(July 6, 2019). Just three months ago, Lil Nas X was at the center of a Billboard chart controversy when the publication made the awkward choice of removing the rapper from its country singles chart – despite getting measurable airplay from country radio (at the time) – because his then relatively unknown song “Old Town Road” wasn’t considered “country” enough.
The ensuing controversy and publicity was all the young black artist needed to parlay his song into the biggest hit of 2019 – and one of the biggest in history – as it skyrocketed to No. 1 on Billboard’s all-genre Hot 100 singles chart where it’s been ever since.
The tune regularly beats the No. 2 competitor by two-to-one margins and has knocked down a record-breaking seven would-be No. 1s in the runner-up slot since its ascension in April (including two each by Taylor Swift and Shawn Mendes).
And then, after “Road’s” lucky 13th week at the top – more than all but a dozen other songs in the chart’s history – Lil Nas X came out as gay. It was his way of closing June’s Pride Month celebrations and acknowledging what he thought he’d made “obvious” before.
Except, it wasn’t that obvious – assuming there’s such a fail-proof system for casual observers to make that kind of determination short of relying on stereotypical gender-crossing behavioral norms. Lil Nas X’s announcement made headline news, mainly because it wasn’t previously known to music consumers in general and because of who he is at his core.
Lil Nas X is a young, African-American male rapper with the No. 1 song in the land and, if you still indulge him as such, a country music dabbler as well. Being young and black and gay alone would be hard enough in today’s society (yes, even still today folks). Being those things and trying to make it in hip-hop is an even bigger taboo. Add in country music’s history with LGBTQ artists and you’ve got the kind of triple whammy that would make Lil Nas X’s road a tough row to hoe.
Since his announcement on June 30, Lil Nas X says he’s already receiving a backlash. On social media he’s had to knock back a few trolls who’ve come at him with homophobic comments. In a BBC interview earlier this week, he talked about his instant status as a gay role model to young artists in both the hip-hop and country music communities who struggle with their sexual identities in genres that haven’t always been so accepting.
Lil Nas X quite possibly couldn’t have picked two worst genres in which to come out sexually. Hip-hop has been notoriously homophobic in its lyrics and its hyper masculinity since it emerged four-plus decades ago. Few strides have been made since as the only artists who’ve truly come out have done so in recent years. People like Young M.A., Azealia Banks, ILoveMakonnen, the late Lil Peep, and Frank Ocean are perhaps the most well known of out hip-hop artists, with several of them identifying as the (sadly) more-palatable-to-society “bisexual.” All of those artists emerged in the past decade and few of them have had notable chart success – with Ocean and Peep being the exceptions.
On the country side it isn’t any better. Despite the genre’s embracing of more progressive music styles in its production as “bro-country” and “country rap” have emerged during the past decade, country artists (and their songs) still cater to a largely conservative fan base rooted in Christian religious beliefs – beliefs that purportedly don’t support gay lifestyles.
A recent article at tasteofcountry.com listed only eight other prominent country artists (only a few were actually singers) who’d come out as gay or bisexual. Most of them did so after 2010 and few of them have lit the country music world on fire since doing so.
The most noteworthy among them were singer Ty Herndon, whose success preceded his coming out in 2014, and Brandi Carlile, who is more of an alternative-country/folk artist. She came out in 2002 and has the most success of any artist listed, including her big top-5, Grammy-winning 2018 album, By The Way, I Forgive You. The remaining artists were either behind-the-scene songwriting contributors or few-hit-wonders that have had more success in their LGBTQ activism than on the charts.
With the kind of dire track record LGBTQ artists have had in hip-hop and country, it remains to be seen what impact Lil Nas X’s coming out will have on his current hit record, much less his career. His new EP, titled 7, debuted at No. 2 last week on Billboard’s 200-position album chart, while “Old Town Road” remained No. 1 on the singles chart for a 13th week, based on data calculated before June 30 – the day of his announcement.
Next week’s charts – to be announced Monday, July 8 – will be the first indication of any impact from X’s coming out. Will their be a noticeable drop in his record-breaking streaming numbers – numbers that have buoyed his No. 1 run for three months? If so, will it be significant enough to drop him from the top? If not next week, will he last the three more weeks needed to tie the all-time record of sixteen weeks at No. 1 (“One Sweet Day” by Mariah Carey & Boys II Men in 1996 and “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi ft. Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber in 2017)?
More importantly than this month’s chart numbers, though, is will Lil Nas X suffer the kind of backlash – unspoken or otherwise – that has befallen so many other out artists in his chosen genres of music? When the next rapper or country artist comes out as gay or bi or even transsexual, will Lil Nas X be recalled as a mere footnote like so many others before him?
Or will he be the (more than one) hit-making trailblazer who will be remembered for blowing the doors open and controlling the narrative at the beginning of his career – a long career at that – and one who made it even easier for others to do so?
Only time will tell, and it begins with next week’s charts.
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.
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