Lil Nas X Takes His Next Step From ‘Old Town Road’ With Genre-Hopping ‘7’ EP
Lil Nas X is emblematic of a new synergy in popular music that would have been practically unthinkable a mere decade earlier. Silicon Valley techies will tell you that technology expands exponentially, and what better example of this than Lil Nas X, who largely built his brand from one song on the wildly popular short video app TikTok, and has somehow managed to blend genres as traditionally distanced as hip-hop and country.
X is known for his single “Old Town Road,” monumental for its meshing of hip-hop and country styles in a broadly relatable way. The fact that it is one of the biggest songs of 2019, breaking records, and climbing to number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 is enough to get the point across about its impact, and the fact that it was removed from Billboard’s Hot Country Songs list is an issue stigmatic of the usually unspoken issues of our times. On one hand, the list claimed that after close consideration, they didn’t consider the song country enough to fall into the category that they specialize in — which makes sense. If you extend the parameters of a genre’s definition indefinitely, the genre will cease to have any meaning, and we owe it to the stewards of cultural preservation to conserve music that could easily become lost in assimilation to the onslaught of abounding clichés. On the other hand, “Old Town Road” is not very different from the hits heralded in such acts as Florida Georgia Line, which makes the list’s decision suspicious and unsavory. Fortunately, X has a handful of bona fide musicians on his side, and he’s building steadily on his momentum with his genre-shifting new EP “7.”
The album starts with a bang, jumping right into Lil Nas X’s much-hyped remix of “Old Town Road,” featuring Billy Ray Cyrus. The song showcases Cyrus more than X, as if the latter were the feature, but for good reason, as in the face of the Billboard controversy, Cyrus’ inclusion amounts to a gesture of approval from the ’90s country pop singer. Following “Old Town Road” is “Panini,” kicking off the next chapter of X’s genre-bending aspirations. In the same vein as “Old Town Road” sampling Nine Inch Nails, “Panini” samples Nirvana. As if taking a page out of Kid Cudi’s “Speedin’ Bullet to Heaven” songbook, it’s is an ode to ’90s grunge, fused with X’s trap stylings. One of the more infectious songs on the EP, “Panini” is also in the same style of “Old Town Road,” in the sense that it sits just under two minutes, yet is still one of the stronger tracks on the EP.
Following up “Panini” is “F9mily (You & Me),” and with Travis Barker on writing and production, the track sounds like it could easily be the newest song from any number of indie punk bands, when its opening riff kicks in. X is really blurring the lines at this rate, since he presents himself as a rapper, but goes so far in his adoption of different genres that he uses them not as a mere reference point, as most rappers who dabble in various styles do, but rather as types of music that he dives headlong into, throwing all caution to the wind. The results are mixed. This is the type of song that might strike as novel for someone who resides nearly exclusively in the hip-hop sphere, in terms of their listening habits, but comes across as a bit of amateurish fodder to others. With his rather lazy vocals thrown over a generic riff and beat, “F9mily (You & Me)” is the stuff of karaoke sessions, and a silly flirt toward another genre rather than a realistically satisfying excursion into it.
For “Kick It,” X gravitates back to contemporary hip-hop stylings — or so it seems from the start. He throws in horns of the house band variety, picking up on his background as a trumpet player. Then, midway though, the song quite bizarrely veers off on a segment full of over-expressive strings and thrashing drums, while he keeps rapping, on point, undeterred.
Come “Rodeo,” Lil Nas X sounds strikingly in form, with all of the proclivities he’s teased seeming to condense into a form that sounds natural, not affected. There’s an opening guitar bit that brings back the rock influence running through the album, and a casualness of melody that stems from ‘90s grunge rock, juxtaposed with a flawless execution of trap-informed contemporary hip-hop aesthetics. Most exceptional is the country twang that X adopts while rapping. He sounds, for much of the track, more like a country singer than a rapper. Evoking Kane Brown, the song gives the sense of worlds colliding. Then Cardi B comes through and shatters everything, in the best possible way. With just a few bars, Cardi owns the track. Other than “Old Town Road,” X is most memorable on this track, but Cardi is something else.
“Bring U Down” lapses into the same relative pitfalls as “F9mily (You & Me),” seeming like a spectator’s take on some idea of rock music, culled from sidelong glances and distanced observations. It starts and finishes in a little over two minutes which, unlike “Old Town Road,” is probably for the best. “C7losere (You Like)” is next. Another song that keeps the vaguely alt rock aesthetics, but simultaneously goes headfirst into Auto-Tune drivelry.
Finally, you have the original version of “Old Town Road.” While it feels unfinished, and is the shortest of all songs, it still remains one of the highlights of this EP, even considering the Cyrus-featuring remix, as it showcases Lil Nas X uninterrupted, delving into country voicings and all the while demonstrating a distinctly hip-hop sensibility, in a way that will likely be a precedent for music to come.
‘7’ is a quick, short EP with quick, short songs — and that actually happens to translate well to its significance at large. X doesn’t waste time belaboring about details. He simply makes things happen. Hip-hop and country — why not? You can side with either Billy Ray Cyrus or Billboard’s Hot Country Songs List,” but someone has done it and it has caught on. Altogether, the EP can be a bit patchy, as its ventures into disparate styles can come across as half-baked, but there are moments it makes up for that in its bold defiance of cliché.
“7” is available June 21 on Apple Music.