Whether he’s throwing himself a fake baby shower, or courting controversy with eye-popping, jaw-dropping music videos, Lil Nas X’s mastery of viral marketing is unmatched. In some ways, however, the music has felt like an afterthought.
Lil Nas X has become such a familiar presence that it’s easy to forget what an extraordinary phenomenon he is. It’s not just that one of the biggest rappers in the world is an out gay man — an enlightened attitude to homosexuality has never ranked high on hip-hop’s list of virtues — but that’s he’s an out gay man who places his sexuality at the center of his music.
Released last Friday on Sept. 17, “Montero” showcases a young man who hurts and feels, seeks and celebrates. In other words, an honest portrait of Lil Nas X at 22. He digs deeper lyrically, opening up about the loneliness of growing up gay and his struggle for self-acceptance. He also spreads his wings musically, hitting an eclectic sweet spot between hip-hop and pop. His music leaps confidently from trap beats and martial horns to grinding, distorted hard rock; from music that recalls early 2000s R&B to stadium ballads.
For an artist that has conquered the rap world, Lil Nas X is surprisingly adept at pop. Heartache and hooks rule supreme on “That’s What I Want,” a toe-tapper with massive radio appeal. Lil Nas X begins by saying he needs “a boy who can cuddle with me all night,” before chanting over jangly guitar and zippy synths, declaring that he’s ready for love. “It doesn't feel right, it's late at night, it’s just me in my dreams, so I want someone to love.”
But the toe-tappers don't end there, as Lil Nas X successfully tackles a couple of streaming-friendly bangers. The lead single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”, which ranks as one of the most defiantly queer chart-toppers of all time, is the ultimate earworm on the album. The second single, “Industry Baby”, co-produced by Kanye West and Take A Daytrip, featuring Jack Harlow, holds its own as a marching band, booty-popping anthem. Still, Lil Nas X keeps his sexuality at the forefront, adding being gay to the list of ‘Things Rappers Brag About’ as he swaggers, “I don’t fuck bitches, I’m queer.”
While Lil Nas X creates bops and hits, he’s equally focused on shedding light on meaningful issues, sharing his inner turmoil through his lyrics. “Montero” is front-loaded with tracks that strut and boast, before the emotional temperature suddenly plummets.
Addressing his stylist, Hodo Musa, and suggesting theirs is the closest relationship in his life, Lil Nas X unpacks his loneliness and depression on “Void”. Lyrically bracing and introspective with lines like, “So many ups and downs on the right / I spend inordinate amounts of time trapped in the lonely loner life, looking for love around the night,” Lil Nas X hints at his grim adolescence and sexuality struggles.
Equally effective is the ‘80s-influenced “Lost In The Citadel”. Essentially a breakup trope, the song shows Lil Nas X’s softer side. “I need time to get up and get off the floor, I need time to realize that I can’t be yours,” he sings to an ex. “I need time to give up just like before.”
Overall, it’s an impressive debut with a satisfying mix of fun bops and vulnerability. The introspection that the openly gay Lil Nas X reveals throughout the album is laudable. So is his willingness to dabble in unadulterated pop, grimy rock and the rap-singing that has so far popularized his career. “Montero” navigates through valleys of beats and peaks of melody. It’s not always cohesive, but it’s a pleasant exploratory ride. Perhaps more importantly, this album hints that the rapper is ready to give voice to the fears and longings of a generation of queer kids.
Best Songs: “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” “Dead Right Now,” “Lost in the Citadel,” & “Void”