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Lil Nas X is the boundary-smashing pop revolutionary of 2021

In 2021, Lil Nas X, whose single "Old Town Road" holds the record for the most weeks at No. 1 on <em>Billboard</em>'s Hot 100 chart, delivered his debut album <em>Montero</em> and cemented his ability to bend media platforms to his will.
Photo Illustration by Renee Klahr/NPR
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In 2021, Lil Nas X, whose single "Old Town Road" holds the record for the most weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart, delivered his debut album Montero and cemented his ability to bend media platforms to his will.

Rapper-singer-songwriter visionary Lil Nas X is the MVP of Gen Z. Born between the mid 1990s and early 2010s, so-called "Zoomers" have been maligned by naysayers as navel-gazing narcissists and emotionally weak snowflakes. But Gen Zers deserve props for rejecting millennials' "bottle-up-your-emotions-and-hustle-til-ya-die" ethos, and for prioritizing self-care and confessional vulnerability. Like no other generation before it, Gen Z has made unprecedented strides toward genuine social equity by holding abusers of power accountable.

No pop star better embodies Gen Z's heady concoction of audacious self-assertion and "oversharing-is-political" confessionalism than Lil Nas X. In 2021, Nas has embraced his identity as a radically-open, unabashedly-proud Black gay pop conceptualist who publicly confesses his demons while putting haters in their place, one meticulously-composed tweet at a time. Born Montero Lamar Hill and raised in Atlanta's Bankhead Courts housing projects, Lil Nas X made his debut in late 2018 with country-trap viral banger "Old Town Road." Re-released and endlessly re-mixed the following year, the song went on to become one of the top-selling and streaming singles in history. Lil Nas X subsequently dropped his 7 EP that same year, buoyed by solid, if less remarkable, singles like "Panini" and "Rodeo."

This year, Lil Nas X delivered his debut full-length studio album, Montero, now nominated for multiple Grammy awards including Album of the Year. Two tunes — "Montero (Call Me by Your Name)" and "Industry Baby," which features Jack Harlow — topped Billboard's pop singles chart in 2021 and emerged as indispensable songs of the summer. The phantasmagoric video for "Montero," co-directed by Lil Nas X and Tanu Muino, is a simmering stir-fry of biblical imagery, gay sex and campy Satanism, culminating with the pop star descending a stripper pole to Hell on his way to lap dance a horny Satan, whom he kills before brandishing his horns. "Industry Baby" is no tamer: It's a riff on Frank Darabont's 1994 prison flick The Shawshank Redemption. While that film was centered around a safe, platonic narrative of interracial male bonding behind bars, Lil Nas X's update carries a pro-bail-reform message and centers images of incarcerated black men dancing to choreography with ample full-frontal nudity. Joyfully violating cultural taboos, Lil Nas X's shock-and-awe pop has become a controversial battleground over POC and LGBTQ+ rights and religious conservatism.

Controversy alone isn't the reason Lil Nas X has emerged as this year's leading Gen Z figure. It's also because of the scale of his self-ambition, matched to Beyoncé-inspired levels of creative execution. Nas' well-financed and smartly-marketed music videos (not to mention his slick live performances on Saturday Night Live and the BET Awards) are, by turns, campy, surreal, absurd, carnivalesque, dreamy, ludic and capricious. He's a purveyor of what scholar Reynold Anderson once termed "Astro-Blackness:" The worlds Nas envisions are rich with CGI-enhanced, magic realist imagery that brings them closer into aesthetic conversation with the work of provocative visual artist Jacolby Satterwhite and Random Acts of Flyness director Terence Nance. Just as Michael Jackson catapulted himself into 1980s solo superstardom by drawing on then-brand new MTV technology, digital native Lil Nas X uses gaming platforms like Roblox and media platforms like Twitter and TikTok to promote himself, communicate with fans and fend off haters. Nas' creative output is fully on trend with today's renaissance in Black LGBT+ pop culture that includes everything from ball culture TV series Pose, risqué HBO teen melodrama Euphoria and the irreverent, sexually-frank, Black gay Pulitzer Prize-winning musical A Strange Loop.

