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Lil Nas X Montero
Photography Charlotte Rutherford

5 times Lil Nas X ripped up music’s rulebook

As his debut album Montero finally drops, we look back at the rapper’s most defining moments – from his memeification of music to his defiant display of queerness

After two years of waiting and three months of teasing, Lil Nas X’s debut album is finally here – and it’s landed with high-budget, cinematic videos for almost every song. Montero contains 15 tracks, each of which is a standalone hit. Alongside the record-breaking title track, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”, the album boasts collaborations with some of music’s biggest names, including Miley Cyrus, Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion, and Elton John. But, of course, it’s Lil Nas alone who stands out – his blockbuster debut meeting and exceeding its highly-set expectations.

The rapper, whose real name is Montero Hill, has become a generation-defining artist since his breakout hit “Old Town Road” was released in 2019. In the two years since, he’s irrevocably altered music forever through his Extremely Online persona, marketing genius, refusal to cater to his critics (instead choosing to mock them), and his triumphant position as a gay, Black man traversing the worlds of rap, country, and pop.

To celebrate Montero’s release, Dazed looks back at five times Lil Nas X ripped up music’s rule book, and established himself as one of the most exciting, unique, and important artists of the moment.

MEMEIFYING MUSIC

Lil Nas’s career likely wouldn’t have reached such soaring heights if he wasn’t an internet aficionado. Speaking to Dazed in 2019, Lil Nas explained that ahead of the release of “Old Town Road”, he was enjoying his “time on the internet more than doing things in real life”. He began using Twitter memes to generate buzz around his Soundcloud, and set up hundreds of fake fan accounts to understand the kind of content people responded well to. With all this knowledge in the bank, the rapper knew he needed to make a track that was meme-able – enter: “Old Town Road”. As well as writing the song with “quotables in it”, Lil Nas leveraged TikTok to achieve its success. And, as they say, the rest is history; “Old Town Road” is the longest-running number one ever and the most certified song in US history, and Lil Nas is a global superstar.

In the years since, Lil Nas has continued to dominate the internet, always being on top of the memes of the moment. Take, for example, his Area 51 remix of “Old Town Road”, inspired by the ‘Storm Area 51’ meme. Or when he released a fake apology video in anticipation of the furore surrounding his ‘Satan Shoes’ made from human blood – or even when he then mocked Nike’s subsequent lawsuit against him for customising the brand’s shoes. His innovation and quick-thinking sense of humour also led to an incredible pre-release campaign for Montero. He beautifully dragged Damien Hirst and Drake by recreating the latter’s album artwork; he announced that he was expecting his “little bundle of joyMontero via a riff on Beyoncé’s 2017 pregnancy photo (today he’s “given birth”); and – the best one – he set up satirical billboards in the style of legal ads to advertise the album, which read, “Gay? You might be entitled to financial compensation”. All the while, he’s tweeting viral one-liners and creating ahead-of-the-curve memes on TikTok.

As well as ensuring his constant sovereignty of the TL and popular culture more broadly, Lil Nas has managed to monetise his expert trolling. The album comes alongside commercials for Taco Bell and Uber Eats, while his videos contain glaring and unashamed adverts for the likes of Durex, Beats by Dre, and, of course, Taco Bell again (he was recently appointed the brand’s chief impact officer) – a move that sets him apart from many of his contemporaries, who attempt to be more inconspicuous about their brand partnerships.

BRINGING DIVERSITY TO THE COUNTRY SCENE

Although Lil Nas has moved away from his country beginnings, “Old Town Road” was a country-trap crossover that was instrumental in the cowboy revival led by LGBTQ+, PoC, and other marginalised communities. No clearer was the importance of this history-making takeover of the country scene than in March 2019, when Billboard removed “Old Town Road” from its country chart. The magazine claimed the song didn’t “embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version”. Speaking to Dazed in 2019, Tore Olsson, a historian and lecturer, said: “Clearly, race is vital to Billboard’s rejection of the original song, (and) it is undeniable that many high-ups in the country music industry are interested in policing the racial boundaries of the music, trying to ensure the ‘whiteness’ of the genre.”

