Lil Nas X Makes a Queer Pop Statement With Debut Album ‘Montero’

If you pressed people just a decade earlier to make their most fantastical predictions for 2019, you might have heard ideas about flying cars or telepathy, but quite surely not about a virtually unknown rapper making it big off of a country-rap jingle gone viral by way of the cultural phenomenon TikTok, then coming out as queer, embracing his orientation in the most flamboyant manner, and cementing mainstream celebrity status. Atlanta rapper-turned-pop megastar Montero Lamar Hill, known to millions of fans as Lil Nas X, made worlds collide in December 2018 with “Old Town Road,” and demonstrated the unheralded appeal of such radical crossover, scoring the longest-running number one single on the Billboard Hot 100. Then Hill came out of the closet running, and sprinted to the top. The history of hip-hop culture has generally been blatantly homophic, though there has been a palpable change in recent years, with a handful of rappers embracing sexual fluidity. As if to compensate for the lack of representation, Lil Nas X has modeled himself as a provocateur of farcical excesses. And it has worked. His debut album, “Montero,” arrives amid a massive promotional campaign including a slew of parodies, such as a pregnacy skit, a baby shower, a YouTube talk show skit and a series of billboards, including one designed after legal advertisements that reads “Gay? You May Be Entitled to Financial Compensation.”Hill’s music videos have been breaking new ground for Black queer representation too and “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” features him lap dancing for Satan, and was released in tandem with a sale of sneakers containing a drop of real human blood in the soles. After all this debut buildup comes a star-studded album that finds Lil Nas X reinventing himself as a bona fide pop star and a cross-cultural queer icon.   

The album’s first single and opener, “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” immediately serves as a statement of intent. There’s the parenthetical title, a reference to the homoerotic novel “Call Me By Your Name,” famously adapted for the screen in 2017. The song is a festive, catchy opener that finds Lil Nas X grounded in the rhythm, trailing off into melodies on whims with a cool composure and fluidity that fit the titular declaration. Hill extends himself to the closeted masses who hide in anonymity, offering to embody the names that they dissociate from, and putting his own name on display to demonstrate his personal commitment to collective self-acceptance. The outrageous flamboyance of Hill’s “Montero” music video is clearly designed for shock value and informed by humor, but it also seems partly designed to compensate for the all the unrealized and unacknowledged who share Hill’s persuasion, offering them a cathartic comfort in the excess with which it celebrates queer identity. 

Lil Nas X devotes a fair amount of the album to calling out naysayers and sycophants with a typical hip-hop braggadocio that seems especially earned, considering the surreal whirlwind in which he rose to fame. On “Dead Right Now,” he coolly unleashes, “You know, you never used to call / Keep it that way now,” and goes on to recount his father discouraging him from pursuing his dreams, warning that it was a “one in a million chance.” The odds were probably less than one in a million, but he turned out to be that one, and his bravado rings true. 

“Montero” turns out catchy tunes back-to-back, but the album is not without its drawbacks. Several tracks seem like they were designed to lock listeners into sing-alongs with as little effort as possible. They can be risibly formulaic, and after a few choruses, they easily become grating. “Industry Baby” is a particularly egregious example, although it stands out with lines like “I don’t fuck bitches, I’m queer, hah.” It’s hard not to appreciate Hill’s total lack of reservations at this point. “That’s What I Want” finds him courting his widest pop demographic with a radio friendly sing-along. The refrain of “I want someone to love,” is punctuated with an exclamation of “That’s what I fuckin’ want,” delivered with an impetuous insistence that gives the song a character all its own.  

Antiseptic tracks like these are strategically interspersed with harder-hitting cuts like “Scoop,” on which Lil Nas X casually reminds the listener that he still has plenty of swag. His ability to effortlessly shift gears so dramatically throughout the album reveals a versatility that usually comes with manic artistic personalities, and adds up with his unique skyrocketing to stardom. Lil Nas X exchanges verses with Doja Cat, whom he has credited for inspiring him to get into shape in a flash, with his newly sculpted physique adding to the countless surprises of his recent, radical marketing ploy. Doja Cat crams plenty of eccentric personality into a brief, animated verse, and Lil Nas X matches her motions, dropping hilarious lines like “You ever seen a nigga hit pilates?” 

