019 — doesn’t always rise to the occasion of being as great as he is. (Few things do.)
That’s fine, though, because when he keeps the focus on the more relatable aspects of his own journey and story — his hopes, insecurities, and successes — the record can really hit home. On the reflective “Sun Goes Down,” he movingly looks back on getting bullied in his teenage years, wondering if his skin was too dark, and hiding his “gay thoughts.” Elsewhere, the playful Outkast-like acoustic guitar and synth bloops of “That’s What I Want” strike a hopeful note that shows how far he’s come. It’s a sweet, proud song that details the kind of boy he wants to settle down with: “It don’t feel right when it’s late at night and it’s just me and my dreams,” he croons. Hard to imagine he’ll be lacking for suitors. His love contains multitudes.