(April 9, 2019). Okay, Lil Nas X is not really a rapper. He’s more of a trapper (at least on his first big hit song).
And his song “Old Town Road” isn’t your granddaddy’s “traditional” country tune. It’s a short 1-minute, 53-second musical ride set to a trap beat with several country elements, including a (Nine Inch Nails) banjo sample playing throughout and lyrics that romanticize the life of a wandering cowboy. (The song did grace Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart just a few weeks ago at No. 19 before the publication abruptly removed it because the powers-that-be didn’t feel it contained “enough country elements” – more on that controversial decision in a minute).
As for the “pop” chart the song just topped? Well, it’s actually Billboard’s Hot 100, which isn’t really the magazine’s pop chart anymore, it’s an all-genre list that includes songs from every viable radio format (not just mainstream pop like it did during the first 40-plus years of its existence from 1958-98).
Okay, so maybe the headline is slightly misleading on all three fronts and readers will deem this article to be hogwash. But the headline’s hook is relevant for several reasons.
First and foremost is the controversial decision by Billboard to remove the song from Hot Country Songs three weeks ago after it debuted there as a result of some early airplay on country stations who reportedly had to download a YouTube clip because the label wasn’t shipping “Old Town Road” to their formats.
In a statement explaining their decision to Rolling Stone, Billboard said “upon further review, ‘Old Town Road’ does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard’s country charts.”
It went on to say, “When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition. 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.
Billboard said that…about a song with plenty country references – stereotypical as they may be – about horses, boots, Wranglers, tractors, bull-riding and cheating. Lil Nas X, who hails from the current music capital of the south – Atlanta – even has a hint of a twang in his cadence as he sing-raps about the boredom of a hedonistic lifestyle (drugs, fast cars, faster women) and the desire to live the simpler life that the open road has to offer.
If that ain’t country, well, I just don’t know what is anymore.
Certainly it’s just as country as some of the stuff I’ve heard coming from acts like the group Old Dominion, or Dan + Shay, Maren Morris and Thomas Rhett, all of whom grace the Hot Country Songs chart this week. (Take a listen to Morris’ “The Bones” or Rhett’s “Look What God Gave Her” for proof of what type of beat-shuffling, non-hillbilly stuff is considered country these days).
All of those artists are also white, which led to accusations of racism on the part of Billboard for singling out Lil Nas X, who is black, when it banned him from the country chart last month. Of all the genres Billboard tracks with its charts, country has historically been among the slowest to embrace black musicians, making the racism tag a convenient one to hang on anything associated with that music.
This writer, for one, doesn’t think that explanation for Billboard’s decision is completely fair or even that simple.
After all, the magazine does allow black artists to be included on its country music charts (as well as its other ones), especially if they’re being played on country radio. In fact, just last November two different black men made history when they had the No. 1 album and single on the Billboard country charts simultaneously (Kane Brown had the top country album with Experiment, while Jimmie Allen topped Hot Country Airplay with “Best Shot”).
Both those artists are touring together by the way, making history by being the first two black artists with No. 1 country hits to be on the same concert bill.
But I digress slightly…back to Billboard.
I believe the magazine’s chart managers suffer from music myopia at times. They usually get it right when it comes to deciding which songs belong on which of their charts. But when it comes to categorizing songs that are on the fringes, Billboard staffers’ guesswork gets in the way of sound decision-making.
This is, after all, the same trade publication that included Milli Vanilli’s “Girl You Know It’s True” in its inaugural rap charts in 1989, or the magazine that would have us believe decades later that a world where Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” or Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” are among the biggest R&B/Hip-Hop songs of all time is a world steeped in statistical reality.
Perhaps a more fitting statement from Billboard in explaining Lil Nas X’s country chart ouster would have been, not that “Old Town Road” didn’t have enough country elements, but that it contained too many other ones, like that prominent trap beat you’d usually hear on a rap record by fellow Atlanta artists like Future or Migos.
As it stands, the young rapper/trapper/soul/pop/country/hip-hop artist who happens to turn 20 today – April 9, 2019 – now has the No. 1 song on several of Billboard’s other charts, like Hot Rap Songs, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, and that all-genre Hot 100 chart.
All with a song that should have been allowed to remain on the country list – a song that even country star Billy Ray Cyrus saw fit to lend his voice in a remixed version aimed at changing Billboard’s decision in the coming weeks (I doubt they will though).
One thing’s for certain: many people – including country musicians and fans alike – believe “Old Town Road” is indeed a country record, one that would have been No. 1 on that chart, too, had Billboard allowed it to remain there.
And that certainly would have been a historic first – a single song that topped the Hot 100, country, R&B/Hip-Hop and rap charts…
Seems like Billboard’s loss to me, because Lil Nas X is winning all over the place…cowboy hat, horse, boot spurs and all.
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.