(April 5, 2021). Admit it. Before rapper Lil Nas X “trolled” conservatives, Christians and parents in general with his latest song and video “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” how many reading this thought that his first song – the uber-certified, No. 1 megasmash “Old Town Road” – was and would forever be his only big hit single?
How many readers branded him a “one-hit-wonder,” despite the fact that he’d had three additional platinum top-40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 since his 2019 breakout smash, including “Panini” (not named for the sandwich), which hit the top five that same year and was itself certified 5-times platinum (for a combined streaming/download/sales-equivalent of five million units)?
How many of you thought that – at 19 and 20 years old – Lil Nas X would just ride that horse down the “old town road” and off into the sunset, never to be heard from again?
More importantly, how many of you even cared?
An affirmative answer to the first three questions – and a denial of the fourth – is possibly at the root of why a song and video like “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” exists in the first place. Despite all of his other accomplishments, “Old Town Road” was not only Lil Nas X’s only No. 1 hit, but it was the biggest No. 1 single in Hot 100 chart history and the automatic point-of-reference any time Nas X’s name was mentioned.
That is, until now.
On the next Hot 100 chart (dated April 10), “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” will be the new No. 1 song, thanks to all the buzz the song has been getting since its release on Friday, March 26.
Yes, the song with the video in which a queer, non-conforming Lil Nas X has his soul figuratively snatched by the devil – but not before he submits to and is kissed and licked by a serpent-like alien creature on earth, ascends to heaven and then descends via a stripper’s pole straight to the fiery hell where a CGI Satan awaits his now-famous lap dance before getting his neck snapped by the rapper – was announced as the new No. 1 single in the country…just one day after Easter, the holiest day on the Christian calendar.
And with the crowning of “Montero” just three chart days shy of the second anniversary of his first No. 1 ascending the throne, “Old Town Road” – the former 800-pound gorilla in Lil Nas X’s life and short career – is the real demon that finally gets exorcised.
No longer will the “Old Town Road” rapper have to see his name in articles with this qualifier: “the ‘Old Town Road’ rapper.” Equally as likely now is the following reference: “Lil Nas X, the ‘Montero’ rapper,” which is kinda weird given that Montero is also Nas X’s birth name, but I digress slightly.
The dislodgment of “Old Town Road” as Lil Nas X’s most relevant song didn’t come easily. Recall all of the superlatives and awards it earned – including the record-breaking streaming numbers, record-breaking run atop the Billboard Hot 100 (at 19 weeks, three more than any other song in the chart’s history), and the first-ever Country Music Association award win for an openly LGBTQ+ Black man, among many others.
“Road” was that song that – no matter what else the young rapper did in his career (before now) – most people, some fans included, would forever associate with him, or vice versa. He was still performing it at awards shows as recently as last autumn (granted the 2020 Billboard Music Awards, which aired in October, were significantly delayed, but still “Road” had to feel like a well-worn caricature at that point).
“Old Town Road” was so big a monster that it just couldn’t be ignored or stopped, despite some formidable obstacles placed in its path.
First, when Billboard magazine dubiously elected to remove the song from their country charts because they felt it “wasn’t country enough” – a move for which the publication was roundly and justifiably criticized – pop and rhythmic radio took over like a guardian angel. In the ultimate plot twist, the song flew to No. 1 on the magazine’s main singles chart – the Hot 100 – where it spent those 19 incredible weeks at the top.
Later, when Lil Nas X made the potentially fatal career decision to come out as gay at the end of LGBTQ Pride month 2019 and at the height of the song’s popularity, “Old Town Road” still wasn’t going down. The country-rap runaway smash had already spent 13 of its weeks at the top and added six more after the rapper’s announcement. (Sir Elton John might have killed to have this kind of acceptance 45 years ago when he famously came out – partially – to Rolling Stone magazine in 1976.)
