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Lil Nas X’s Havoc-Wreaking Meme Is a Hit. He’s as Surprised as You Are

“I don’t know if I’m living in some type of simulation at this point, but let’s just keep it going,” the young rapper says of the chaos-sowing rise of “Old Town Road”

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Lil Nas X's single "Old Town Road" continued to gain popularity this week.

Eric Lagg

It took Montero Hill a few tries to perfect the art of going viral.

“I was doing Facebook comedy videos, then I moved over to Instagram, and then I hopped on Twitter,” the 19-year-old says. “That is where I really was a master. That was the first place where I could go viral.”

But hardly the last: Rap-singing as Lil Nas X, Hill’s latest viral feat is more far-reaching. His song “Old Town Road” — defiant and whimsical, bottom-heavy and banjo-splattered — continues to snowball, reaching Number 15 on the Hot 100 this week. Its popularity has spilled across many of the platforms Hill already excelled on, including Twitter, TikTok and Facebook. But “Old Town Road” is also soaring in several arenas Hill hadn’t yet conquered: SoundCloud, Spotify, even old-fashioned radio. And the single’s rapid rise sparked a fierce debate about genre boundaries and race after it debuted on Billboard‘s country chart and the publication later removed it. The controversy seems to have only made it more popular; “Old Town Road” was the most added single at Top 40 radio this week, according to Nielsen BDS, and is currently the second most popular song on Spotify’s U.S. chart. 

For Hill, the hit represents an artistic breakthrough as much as a commercial one. “When I first started to do music, I was kind of doing what I thought people would want me to do,” he says. But the result was often middle-of-the-road SoundCloud rap. In contrast, “Old Town Road” “was me doing what I wanted to do,” Hill says.

The deluge of “Old Town Road” cowboy memes and the genre-police controversy has partially obscured the value of the track itself. Country and trap have been mixing for nearly two decades, from David Banner’s “Cadillac on 22’s” to Jason Aldean’s “Burnin’ It Down,” but Lil Nas X pushed the fusion further. “No one has blended these genres more perfectly than [Hill] just did,” asserts Daniel Awad, whose Good Luck Have Fun media company specializes in identifying viral talent early. “Lil Tracy and Lil Uzi Vert tried to do it, and it was funny, but [‘Old Town Road’] is genuinely amazing. No one’s in this lane.”

That’s impressive considering that Hill, who was born in Atlanta in 1999 and grew up on the city’s west side, has only been making music since last May. He was driven to it, like so many teenagers, “out of boredom.”

His artist name was partially pre-decided — “Nas has been my internet alias for a minute now,” Hill says. “I had it just Lil Nas at first because every rapper has a ‘lil’ in front of his name, and that’s funny to me. But then I got stuck with it because I already built a fan base at that point. I added the X [when I was] a couple songs in as a representation of how long [10 years] it should be before I’m at a legendary level.”

Hill’s music-making initially lagged behind his Twitter prowess. He racked up thousands of retweets with height jokes and observations about the absurd lack of gun control in America. Connor Lawrence, chief marketing officer for Indify, a company that uses streaming and social media data to identify potential stars early in their careers, first spotted Hill attached to a Drake meme. “I’ve definitely done a couple of those,” Hill says.

The music situation improved in October, when Hill stumbled upon the beat for “Old Town Road” while trawling the site BeatStars, which allows aspiring artists to purchase or lease instrumentals. The track was made by Young Kio, a teen in the Netherlands. Kio marked the “Old Town Road” instrumental as a “Future type beat,” and Hill found it intoxicating.

He started to write “Old Town Road” from “a place of sorrow.” “My parents were disappointed in me for leaving school to do music, so it was like a loner cowboy [song],” Hill explains. “‘I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road/I’m gonna ride ’til I can’t no more’ — meaning, just keep riding, don’t stop. I felt like that cowboy lifestyle would definitely fit that song the best.”

But as Hill worked, the track’s narrative shifted towards something more triumphant. “I changed the meaning so I thought that ‘Old Town Road’ would be that path where you just keep winning,” he says. “The horse would be not having much, but having something that you know you could use to help you get there.”

Hill already had a finely honed instinct for creating things with mass appeal. In the case of “Old Town Road,” “I knew the way I was going to have to push the song to get it to hit more people’s ears,” he continues. “I run a meme type of account on Twitter; I know what my audience is looking for. So I put some potentially funny lines in there.”

Hill is not the first to translate other forms of online popularity into a pop hit. “Kids today are always building a fanbase,” Lawrence says. “Then they try to leverage them into their music. We’re seeing more and more examples of that” — from Cardi B to Bhad Bhabie to Joji.

But it’s possible that no one made the transition look easier than Lil Nas X. Everything about “Old Town Road” is born of, and created for, the internet. Young Kio says he found the beat’s distinctive banjo part — sampled from a song by Nine Inch Nails, a band the producer had never heard before — in the recommended section on YouTube. Lil Nas X leased Kio’s beat online for $30 without ever meeting the producer. While writing “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X made sure to include lines that would appeal to active users on Twitter, and he also took into account the recent release of the blockbuster cowboy video game Red Dead Redemption 2. (He says he was not thinking about the “yeehaw” craze because that “definitely wasn’t at the level it’s at now.”) Then he released “Old Town Road,” clinically constructed but still funny, back into the wild.

“The plan was to put it in as many memes as possible until it catches on,” he says. “It took some time until it finally caught on in TikTok, but it worked.”

Hill won’t take credit for his single’s popularity on TikTok, an app where millions of kids make short clips set to music. Hill says one of those users, @nicemichael_, made a video using “Old Town Road” that started to perform well. His followers made clips of their own, and a movement was born.

As TikTok took “Old Town Road” and memed it into a million quirky pieces, Hill was also pushing it through more conventional channels like SoundCloud and iTunes. “I labeled it ‘country’ on each platform,” Hill says. “Country trap doesn’t even exist when you’re picking out the genres to upload, and I feel like it leans more towards country than trap.”

The classification-shattering track caused confusion when it breached the mainstream in March — “Old Town Road” debuted on both Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart and its Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, causing Hill to start “running around the house in circles.” But the single was later removed from the country chart.

Country has embraced hip-hop in some forms for years, but it remains an overwhelmingly white genre. The banishment of Hill, a young black man, was troubling to many observers. Billboard said its decision was about sound, rather than race — “Old Town Road” “incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, [but] it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” The hip-hop community, from Tyga to 6lack to Joe Budden, jumped to Hill’s defense. Ski Mask the Slump God called Hill’s expulsion “discrimination at its finest.” 

No one was more surprised about the dust-up than Hill. “I wasn’t expecting so much support because I just thought it would be one of those things that nobody really would care about,” he says. “It’s a purist type of situation, where people have been seeing things one way and that is the way they would like to keep it.” For his part, Kio didn’t set out to make a country hit when he made the “Old Town Road” beat — again, he’s a teenager from the Netherlands — but believes Hill “really made [the song] country.”

When it comes to “Old Town Road,” though, the purists are fighting a losing battle. “Because it sounds the way it does, people want to put it back in the box,” says Phil Guerini, vp of music strategy for Disney Channels Worldwide and gm of the Radio Disney Network, which is playing “Old Town Road” on both country and pop stations. “The audience is clearly stating: It’s not in a box. This song has struck a chord on so many levels. All of the metrics tell you it’s reaching far beyond any single genre.”

So a single about finding the “path where you just keep winning” continues its long-shot run up the chart. Hill calls “Old Town Road” “a manifestation of itself.”

“I don’t know if I’m living in some type of simulation at this point,” he says. “But let’s just keep it going.”

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