For an artist celebrating his queer identity, there could hardly be a greater validation than the support of Elton John. At the most theatrical phase of his ‘70s heydey, John’s rhinestone-studded, angel wing-adorned costumes were very much in the same vein as what Lil Nas X’s is doing today. As Mark Twain famously said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Even if it’s a forced rhyme, rappers are experts at pronouncing words to make the syllables match, and, at any rate, it has made enough of an impact to resonate with Sir Elton John. John’s involvement seems more of a gesture than a musical investment, as the song bears no audible, characteristic touches other than some piano adornments, but those alone elevate the song considerably, compared to the relatively artless instrumentation on most of the album.  

“Lost In the Citadel” is a bit of a stylistic detour, approaching the pop-punk arena, with the pop component audaciously overwhelming the affair. Thrown into the underwhelmingly generic mix is a central melodic snippet seemingly lifted from Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me.” The lyrics too are generic relationship drama fare, so it’s refreshing when Lil Nas X shifts gears upon the next track, “Dolla Sign Slime,” and returns to rapping. He shares the mic with Megan Thee Stallion this time, and it’s telling that his most overtly hip-hop tracks are collaborations with female figures, as his popularity can be seen as an extension of the recent dominance of feisty female rappers like Megan and Doja. 

“Tales of Dominica” is another poppy throwaway, on which Nas sounds forced into a rigid, perfunctory chorus, singing such purposeless lyrics as “Sometimes you’re angry / Sometimes you’re hurting.” He does, however, manage both to turn out catchy choruses and seamlessly link typically divergent musical sensibilities. You can hear echoes of Kid Cudi, with Lil Nas X occasionally even seeming to mimic Cudi’s voice and characteristic vocalizations. “Sun Goes Down” is another laidback crooner, this time benefitting from a looser structure that allows Lil Nas’ free-flowing vocals and sonorous voice to bring out an effortlessness that is compromised in the more rigid numbers. “Void” might be his most powerful vocal performance yet, with him alternating between intimate falsetto, anthemic bleating, and low register rumbles, without seeming showy. On “Don’t Want It” he reminds us, “I’m fuckin’ living proof that if you want it / You can have anything right before your eyes,” and when we consider the wonderful absurdity of his widespread success, it’s hard to argue with him. 

The songs invariably return to the pop center, and Lil Nas X generally pulls it off swimmingly. “Life After Salem” finds him at his most histrionic, presenting himself as a sort of tragic hero, and expressing his angst in a beaming chorus. It’s the most successful venture into broadly rock territory, with a grandeur and scale that he fills out naturally. Finally, he rounds the album off neatly, while leaving the listener with a vague dramatic suspension, on “Am I Dreaming.” If anyone rivaled Lil Nas X in terms of pop star antics and excesses, it would be Miley Cyrus, who lends her distinctive voice to the track, and gels flawlessly with Lil Nas in his most sentimentally subdued form. The song, and the entire album, reach an apex when Cyrus and Lil Nas X’s voices join at the end of a grand, conclusive duet. The refrain of “Oh, never forget me / And everything I’ve done” seems to hint at the transience of celebrity status, suggesting a fear of falling after you’ve flown high. After all, there is little Lil Nas X can do to make his success story any more fantastical. 

Lil Nas X has given the tectonics of the cultural landscape a proper shaking up, and his debut album finds him dancing to the disturbances. The album can be taken as one component in a larger work of performance art — the final result of Lil Nas X’s emergence, radical reinvention, speedy ascent to the top, and outrageous, multifaceted marketing campaign. “Montero” follows the curveballs and funnels the wildly entertaining antics into a set of songs that are consistently catchy, and strike a fine balance between hip-hop cred and broad, glossy pop aspirations. Taken on its own, “Montero” is musically unexceptional, although it further obfuscates the already blurring lines between genres and acceptable pop personas. If Lil Nas X had merely created a strikingly feminine rap record, that would be one thing, but instead he simultaneously works unabashedly queer bravado into standard hip-hop sounds and embraces pop stylings with an excess that is ultimately flamboyant. On his 2019 EP, “7,” Lil Nas X seemed essentially like another rapper trying to fit in, whereas on “Montero,” he is an unprecedented, intersectional pop star extraordinaire.

Montero” releases Sept. 17 on Apple Music.