Lil Nas X, the gleefully queer 22-year-old pop star and savvy digital trickster, often cuts an impossibly confident figure in public. Red carpets and awards show stages have lately become international showcases for his impishly androgynous imagination. On social media — his own personal amusement park — his deft retorts to purer-than-thou pearl-clutchers and homophobic haters seem so effortless, they prompt a modern philosophical question: What’s the sound of one hand clapping back?
But on his tuneful, introspective debut album, “Montero,” that glitzy public armor falls to reveal vulnerability and doubt. “You’s a meme, you’s a joke, been a gimmick from the go,” Lil Nas X taunts himself on the tortured “One of Me,” embodying the voices of his most vicious critics with such gusto that they sound indistinguishable from the demons in his own head.
That meme he’s referencing is, of course, “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X’s world-conquering 2019 smash. By the end of its record-breaking, 19-week run atop the Billboard Hot 100 that August, “Old Town Road” had become much more than a pop song: It also functioned as an indictment of racism in country music, an opportunity for intergenerational unity between pop stars and a referendum on whether people who spent too much time on the internet could still experience anything resembling uncomplicated delight. But even as “Old Town Road” thrust its maker squarely into the spotlight, it was not yet clear if Lil Nas X (born Montero Lamar Hill) was a next-big-thing musician or simply a winking wizard of virality.
Nor was that clear from “7,” the short EP rush-released that June in the high-noon shadow of “Old Town Road.” The EP’s five new songs were catchy but faceless, as if Nas were attempting to play a character he couldn’t quite commit to inhabiting. The week after it was released, he came out, zooming in on a small rainbow that adorned the cover of “7” and directing his fans to “listen closely” to its final song, “C7osure.” On Twitter, he posted, “deadass thought I made it obvious,” a shrug in his characteristic internet-speak. But he hadn’t, really: The lyrics to “C7osure” hinted at a personal transformation (“No more actin’, man, that forecast say I should just let me grow”) but the song was generic enough that it could have meant anything.
Contrast that with the vivid specificity of Nas’s 2021 single “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” a song-of-self so particular and unabashedly gay that it makes you want to dig up Walt Whitman and tell him about it. “I’m not fazed, only here to sin,” Nas croons, as lascivious licks of flamenco-inspired guitar crackle like flames at his feet. “If Eve ain’t in your garden, you know that you can call me when you want.”
Improbably, the song was nearly as much a sensation as “Old Town Road.” But something that was drowned out in the blare of its cannily contrived controversies — the uproar around that satanic lap dance in its music video; that lip-lock at the BET Awards; the most controversial Nikes since Heaven’s Gate — was a certain nuance in the song’s point of view.
Contrary to what the offended parties would have you believe, Nas himself was not embodying a one-dimensional Lucifer. He was instead locked in an ambivalent duet of darkness and light, denial and illumination — a dizzying tango in which the roles of seducer and seduced were constantly blurred. The questioning, slight hesitation and eventual rush of exploration enlivened “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” with the thrill of freshly unearthed desire. It sounded like experimentation in real time, which made sense: Nas had already had to figure out newfound fame step by step with the whole world watching. Here he seemed to be doing the same with his own sexuality, all while summoning that same preternatural, tightrope-walking poise.
As with Frank Ocean’s breakthrough 2012 album “Channel Orange,” on “Montero” there is a rare, simple and yet radical joy in hearing male pronouns dropped so casually in another man’s songs of love, lust and heartbreak. (“Need a boy who can cuddle with me all night,” Nas sings on “That’s What I Want,” which sounds like an angsty, spring-wound “Hey Ya.”) Unlike Ocean, though, Lil Nas X has little interest in deconstructing the conventional structures of a pop song or the traditional narrative arc of an album: He clearly wants these songs of queer yearning to be legible to the mainstream. Working mostly with the production duo Take A Daytrip — who favor melodic hooks and bright, flashy sounds — “Montero” funnels the more fluid and outré aesthetics of SoundCloud rap into familiar pop-musical shapes.
On one of the album’s best songs, “Scoop,” Nas finds a kindred spirit in fellow meme-hound-turned-pop-star Doja Cat: Their expressive voices adapt so well to the effervescent beat that it sounds like the theme song to their own cartoon. “Dead Right Now” is just as infectious but cuts even deeper, tackling suicidal thoughts, unsupportive family members and the sudden burdens of fame: “My mama told me that she love me, don’t believe her/When she get drunk, she hit me up, man, with a fever.”
The second half of “Montero” is surprisingly downcast, and not all of its offerings are as searing or memorable as “Dead Right Now.” But even when they bleed into one another, these songs successfully assert that Nas is much more than just a meme-maker, conjuring a more vivid picture of his inner world and musical sensibility than anything he’s released before.
As on any deeply felt record made by a young 20-something, “Montero” ricochets from cravings of momentary lust to earnest pleas for a more lasting love. The underlying universality of its sentiments and sounds ultimately work in the album’s favor, effectively smuggling a Black queer perspective into places where it was once absent or even actively resisted. After all, the catchier the song, the more difficult it will be for the haters to avoid Lil Nas X in all his glorious, kaleidoscopic humanity. Perhaps that’s his greatest trick yet. Who would have guessed that all along, that trusty cowboy’s steed was actually a Trojan horse?
Lil Nas X