Lil Nas X has never claimed to be a virtuoso singer or MC; he has room to improve his vocal range (though his timbre is distinct enough). But Nas continues to excel as a songwriter, offering up earworm hooks and inventive lyrics (including "Industry Baby's" endlessly-parsed "I don't f*** bitches, I'm queer, hah / But these n***** bitches like Madea"). Montero embraces more than just hip-hop and R&B; it's also full of hard rock textures and pop-punk rhythms. But Lil Nas X's strength is unimpeachable club bangers, like "Montero's" flamenco-dembow-electrotrap, produced by Take a Daytrip, Omer Fedi and Roy Lenzo, and the horn-driven rhythmic strut of "Industry Baby" (produced by Kanye West and Take a Daytrip). Far from a naïf grasping at straws for mainstream acclaim, Lil Nas X is a strategic conceptualist with the digital savvy (and a wisely chosen cadre of musical collaborators) to genetically engineer chart hits. His marketing campaigns — including an advertising campaign with Elton John for Uber, a creative partnership with Durex and his own satirical personal-injury themed billboards and faux Maury Povich clips — are also part of his strategy of global pop domination.

Gen Z athletes Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles taught us this year what it means to prioritize therapeutic self-care while also holding down record-breaking achievements. In a similar way, Lil Nas X is giving us a masterclass on how to be more than just your cookie-cutter pop provocateur courting controversy while playing clapback whack-a-mole. Lil Nas X makes interventionist pop that affirms LGBT / BIPOC people's right to exist in an establishment culture that has long thrived off our abjection and self-hatred. We're not supposed to believe in ourselves or be confident in a world that wants to invalidate and eradicate us. Young queer, trans and non-binary people, in particular, have much to gain from Lil Nas X's example of self-sovereignty and standing up for who you are. His Lizzo-esque levels of self-confidence and temerity, the flip side of his admitted insecurities and anxieties, are also part of what makes him heroic and even a little superhuman. That may be one reason he portrays himself on the cover art of "Sun Goes Down" as a mystic, sitting in the clouds manipulating water with his hands like The Last Airbender.

Self-aware to epic degrees, Lil Nas X made a decision in 2021 to draw on autobiography to craft his therapeutic, blockbuster pop. "Montero" is a real-life story about a man Lil Nas X met in 2020 during quarantine who parties and takes drugs. On "Dead Right Now," he confronts his mother and father for their parenting failures. And in personal lyrics to "Call Me" and "Sun Goes Down," Lil Nas X time travels to the past, where he talks to and communes with his closeted, depressed teenage self, hoping to heal himself, It Gets Better-style.

Because he's spent the year comfortably winning in platform economies that thrive on metrics, impressions, metadata and tentpole branding, some may see him as a marketing wizard rather than a musical or creative genius. But Lil Nas X demonstrates how artists can wield the demands of blockbuster "event" pop into a radical vision of self: In his world, mammoth corporate platforms become delivery vehicles for the stripped-down, introspective lyrical material we typically associate with indie and underground music. Montero's great gift to 21st century pop music is that we no longer have to dream of what the confessional, interior artistry of queer indie artists like serpentwithfeet or Perfume Genius would look if it were supported by the major label budgets and colossal entertainment deals once exclusively bestowed upon superstars at the level of Michael Jackson or Beyoncé. Boldly going where few gay men of color have been allowed to go before, Lil Nas X seems to be exploiting media platforms — bending them to his will, even — far more than they've been able to exploit him.

