How ‘devil worshipper’ Lil Nas X scandalised white, conservative America, and came out on top

At just 22 years old, Lil Nas X has become one of the most popular and bankable pop stars
It's not often that a rapper manages to piss off both the religious right and Nike in the same year, but alone within the same artistic project, but then artists like Lil Nas X don't come around very often either.

After a meteoric rise to fame based on social media literacy, deconstructing music genres with its amalgamation of hip-hop and country, and collaborations with some of the world's greatest artists, Lil Nas X secured his position as one of the world's leaders Most provocative and exciting musical talents with music videos in which the 22-year-old performs a striptease for Satan, dances naked in a gay prison and with a joint project that involved the sale of Nike sneakers laced with human blood.

But alongside his bold artistic choices, Lil Nas X - née Montero Lamar Hill - has not shied away from the political outcry his work creates. His eloquence about sexuality, the complicated and homophobic past of the music industry, and his dedication to proudly being black and queer in public has created disgust among the dustiest and oldest guards, who accused him of being a gauche devil worshiper. But that backlash is a wave he surfed with elegance.

After the overwhelming success of his country debut single Old Town Road in 2019 - the two weeks in a row a no. Striking presence in modern music.

Now he's released his debut album, Montero, which heralds a new era for the proudly gay black rapper who has leaned heavily on the parts of his identity that often ask him to compromise. With features from Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion, Miley Cyrus and Elton John, Lil Nas X has become one of the most respected - and bankable - pop stars in the world. An amazing achievement for someone who had just finished school three years ago.

In the summer of 2018, Hill tried to keep a job at Taco Bell in his hometown of Atlanta, where he lived as the youngest of six siblings with his father, a gospel singer, after dropping out of computer science.

Then, in early 2019, he released Old Town Road, a fusion of country and trap that has become one of the best-selling singles of all time and has gone 14 times platinum in the US alone. This was partly due to his entrepreneurial flair for social media, which may have its origins in his time as a Twitter personality @NasMari, who garnered thousands of followers with succinct pop culture assessments and memes. Old Town Road was created using a track by a Dutch teenager named YoungKio that he found on the BeatStars website, where aspiring musicians uploaded their instrumentals. Hill bought it for $ 30 before rapping lyrics about his fear.

Hill hit the yeehaw-adjacent hip hop trend at its height. It seems he knew exactly what he was doing: putting the song on footage from the popular Red Dead Redemption 2 video game on YouTube, and marking it as "country" on SoundCloud and iTunes when he knew that would help. He uploaded it to TikTok - back when the platform was still in its infancy as a musical launchpad - and let it fly.

But with all the shrewd tagging, the institutions of American music didn't quite support Old Town Road. While it debuted at number 19 on the Hot Country chart, Billboard removed it from the genre's charts, arguing that it "doesn't include enough elements of country music today to be chartered in its current version." They left it on the hot R&B / hip-hop list, however.

What followed was passionate online discourse that revealed the only real difference between Lil Nas X and other country crossover artists like Kacey Musgraves that Lil Nas X was a rare black presence in the genre. The incident has been compared to snubbing Beyoncé's Daddy Lessons from Lemonade - a song so country that she even made a version of it with The Chicks - and how it never received a Grammys nomination for best country song also in the R&B charts.

It was then that remixes began, including one by country heavyweight Billy Ray Cyrus, who stood by the song as a great example of country and trap fusion. This particular remix ended up winning two Grammys. Old Town Road has been remixed nearly 200 times since then, with versions released by BTS member RM, Diplo and CupcakKe.

As Old Town Road deconstructed musical genres, Lil Nas X turned to something completely different this year: society itself. Though he's not exactly resting since his first single - his EP 7 was released to mixed reviews in 2019, and he released one last year Single named Holiday - in 2021 Montero (Call Me By Your Name), Lil Nas X. showed wanted to challenge the music industry and society and how both viewed his blackness and sexuality.

