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Changing the World; Lil Nas X

We take a deep dive into the influence of internet king Lil Nas X and his debut album MONTERO.

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On September 13th, on the steps of the Met Gala, Lil Nas X emerged to the flashes of a hundred cameras, draped in a cascading gold cape. In Lady Gaga-Esque fashion (circa met-gala 2019), the gold cape became a gold-plaited suit of armour, and then a few minutes later – stripping down yet again – he emerged in his final bedazzled gold bodysuit; a three-piece entrance.

Though his outfit didn’t necessarily fit the controversial American Lexicon theme, instead adorning the creations of Italian fashion house Versace, his look provided an easter egg for the upcoming release of his debut and highly-anticipated album, Montero.

“We wanted to start with royalty or a cloak; we’re in our shell, right? And then we break out of it a little bit more, you know. So it’s kind of me when I got into the industry, nobody knew who I was, and then we got the armour, right? It’s like I built this shell around myself even though I came out, and then this year I really came out. And this is what this [bodysuit] represents, this breakdown to this,” He told Emma Chamberlain mid-red carpet, adding in a video for Vogue that the levels represented ‘Royalty’, ‘Armour and Power’, and then something ‘a little slutty’; ‘the holy trinity’.

Revealing a caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis with his outfit, as well as a play on the theme of power and royalty, Lil Nas X put forward the concept that is now known to be the backbone of his album; rebirth and self-realisation. 15-tracks exploring his comeuppance into fame, mental health in his early years, and his exploration into queerness. In celebration, we took a deep dive into the evolution of Lil Nas X and his latest album, Montero.

Lil Nas X, born Montero Lamar Hill (after the car of the same name, Mitsubishi Montero), grew up in a small town outside Atlanta. At six, after his parents divorced, he lived with his Mother and Grandmother in Bankhead Courts housing projects before later moving to Austell, Georgia, with his Father, after worries that he would fall in with the wrong crowd.

During his teenage years, Montero was said to spend much of his time alone, struggling with his identity and the idea of being queer, turning online (pre-reign of the internet meme) to foster much of his entertainment. Social media became his window to the outside world, and in an interview with High Snobiety, Lil Nas described it as a place that “showed [him] there’s so much I can be in this life”.

Through creating Nicki Minaj fan accounts via Twitter (a hobby he initially denied, worried that people would think he was gay due to his fandom of a female rapper), Nas developed a strong understanding of social media platforms using Facebook, Instagram and Vine to create comedy videos, with his ultimate goal being to rally a fanbase for his music career. In 2018, upon the release of ‘Old Town Road’ on TikTok, his plan came to fruition, when under the hashtag #yeehaw, which saw users lip-sync over choreographed dances, his track was pushed to virality. A $30 backing track from Dutch producer YouKio, and a sample of Nine Inch Nails track “34 Ghosts IV” were to thank, as well as a ‘$20 Tuesday’ special at a local recording studio.

Before his global hit, Lil Nas’s discography wasn’t quite the sound we know today. Initially, he was honing in on the ultra-macho standard set by popular male rappers at the time, “It was just me acting hard, which I did a lot in the beginning. Because it felt like that’s what I had to do”, he told Guardian. Embracing his sexuality in his late teens, a side of himself that he said was a secret he originally planned to die with, ‘Old Town Road’ lay the base for his experimentation for music to come.

When turning to his latest album Montero, the manifestation of his pre-fame outlook can be seen in songs such as track’s 11, ‘Sun Goes Down’, and 12, ‘Void. In ‘Void’, Nas produces lines like ‘I feel like I’ve hit a low, like one I’ve never hit before’, ‘I’m tired of the way I’ve been living’, ‘trapped in a lonely loner life’, and ‘today I’m gonna run away from home’ to show the isolation in his teenage years, with his visuals depicting an animated version of himself alone in a tv-lit room. Yet it also depicts hope in his situation through lyrics like ‘I’m more than what everyone tells me, hold on, hold on’, referring to his self-belief that he’s meant for something bigger, a mentality that he talks about today.

