Ryan Tedder has written songs for some of the most popular artists in the world: Beyoncé, Adele, Taylor Swift. Still, he’s never had an experience quite like the first time he hit the studio with Lil Nas X.
“He was holding a bunch of horse balloons that his label had given him to celebrate ‘Old Town Road,'” Tedder recalls. “As he was walking through the threshold of my studio, his phone dinged. It was Ron Perry [the head of Lil Nas X’s label, Columbia Records], saying, ‘Congrats, you are officially Number One.’ He stopped, looked at his phone, looked back at me, and went, ‘Dude, I just hit Number One!’ and gave me the biggest hug. ‘And, it’s my birthday!'”
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is the best day you could ever have. It’s only downhill from here, man — we better do something!'”
Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is less than seven months old, but it’s already a calling-card — a generation of kids will always know the words — and a cash-cow: Estimates suggest that the single has generated more than $5 million. This song is “one of the most dominant Hot 100 Number One’s of the last 25 years,” according to Billboard, making Drake’s single-week streaming record look puny and keeping Taylor Swift from the number one spot.
That means “Old Town Road” is also an albatross for a new artist, a hit so big that it threatens to make every subsequent effort look slight in comparison. Everyone likes a growth narrative, but it’s impossible to establish an upward trajectory when you start at the top. The fear, then, is simple: “It’s only downhill from here.”
The key for 7, Lil Nas X’s just-released debut EP, was to ignore the hit — and to give this artist the same opportunities for in-studio trial-and-error that would be afforded to any promising 20-year-old who didn’t have the biggest song on the planet.
“It was about bringing in producers who would do more than what would everyone would expect — just start a loop and throw in an 808,” says James Supreme, an A&R at Universal Music Publishing Group who helped place Lil Nas X in sessions with the producers Take a Daytrip (“Panini,” “Rodeo”) and Bizness Boi (“Kick It”). “Wes [Donehower, director of A&R at Columbia] knew he couldn’t put a project together with the same song [over and over].”
Tedder, who produced “Bring U Down,” felt similarly. “You can’t use ‘Old Town Road’ as a roadmap for another song,” he says. “I’ve been lucky to have a few in my career that are just anomalies. Trying to follow it with anomaly part two, it never works. If Adele had gone straight from ‘Hello’ and put out her second single, [and] it’s called ‘Goodbye’… if it was just an answer to ‘Hello,’ it would never connect in the same way.”
So 7 mostly avoids country fusions. It’s bristling and obstreperous rap one moment, crisp and carefree pop the next. There are multiple detours into pointedly retro rock — a Nirvana interpolation, production from Travis Barker of Blink-182, and guitar on “Rodeo” that suggests the Replacements’ “The Ledge.” But “C7losure (You Like)” is something else entirely: Abaz and X-Plosive, two German producers who sketched the track two years ago, tell Rolling Stone they “had Drake on our minds [making that], something really melodic.” Elsewhere on 7, you’ll hear whistles, a string section, a saxophone, and quick transitions from programmed instrumentation to live playing. It’s all over the place, but it’s never “Old Town Road, Part 2” (except for the fact that “Old Town Road,” and its remix, are both on the project).
The mix of styles was clearly the goal: Though Lil Nas X had never been in a real studio session before “Old Town Road” took off, he wasn’t afraid to direct the creative process. Take a Daytrip came to the rapper with a folder full of country beats. “He made it clear he didn’t want to be the ‘Old Town Road’ guy that only does country music,” Take a Daytrip’s David Biral says. “The first thing we played him was the [country leaning] intro guitar lick to ‘Rodeo,'” adds Take a Daytrip’s Denzel Baptiste. “He shied away from it.”
Luckily, the two producers had a separate folder containing “out-there instrumentals,” including the skeleton of “Panini.” Lil Nas X quickly warmed to the rubbery beat. Supreme arrived halfway through the session. “I don’t know why he’s rapping about a panini,” the A&R remembers thinking, “but this is hard.” Lil Nas X posted a snippet of the track on Instagram before he even finished it. After that, “he trusted us enough to go back to that country idea,” Baptiste says. That song later became “Rodeo,” which now features a guest verse from Cardi B.
Tedder also thought he knew which way to nudge Lil Nas X. “We played him a couple hard-hitting trap records that I thought were cool and repetitive and hit-y,” the singer-songwriter-producer remembers. “He just kind of just scratched his head and said, ‘Huh. This is good, don’t get me wrong, but this isn’t really what I’m trying to do right now. All anyone’s been throwing at me all week is trap records, and I ain’t trying to be a trap artist.”
“Well, what do you want to do?” Tedder replied.
“He pointed to a guitar and said, ‘Do you know how to play that thing?'”
Like Take a Daytrip and Tedder, Barker came into his session with Lil Nas X expecting to go in one of two directions. “I made country-inspired stuff and I made straight rap beats,” the drummer says. But at the same time, Barker had been writing a lot of new material for Blink-182, and songs in that style were what hooked Lil Nas X. “He picked a beat that I had actually started writing for the Blink album that I just didn’t play [the band] yet,” Barker says. “He was like, ‘What the fuck is that? I need it.'”
Bizness Boi worked to build a track from scratch with Lil Nas X providing input as he worked. “He’s like, ‘Have the 808 follow the bass in the sample,'” Bizness Boi remembers. “‘Have the 808 follow my voice in this part. What about a sax?’ I had to hit my homie in New York: ‘I need a sax ASAP.'” Lil Nas X hummed a melody, and Bizness Boi’s friend replayed it on a saxophone. The horn line appears in “Kick It,” perhaps the most idiosyncratic production on 7.
Tedder is still impressed with Lil Nas X’s composure. “In 15 years, I’ve never had a new artist studio walk in and say, ‘This is what I want to do, this is how I want to do it, I hear the whole thing mapped out in my head — can you just help me get there?'” the writer-producer says. For “Bring U Down,” Lil Nas X asked Tedder to add “rock drums” — provided by Tedder’s OneRepublic bandmate — and instructed him to play a guitar solo “like it’s the early Nineties and you’re just going off.” Tedder came in thinking rap radio; he ended up making a record aimed at the rock format known as “alternative.” “They can’t turn him down and say no, after what happened with country,” says Tedder, referencing the removal of “Old Town Road” from Billboard’s country charts.
Inevitably, some anxiety about following “Old Town Road” does bleed into 7. “Going into [the session], I did feel some pressure,” Barker says. “‘Old Town Road’ was the only song out, and you can never really predict what an artist is looking for — especially an artist like him. So I was making tons of different styles of beats.”
Some of the stress bleeds into Lil Nas X’s lyrics. On “Kick It,” he seems to take on the role of his detractors, rapping, “You ain’t got no talent… you’ll fall off, I’ll give it, oh, two months.” When Lil Nas X wrote the lyrics to “Bring U Down,” he told Tedder, “there’s a lot of people throwing a lot of hate at me and think[ing] I’m a one-hit wonder, and that’s what I’m going to write about.”
And when Supreme asked Lil Nas X to explain the meaning of “Panini,” the rapper “drew a parallel to a lot of the fans who don’t want to see an artist grow artistically.” “They want to hear ‘Old Town Road Part 2,’ ‘Old Town Road Part 3,'” Supreme adds. “They don’t want him to explore, to figure out who he wants to be.”
But Lil Nas X resisted the temptation to replicate his breakout hit — at least in the most obvious ways. “He wants to be more than the first song he put out, which did something that no other song for a new artist has really done before,” Take a Daytrip’s Biral says. “For us, the first time he hopped in the booth and started recording, it’s like: This kid’s serious.”