You’d have to be living under a rock to not be aware of Lil Nas X. In some ways, that was the issue he has spent the past year overcoming. Coming out of the gate with the longest running #1 song in the history of the Billboard charts, Lil Nas X achieved a stardom most pop artists spend their careers chasing. However, succeeding so massively with what was a novelty song (even if a very good one) led to fears that he would be a one-hit wonder, who could never come close to matching that success.
However, even through 2019 (feels weird thinking it was that long ago) it was obvious there was more to Lil Nas X than just a vessel for ‘Old Town Road’. His promotion of the song on social media showed a talent for marketing that many of his older contemporaries lack, and his bravery in coming out despite the backlash he has faced from some in the hip-hop community demonstrated that he was willing to be himself above all else.
His rollout for his debut album, Montero, dialled these qualities up to eleven, with great success. The term cultural reset has almost become a meme, but the release of ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)’, was as close as we’ll get to the definition of it. Lil Nas X cast off his one-hit wonder label, using the controversy and outrage from the conservative right to make the song viral, driving it straight to #1 in its first week. Even after being sued by Nike for releasing the ‘Satan Shoes’, he managed to use this as a concept for his promotion of his next single, ‘Industry Baby’, which featured him going on trial and then to prison. These two singles were some of the best pop music of the year, and built up the hype for the project.
Montero is finally here, and has stayed true to what was promised in the rollout. It stands as one of the best pop-rap albums of the year, if one can even call it that, as it defies genre, with Nas experimenting with rock, acoustic pop and more contemporary hip-hop sounds. While some of the songwriting is a little unrefined, it is a standout debut album that coped very well with the heaps of expectation and will be in rotation for weeks to come.
To deal quickly with the singles, ‘Montero’ kicks the album off by delving into the relationship themes of the album, and the maximalist energy reflects LNX’s songwriting on the album in general. The other hit, ‘Industry Baby’, co-produced by Kanye West and frequent collaborators Take a Daytrip, is probably the best song on the album, with Nas celebrating his success over triumphant horns, with Jack Harlow providing a smooth guest verse that fits the vibe of the song perfectly. While Nas lamented that he felt he found it difficult to find any male rappers to collaborate with due to homophobia (though a collaboration with LGBTQ+ ally Kid Cudi is now in the works), his choice of guest features is perfect, as each guest kills their verse and matches his energy.
To summarise the themes of the album, it is balanced between songs about his relationships, as well as more introspective moments where he reflects on troubles in his past. One of the most commendable things about this project is how raw and honest Lil Nas X is with his fans, such as on the second track, ‘Dead Right Now’, where he reflects on his strained relationship with his mother, and her struggles with addiction. The song that is by far the most personal is undoubtedly the second single, ‘Sun Goes Down’, which works a lot better in the context of the album. Montero writes a song to his younger self, where he reflects on anxieties ranging from his race, praying for gay thoughts to be taken away and suffering from suicidal thoughts. While some of it is emotional and at times difficult to listen to, the album’s message is one of growing and gaining self-esteem, developing into the almost fearless man he is today.
The album is far from dark, though, especially aesthetically. ‘Tales of Dominica’ is a beautiful sounding song, though the lyrics are about loneliness and a broken home. There are a few outright happy songs, such as ‘That’s What I Want’, which feature a pop-rock instrumental, with Nas singing about yearning for love. There are also trap bangers like ‘Dolla Sign Slime’, the title of which pays tribute to one of Lil Nas X’s biggest inspirations, rapper Young Thug, and shows Nas saying he’s not to be played with despite some perceiving him as soft due to his public image. ‘Scoop’ is perhaps the greatest disappointment of the tracklist, as though Doja Cat brings a great contribution, it is too short, and the hook lacks the punch it needed given the skeletal instrumental, especially with his ad-libs failing to land well.
The range of sounds is extremely impressive, as Nas’s singing and rapping fits over a variety of genres and instrumentals. There are no country fusions, though he has done a cover of Jolene on Radio 1’s Live Lounge that perhaps hints at a future exploration into that genre again. With producer John Cunningham (who worked most notably with the late XXX Tentacion, as well as more recently with Halsey and Miley Cyrus) he works over some harsher rock instrumentals on songs like ‘Life After Salem’. However, most credit should go to duo Take A Daytrip, who have worked with Lil Nas X ever since Old Town Road, and made most of this album. As Nas showed by bringing them out in an interview for Apple Music with Zane Lowe, their relationship on a personal level is extremely strong, and allowed them to more or less move in together and work during the pandemic.
At time of writing, it is uncertain whether this album will go to #1, as it remains to be seen whether it can stop Drake’s Certified Lover Boy from achieving a third week at the top spot. However, to a large extent, it doesn’t matter. On the closer, ‘Am I Dreaming’, Nas and Miley sing, ‘Never forget me, and everything I’ve done’, and with this album likely to be an enduring success, but he had no need to worry about that happening. With strong sales and glowing reviews, Lil Nas X has proved to the world that he is here to stay, and has a core fanbase who are inspired by his music and what he represents.