‘Sun Goes Down’, a slightly more hopeful track, sees teenage Nas at homecoming, observing lovers caressing on a dancefloor, love that he can’t see for himself while still hiding his true self. Then, a guardian angel, postured in a white suit, directs him to ‘take a leap of faith’ (a reworked version of the song’s lyric ‘Then I made a leap of faith’), Nas suddenly developing self-acceptance of his situation. As the song progresses, while still finding himself alone on the dancefloor, he’s now surrounded by a group of cheering peers. Nas has said of his own beliefs, “I was a Christian. Then I was Atheist for a while. And now I believe in the universe and that I’m being guided by angels and other forces protecting me” (Highsnobiety).

As ‘Old Town Road’ began to gain recognition, the infamous Billy Ray Cyrus joined Nas on the now well-known remix, this proving to be the move that would ultimately push Nas into the public lexicon. Spending 19 weeks atop the Billboard 100 in the US (the longest-running number-one song since 1958), Nas X was to then go on to be the most nominated male artist at the 62nd Grammy’s, winning Best Music Video and Best Pop Duo/ Group Performance. However, though the song was a complete success, it proved to not be without its controversies.

Debuting on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart, it was later removed, Billboard stating that “while ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version”. After questioning the motive, audiences began participating in conversations surrounding race, deducting that Nas’s blackness played a role in the removal. For Lil Nas X, it was a case of the charting platform pigeonholing him due to his previous rap-oriented releases, telling Guardian, “I think maybe it leaned too much on the other side for them,” they assumed, “Oh, this is him? Then this is all he’s allowed to do.”

Nas’s intersectionality as a ‘rapper blurring genre lines’, again became more multifaceted when, during a surprise performance with Miley and Billy Ray Cyrus at Glastonbury, saw him affirm his sexuality through a casual tweet, reading, ‘Deadass thought I made it obvious’ followed by a flurry of rainbow emoticons. He was coming out, and coming into himself.

Montero’s ‘Industry Baby’ featuring Jack Harlow, stories this plight as coming up as the underdog while authenticating his identity as a queer, male rapper. Prisoners dressed all in pink (stereotypically gendered as a female colour) intersected with sporadic twerking, while rapping ‘This one is for the champions’, ‘I told you long ago, on the road, I got what they waiting for’ and ‘You was never really rooting for me anyway’, lay the base for an unexpected yet celebrated take on masculinity, and was also, basically, a fuck-you to any haters.

During this time, Nas’s openness surrounding mental health saw him win The Trevor Project’s inaugural Suicide Prevention Advocate of the Year. In a statement accepting the award, Nas said, “Discrimination around sexuality and gender identity is still very real, and our community deserves to feel supported and totally free to be themselves. I often get messages from fans telling me about their struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, and it made me realise this was something bigger than myself. If using my voice and expressing myself in my music can help even one kid out there who feels alone, then it was all worth it.”

Pop-inclined ‘That’s What I Want’ and punk-embracing ‘Lost in the Citadel’, tracks four and eight respectively, hone into this side of Nas, depicting him both finding and losing love; the first with a footballer who he finds out has a wife and child, and the second with a sleeping man in a futuristic city who he’s hesitant to revisit.

In addition, the atmospheric ‘Dead Right Now’ and trappy sounds of ‘Don’t Want It’ add to his mental health dialogue. ‘Dead Right Now’ looks back to his beginnings in 2018, speaking on the side of fame where people reach out once you’ve “made it” but aren’t there during your struggles with mental health. On ‘Don’t Want It’, Lil Nas manifests success after breaking odds against depression; ‘tell the reaper he don’t want, I know everything gonna be alright’, he raps.

Butterflies are important throughout the visuals for these songs. For example, on ‘Dead Right Now’, an animated blue Nas flies through the sky surrounded by the insects, while in ‘That’s What I Want’, he appears to wear butterfly earrings the moment he finds out that the man he’s falling for has a wife and kid. These small easter eggs prompt the butterfly to be symbolic of rebirth and realisation, as well as freedom of self-expression.

