Photo courtesy of Lil Nas X / Twitter

"Montero" Proves Lil Nas X's Place as Both an Artist and a Storyteller

A large part of Lil Nas X’s rise to stardom was fueled by how he mixed genres in his music. “Old Town Road” wasn’t just a great hip hop song—it had country twang. After such a mercurial beginning, an artist would be hard-pressed to build on that legacy. Yet, his album Montero proves that Lil Nas X can meet such a challenge. It features several songs that blend genres and musical styles to detail its creator’s navigation of fame, sexuality, and life in 2021.

Montero begins with its title track, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” Lil Nas X’s latest smash hit post-“Old Town Road.” The track explores the public and private stigma of being openly gay. Named after the artist’s real first name, Montero, as well as the breakout gay film Call Me By Your Name, the song plays on religious denunciation of the LGBTQ community. Its music video featured Lil Nas X pole dancing his way to hell and giving Satan a lap dance. The public backlash surrounding the song and its marketing has already been discussed by The Gavel. Still, the song’s latin inspiration exemplifies the fusion-centric tracks yet to come. Its provocative lyrics and marketing invite further exploration of how Christian backlash can make artists like Lil Nas X, an openly gay son of a Gospel singer, feel alienated from the general public. This public debate, which intensified after the release of “Industry Baby” and the album marketing (which featured Lil Nas X literally pregnant with his creation), kept the artist in the public eye. This may be a justified criticism of the album—its most provocative and innovative tracks have already had their time in the sun. Yet the steady supply of other catchy and thought-provoking songs still gives ample material for analysis and criticism.

Following “Montero,” the album’s songs begin touching on another major theme of the album—the corrupting influence of instant fame. “Dead Right Now” is not only a pseudo-ballad directed at an ex-lover, but also decries those old friends and acquaintances that come out of the woodwork after someone shoots to stardom. It highlights the improbability of Lil Nas X’s sudden claim to fame and the struggles he faces navigating a life where it seems like everyone wants to be in his circle and share some of the limelight. It’s followed by “Industry Baby,” which touches on the pressure of trying to create new material after creating a viral sensation. It also is an early instance of the artist responding to his critics who he perceives as eagerly anticipating his fall from grace. These themes are continued in songs like “One of Me” and “Don’t Want It,” offering a glimpse behind the curtain into the life of someone who seems to have it all.

Yet, Lil Nas X also lacks the real connections of friendship and love that sustain us—another major theme of the album’s tracks. In songs like “That’s What I Want” and “Life After Salem,” the artist explores how his fame and sexuality can leave him hungry for genuine connection and relationships. He gets used for money, clout, or quick satisfaction instead of treated as a potential romantic partner. At times he considers leaning into these tendencies and resigning himself to being someone’s quick fling, as touched on in “Life After Salem” and “Scoop.” Yet this casual approach to sex and love is also destructive, as portrayed in songs like “Lost in the Citadel” and “Void.” Such a nuanced analysis of the intersection of fame, love, and hookups seems like it requires several pages of academic analysis; Lil Nas X manages to balance it all in an album that’s less than an hour long—a testament to his lyrical and analytical prowess.

Lyrically, Montero is already immensely provocative, but musically it crosses even more boundaries. Behind lyrics that touch on family struggles and personal drama, Montero weaves music based on marching bands, pop hits, synth vibes, and latin acoustic guitar. Rather than distracting from the powerful content of the verses, this music enhances the messages of the songs. Empty electronic beats accompany the feelings of loneliness and depression in “Void.” Rousing horn triplets and snare line beats cheerlead Lil Nas X’s success in “Industry Baby.” That same jazz fusion is found on “Dolla Sign Slime,” which fits the 1920s-esque sense of opulence of the lyrics. “That’s What I Want” has acoustic pop accompaniment that invokes the same doe-eyed sentimentality the lyrics express, at times making the artist seem less like a rapper and more like Ed Sheeran. While hip hop beats and traditional rap lyricality continues throughout, blending that standard with multiple musical styles builds on Lil Nas X’s reputation as a genre-bending innovator in the industry. The result is an album which has something for everyone, yet still stays true to the musical and cultural roots of its creator.

Such a web of musical and lyrical blending and connections may seem puzzling and imbalanced, but a look at the album’s collaborators holds the key to its construction. Lil Nas X is no stranger to subverting expectations and mixing musical styles, as proven by “Old Town Road’s” status as both a hip hop and country hit. With Montero, he expands on this legacy by incorporating artists and themes that follow his private and public journey. Allusions to gay cultural touchstones like Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon match a collaboration with Elton John, himself a living embodiment of the progress of gay rights and activism. Lyrics that focus on body positivity and shameless celebrity indulgence are enhanced by features from Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion. An album that emphasizes the perils of sudden stardom and romantic struggles fittingly has a song produced by Kanye West, whose album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy explored similar themes just over 10 years prior. 

But while Kanye’s work explored these themes from the perspective of a rags-to-riches rapper now struggling with controversy and fame, Montero approaches them from Lil Nas X’s perspective as a gay Black rapper trying to make it in the digital age. This context allows for innovation on the personal artistic expression which has drawn interested listeners for decades. Gone are boomer-esque struggles with drugs and mindless consumption, replaced by meditations on the pitfalls of hookup culture and discarding romantic and sexual partners after they lose their utility. Earlier notions of pursuing ideal women and performing heteronormative masculinity are rejected for the expression of gay desire and public expressions of sexuality vs their private implications. These themes are rarely explored in hip hop, which tends towards traditionally masculine themes and audiences. That Lil Nas X can produce a bevy of songs on these topics is a testament to his innovation in the genre and the dearth of such content in modern music. That Montero quickly rose to the #1 album after its release shows that the public yearns for that content too. While he often talks about his likely precipitous fall after viral hits, the content and reception of Montero proves that Lil Nas X still has stories worth telling and music worth listening to.

A Clevelander trying to bring some Midwestern optimism to Boston College.

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