Even with the expected homophobic backlash from some in the very country and hip-hop communities to which Lil Nas X primarily marketed himself that year, “Old Town Road” rode the charts until it couldn’t no more, eventually knocked from its perch by that year’s other breakout sensation Billie Eilish, whose “Bad Guy” proved to be the dragon-slayer (but even that didn’t stop “Road” from becoming the highest-certified single in rap and country music history at 14 million units consumed and counting).
Instant riches and fame, a No. 1 hit that just wouldn’t go away, and a permanent place in pop music history? These may all seem like good problems to have for a man just exiting his teens…one who recorded “Road” on a shoestring budget and a dream.
But what young recording artist just getting his career off the ground wants his first hit to be his biggest?
What’s more, what grown 21-year-old man coming into his own both personally and professionally wants to be forever linked to the semi-novelty of “Old Town Road,” the song which itself doubled as a children’s anthem (“Road” won Nas X both a Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice award and a Teen Choice award)?
It’s one thing for “Old Town Road” to be career-launching, but career-defining?
That would be like Will Smith’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand” being forever considered his career pinnacle, thereby never allowing the now-legendary entertainer to grow into the multi-media superstar he’s since become.
Clearly, “Parents” wasn’t the runaway smash that “Old Town Road” was two years ago – as Will Smith faced a totally different obstacle in the late 1980s, namely rap’s lack of mainstream acceptance at that time.
But even with that huge hurdle, Smith – a presumably straight man and now a Hollywood icon – will arguably have had a much easier path to long-term success than Nas X when all is said and done, especially given the lens through which artists like X are still viewed in a largely conservative America.
Continuing with the Smith analogy, while the “Wild Wild West” rapper charted a more gradual trajectory – artistically speaking – to his ultimate place in entertainment history, Lil Nas X’s “Montero” is, admittedly, a complete pendulum swing from “Old Town Road,” with the latter being the safest rap song this side of “Gettin’ Jiggy With It” while the former has essentially become the Black gay man’s “WAP.”
The reactions to “Montero” are well documented by now. In the far-right corner, conservatives, some of whom had earlier accused Lil Nas X of being a Devil worshipper as far back as 2019 (partially prompting the theme of the “Montero” song and video), have doubled down on their predictable condemnation of the new song’s religious and homosexual overtones.
Meanwhile, the LGBTQ community has largely embraced “Montero,” noting that it has given a gay man – more significantly, an unapologetic Black gay rapper – a platform the scale of which is unprecedented. Remember, we’re talking about the guy with the biggest song of a generation whose voice is now transcending “Old Town Road” and tackling tougher, more important societal issues as brashly as he can.
At the end of the day, being an out queer artist in 2021 shouldn’t be that big a deal. One would think we’ve moved past our juvenile-like reactions to someone revealing their sexuality this deep into the 21st century. Conversely, even some of his supporters suggest that Lil Nas X could have sent pro-LGBTQ+ messages with less graphic imagery.
But being a queer recording artist in an era that has seen dozens of musicians come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual or who’ve declared themselves as non-binary when it comes to their gender identity or expression, doesn’t mean that a musician won’t still have his personal demons to exorcise.
In his response to the recent criticism, Lil Nas X has already addressed one of those demons: the amount of self-hatred that he and many other Black gay men have had to endure at the hands of others who preached that Hell was the the ultimate fate awaiting them.
The rapper posted this in responding to his critics within a day of the song and video’s release: ”I hope you are mad, stay mad, (and) feel the same anger you teach us to have towards ourselves.”
In the long run, that societal demon may prove tougher to contend with, but the other formidable one was “Old Town Road,” the song Nas X appeared “hell-bent” – pun intended – on rendering a mere footnote in his still-blossoming career.
While that outcome also may – realistically speaking – never happen, one thing’s for sure: the kid-friendly, horse-riding, country-rap anthem that is “Old Town Road” will no longer be the only thing for which Lil Nas X is widely known.
Now the artist born Montero Lamar Hill will be the first openly gay rapper to have two No. 1 Hot 100 singles in the Billboard chart’s (and in hip-hop’s) history.
And, most importantly, you can now call Montero by his name!
DJRob is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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