One country icon was heartbroken by the track’s removal. “I thought, ‘It’s honest, humble, and has an infectious hook and a banjo’,” Billy Ray Cyrus tweeted at the time. “What the hell more do ya need?” In an act of both defiance and solidarity, Cyrus decided to collaborate with Lil Nas X on a remix that would break countless musical records, including making the rapper the first openly gay Black person to take home a Country Music Award.

BEING OPENLY OUT AND PROUD

In July 2019, months after the breakout success of “Old Town Road”, Lil Nas came out as gay on Twitter. “Some of y’all already know, some of y’all don’t care, some of y’all not gone fwm no more,” he said. “But before this month ends I want y’all to listen closely to ‘C7osure’.” The tweet also included a rainbow emoji. “C7osure” is a track from his debut EP 7, the lyrics of which go, “Ain’t no more actin’, man that forecast say I should just let me grow… This is what I gotta do, can’t be regrettin’ when I’m old”.

In an interview with The New York Times, Nas said he was inspired to reveal his sexuality after performing at Glastonbury over Pride weekend. “People were waving their Pride flags, and it was just so much excitement,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is it’.” The rapper told BBC Breakfast shortly after coming out that he had previously considered “just taking it to the grave”.

Since then, Nas has unapologetically embraced his queerness, writing LGBTQ-focused lyrics, serving extravagant costume looks, kissing men on live TV, and spotlighting Black male dancers and actors in explicit scenes in his music videos. Responding to predictable controversy following the premiere of his July “Industry Baby” video – which features a steamy, naked shower scene – Nas told his critics: “You seem to only respect gay artsits when the gay part is tucked away. You don’t like me because I embrace my sexuality instead of hiding it and never speaking on it for your comfort.”

At a time when rap can still be a hostile place for gay men – Kanye West enlisted DaBaby on his latest album Donda, seemingly because of his recent homophobic comments – Nas’ position as an openly gay, Black man is historic in itself, with his emphatic pride in it making him all the more influential. One particularly iconic moment came at this year’s VMAs when the rapper took home the award for video of the year. “First I want to say thank you to the gay agenda,” he said in his acceptance speech. “Let’s go, gay agenda!”

REFUSING TO CATER TO HIS CRITICS

With “Old Town Road”, Lil Nas brought people from all walks of life together: schoolchildren and their religious parents, country fans, rap fans, celebrities, trolls… everyone, basically. Then with “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”, Lil Nas tore them all apart. After dropping the track’s video, which sees Nas slide down a pole into hell – wearing platform heels – before lap dancing for the devil, conservative and right-wing commentators were, obviously, mad. Lil Nas responded the only way he knows how: by antagonising them even more. “There is a mass shooting every week that our government does nothing to stop,” he wrote on Twitter. “Me sliding down a CGI pole isn’t what’s destroying society.” The rapper and his fans went on to turn the fury over the video into TikTok memes.

Unlike many artists, who bow down to the pressure of cancellation and issue an apology, Lil Nas defended his work and apparent stay from his ‘child-friendly’ “Old Town Road” days. “I made the decision to create the music video,” he said of “Montero”. “I am an adult. I am not gonna spend my entire career trying to cater to your children. That is your job.” Since then, Lil Nas has gotten more and more risqué, in a razor sharp “fuck you” to any conservative, homophobic, or racist critics.

RISK-TAKING ON THE RED CARPET

Lil Nas has consistently slayed on the red carpet, outshining most – if not all – of the celebs around him. And his looks are just getting bigger and bigger (sometimes quite literally). Let’s start in August 2019, when Nas attended the VMAs in a custom glittering silver suit and romantic ruffled lace shirt by Christian Cowan, which he later swapped for a red embellished Western suit and Stetson. For a short while after that, Nas stuck to a similar (but still chic) look: a neon suit with a Western vibe (see: 2019 AMAs and 2020 Grammys – the latter of which took 700 hours to make). After a year away to reflect on his risk-taking (see: pandemic), Lil Nas turned it up at the 2021 awards, rocking a rhinestoned off-the-shoulder tux-cum-gown at the VMAs and not one, not two, but three custom gold Versace looks at the Met Gala. We’re not worthy!