We’ve now moved to the point of Nas’s career where he’s proven that he isn’t a one-hit-wonder, nowhere close. His debut EP 7, housing Old Town Road, has been released to excited fans and many accolades decorate his trophy cabinet.

In 2019, Time named him one of the 25 most influential people for his “global impact on social media” and “overall ability to drive news”. In the same year, he won two awards at the MTV VMA’s, raking in song of the year – the first gay man to do so. Next, at the Teen Choice Awards, he was nominated for six categories, winning R&B/ Hip Hop for ‘Old Town Road’, which also won at the Country Music Association Awards. Then six Grammy nominations were tucked under the belt, including Record of The Year, Album of The Year, Best New Artist, winning Best Music Video and Best Pop Duo/ Group Performance.

This phase lends inspiration to songs on Montero, such as the sensual ‘Scoop’ featuring Doja Cat, the lucid and pulled-back ‘One Of Me’ featuring Sir Elton John on the keys, and the traditional-rap-inclined ‘Dolla Sign Slime’ featuring Megan Thee Stallion.

While in ‘Scoop’ Nas raps about staying relevant in his day to day conquests ‘Tryna be the daily’, on ‘One of Me’ he sings about the pressures of coming into the limelight ‘I like this, I don’t like that, do this here, don’t so that’ / ‘Can you prove yourself?’

However, it’s in ‘Dolla Sign Slime’ where we find him at his most triumphant. Set in a fantasy scape, the camera swoops over a large kingdom before ending in a great hall where he stands before a congregation, crowned King. Not only is it a nod to his gold-plated Met Gala look, but it stands as an ode to where he has found himself at the top of the music hierarchy. Genius describes his song as one where he discusses his riches, “comparing himself to his opponents who have not quite acquired his status”.

We finally reach the end, but really it’s only the beginning for Nas. Through the countless awards, accidental wardrobe malfunctions, fake pregnancies, red carpet moments, gains and losses, we learn that Lil Nas X has become a beacon for change within the music industry and is truly one of the most influential artists of this time.

We now look to songs that reminisce and reflect on his journey to who he is now.

In the subdued ‘Tales of Dominica’ animated Nas floats in a fractured house wearing blue, signalling a feeling of melancholy. Though reaching top-end success, he sings, ‘Finally grown, ain’t nothing like I hoped it would be’ and ‘Could I be wrong, was everyone right about me?’ signalling that his battle with depression isn’t over.

On last track, ‘Am I Dreaming’ featuring another Cyrus, Miley sings about his future. While acoustic guitar sets an indie-pop backdrop, here he could either be singing about unrequited love or his move into stardom. He sings, ‘Oh never forget me and everything I’ve done.’

Finally, it’s ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name) that really encapsulates what the album has set out to explore. Throughout his visuals, we see the conception of the biblical earth; Adam and Eve, the Aristocracy, and the devil seducing him to the kingdom of Hell. He introduces the song, speaking, “In Life, we hide the parts of ourselves we don’t want the world to see, we lock them away, we tell them no, we banish them, but here we don’t, welcome to Montero.’ We see his realisation, rebirth, and finally, while twerking on the devil, then to become satan, his taking of the dark world’s crown. I’m this feat we see that Lil Nas X has found himself.

We leave Nas and his album now thoroughly in tune with his vision, one he’s invited us into through a journey of genres, themes and talking points. It’s a triumphant release for someone so quick to rise in the music world, yet one that won’t be forgotten in recent years.

In a final tweet to his fans, Lil Nas X said, “I love joking but on a serious note, making this album was therapy for me. I began healing many unchecked wounds, facing skeletons in my closet I never wanted to, fighting internally every day and crying persistently, MONTERO is truly my baby. Thanks for the love.”

Follow Lil Nas X here for more and stream the debut album MONTERO here.

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