The song is already loaded with some of Hill's most explicitly sexual lyrics - is there really a more gay moment in chart music history than hearing him sing, "Shoot a kid in your mouth while I drive"? - but it was the accompanying video that proved what a provocateur he can be. In it Lil Nas X Pole dances down to hell, seduces Satan and seizes his crown. Montero (Call Me By Your Name) was a triumph with 46.9 million streams in the US in a week. But it was the tailoring project that stood next to the song, more than the song's solemn queer lyrics or the outrageous homoerotic video that got the American Christian right rolling.

While the video scandalized conservative politicians who accused him of devil worship, Hill's Satan Shoes project with Brooklyn-based MSCHF only fueled the flames. With 666 pairs of Nike Air Max 97s containing “a drop of human blood” and a pentagram, the shoes sold out within minutes and caused a stir for weeks. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem said the shoes were symptomatic of how America is "in a battle for the soul of our nation." Lil Nas X responded by telling her, "You're a whole governor and you tweet about some damn shoes here."

Other rappers piled up too, with the old and dangerous presumption that homosexuality is in some ways not safe for children. Then Fox News and evangelical pastors joined in, and each time Hill responded with the same harsh attitudes that had made his name on Twitter all those years earlier. His performances of the song continued a proud exploration of his own queerness, including a masterly BET Awards performance in which he passionately kissed his male background dancer and again sparked the same conservative tweets about his sexuality that were socially unacceptable.

In July 2021, Lil Nas X released the next video for Montero's second single: Industry Baby. In a prison so gay that it wears pink uniforms, Hill dances naked with a clique of other hot black men, most of whom present themselves as queer. It was made as a meme and gif and showed how much Lil Nas X had grown into a star. This glow is also the theme of the song itself: "Funny how you said it was the end, yes," he raps, "then I did it again, yes."
Lil Nas X and his satan's shoes

Industry Baby has reiterated its critics with the same allegations that it is "demonic" (although there is no incubus in this video) and that Lil Nas X is "definitely doing too much now," a criticism that is fierce laden with the idea that gay men are only acceptable if they downplay their sexuality. Or, as Nas himself tweeted in response: "I literally went to hell and worked on Satan, but you draw the line in the gay prison ?!"

Homophobia in hip-hop and rap has a real moment in the spotlight, especially after DaBaby made a series of insensitive remarks about AIDS during a concert in July. Even if Nas wasn't involved at all, he was somehow brought into the discourse by other rappers. Boosie Badazz, for example, started an online rant defending DaBaby while inexplicably saying Lil Nas X was "disrespectful". But despite being asked to tone down, Lil Nas X did just the opposite, giving us looks and gigs that prove he's not interested in tarnishing his shine.

At the VMAs in September 2021, he arrived in a gorgeous lavender suit and mullet before stepping onto the stage in a series of increasingly scarce outfits while rapping about how hot and successful he was. Like his appearance at the Met in a series of golden revelations that led him from pharaoh to homofuturist space paladin, one of the best things about Lil Nas X is simply how much he enjoys being in public: an example to other queer, black men that they too can be celebrated for celebrating themselves.
The Future: Lil Nas X at the Met Gala 2021 - Reuters

Now he's released his first full album, Montero, replete with his own bare form floating above a surrealistic landscape on the cover. An apotheosis, it seems, of what he is as an artist. As with the EP before him, there are many divergences from rock in the beats used, which often feel like allusions to the emo rock from Paramore and Fall Out Boy from the early 00s, also carried over by Olivia Rodrigo and even the youngest and have been revised Return by Rebecca Schwarz. There's even something from Princess Nokia's 2020 project Everything Is Beautiful that fused emo rock with rap.

But Montero is not an album full of inwardness. While there are hits like Scoop - a celebratory rap about his looks with Doja Cat - the album largely feels as hot as Hill always was, rather than peek behind the curtain. Perhaps the clear mission statement that stands behind our really great records is missing.

But then again, a young, queer, black artist shouldn't have to be successful just by resorting to pain or trauma, because white and straight artists certainly don't. And that is perhaps enough of a statement.
In this article:
Lil Nas X
American rapper, singer and songwriter

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