The inexorable rise of Lil Nas X will be the stuff of pop culture legend. The unlikeliest of megastars rose to fame off the unlikeliest of hits: a fluke country-trap novelty song built off a sample from a dark ambient track, “Old Town Road” built momentum like nothing else, becoming one of the biggest hits of all time through a string of remixes and propelling the young man who made it to stardom. With the eyes of the world on him, yet still expecting nothing from the surest of one-hit wonders, Lil Nas X defied expectations with both some strong follow ups and introducing elements of queerness into his brand, dropping subtle hints that he was gay on the track “C7osure (You Like)”, with that becoming the last time subtlety would ever be associated with Lil Nas X.
Two years later, Lil Nas X released the lead single for his debut album Montero, a flamboyant Latin-inspired anthem to good sex with bad boys, and suddenly we had a young, unapologetically gay black man as the biggest name in pop. Perhaps seeing in Cardi B’s “WAP” how controversy could turn a great song into a cultural juggernaut, his headline-grabbing theatrics and hilarious penchant for baiting homophobes and pseudo-religious pundits lent him a stranglehold on the charts his fellow A-listers could only envy. However, a headline isn’t enough to keep people listening if you’ve not got the songs to back it up, (just ask 6ix9ine) and fortunately for him and us, Lil Nas X and his regular producer Take A Daytrip seem to have perfected the sound of today’s pop landscape, creating something that sounds distinctively and defiantly him, yet is perfectly tailored to resist overplay and chime with modern tastes.
Across the fifteen tracks of Montero, Lil Nas X showcases his versatility and his personality, from his Cudi-ish hums on the title track and ebullient DaBaby-ish rap flows to his sensuous moaning singing style that’s pure Lil Nas X. Above all, Lil Nas X’s defining trait is an uncanny ear for a melodic chorus, and he can find one in pop rock as readily as in pop rap, whether delivered in a rough masculine croon or a soaring croak, he drills his melodies into your brain. His eclectic genre tastes have led him to create a pop sound that mingles the styles of all major musical styles, without diminishing the appeal of the pop formulae at their centre. I could wax lyrical about the hooks on these beats for days, from the gospel inspired harmonies and Travis Scott-like ad-libs on “Dead Right Now”, to the triumphant horns and gassed up 808s on “Industry Baby”, from the guitar arpeggios on “Scoop” to the chirruping flamenco rhythms of the title track.
However, it’s Lil Nas X and his narrative that makes Montero such a rewarding and consistently engaging listen. There’s no better narrator of his rise than himself, and throughout his victory lap, he keeps a gratifying balance between the personal and the performative, always sounding sincere, playing the defiant underdog riding his own high to a tee. “Dead Right Now” reflects on the time before he rose to fame and the self belief it took to stick with his ambitions despite the personal risk and lack of reward, while “Industry Baby” celebrates his victory, relishing in the clear air at the top. “One of Me” could easily be read as a dismissive brush off of former collaborator DaBaby, whose recent homophobic comments and insincere ‘apologies’ for said comments have cratered his momentum. “Scoop” reveals Lil Nas X’s willingness to court controversy and efforts ‘to be the daily scoop’, well aware that the ire of niche hate groups can only fan the flames of his mainstream appeal. All this is presented with hilarious quotables and flawless delivery from Lil Nas X.
As the album moves into its second half though, it becomes more introspective and emotionally fraught with less rapping, lighter drums and more singing in higher registers. This section may be a little less immediate than the first with less stardust in the instrumentals, but it still results in some amazing tracks like “Sun Goes Down”, a tender and euphoric missive of reassurance to his alienated past self or the soaring pop rock ballad of yearning “Void”.
Features are used judiciously on Montero, with a few of the hottest mainstays of the pop charts, Doja Cat, Jack Harlow and Megan Thee Stallion, and a couple of members of queer pop royalty thrown in in the shape of Elton John and Miley Cyrus whose father Billy Ray already helped Nas on his way up with a remix of “Old Town Road”. These features are all fine but none ever threatens to steal focus away from Lil Nas X who is always the star of the show, coming out with the more captivating verses and performances every time.
He really does come out of Montero feeling like the full package, with the consummate professionalism and assurance of a well groomed industry disciple, while still feeling like a breath of fresh air, maintaining the aura of a self-taught underdog oddball who rewrote the rule book. When all is said and done, Lil Nas X will be able to tile his roof with platinum records and no one deserves that more than him.