Nas' preening fashion choices — including his gold Versace cape and bodysuit-reveal at the 2021 Met Gala, and his decision to portray himself as both Adam and God in "Montero's" cover art riff on Michaelangelo's The Creation of Adam — are also about therapy, not simply shock. It's been phenomenal to witness him claim his right as an uninhibited Black femme queer man to own the terms of his beauty and self-glorification — especially given the way POC / LGBT people have been historically misrepresented, erased and denigrated in popular culture. (On "Dead Right Now," Nas describes his mother as one source of that denigration: "When she get drunk, she hit me up, man, with a fever, like, whoa / 'You ain't even all that pretty, you ain't even all that, n****.'") To date, Lil Nas X has mostly resisted using his platform to get involved in establishment politics. But his insistence on his own beauty and fabulousness is a political activism of the self. Lil Nas X often celebrates Kendrick Lamar as one of his primary musical influences. That seems appropriate: Nas' existential self-revelation brings his music close in conversation to Kendrick Lamar's inward-gazing and confessional 2017 Damn (it shares more DNA with that album than the Compton rapper's earlier BLM-inspired, community-oriented 2015 To Pimp a Butterfly.)

Though Lil Nas X publicly came out of the closet in 2019 when "Old Town Road" was No. 1 on the charts, he wasn't initially making explicitly-sexual music and videos. In 2019, some fans found it easy to digest and celebrate Lil Nas X as a racial conciliator, a chosen one capable of bringing together seemingly segregated worlds — Black and white, country and hip-hop. That seemed especially true after white country artist Billy Ray Cyrus hopped on the "Old Town Road" remix. Institutional gatekeepers like Billboard had to reverse course after initially banning Lil Nas X's post-genre tune from the Hot Country Songs chart. "Old Town Road" exposed an industry structurally constituted by false, unsustainable binaries. For a while, Lil Nas X's appeal was that he seemed to symbolize a human bridge across cultural differences, during a contentious political era marked by extreme partisanship and polarization.

This year, Lil Nas X radically refused to succumb to one hit wonder status (he even sings about it on clapback tune "One of Me," featuring Elton John). But more importantly, he refused the Kumbaya / "can't we all just get along" ethos that underwrote "Old Town Road's" 2019 blockbuster reception. 2021 singles like "Montero" and "Industry Baby" hold power not because they are universal, but because they insist on the specificity and particularity of Black gay experience. They do so by foregrounding and normalizing same-sex sex pleasure, lust and kink. In one standout line from "Montero," Lil Nas X sings about ejaculating in a man's mouth while getting penetrated. On the BET Awards, he controversially kissed a male dancer on the mouth, defending his actions by saying this about the award show: "This is my space now too." Even out-of-the-closet pop stars have rarely written about queer sex, or engaged with it so viscerally in mainstream circuits, as Lil Nas X. It's even more shocking when you consider how closeted music stars of the past like George Michael and Luther Vandross could not (or were not allowed to) fully express themselves in a homophobic and conservative culture.

Lil Nas X makes post-respectability, "WAP"-era dance pop at a time in which subscription sites like Only Fans have gone mainstream, sex work is slowly becoming normalized and the growing ubiquity of HIV prevention drugs like Prep and Descovy have made queer men who can afford and access them more sexually liberated. Nas seems to have come out as a power bottom (he also sings "I might bottom on the low, but I top s***" in "Holiday") — he enjoys anal sex, and he knows where his G-spot is and how to use it. By centering his own pleasure politics on steamy dance tracks like "Scoop," Lil Nas X refuses to be victimized by sex-negative shame or his own past trauma. Instead, he's offering a vision of how queer men can progressively deploy sex-positivity inside the pop music machine. Nas's hedonism (and insistence on male nudity in his music videos) feels right on time: Quarantine and social distancing mandates of the COVID-19 pandemic have spurred widespread feelings of loneliness, isolation, unrequited horniness. Lil Nas X's vision of carnal body-to-body pleasure (and what lesbian writer Audre Lorde called "the erotic as power") matters even more in the midst of the global health crisis that has asked many of us to forego intimacy for distancing.

While Lil Nas X's oft-cited inspirations include Frank Ocean, Kevin Abstract, Young Thug and Tyler the Creator, his savvy is part of a much longer lineage of Black gay creative genius that includes Little Richard, one of architects of rock and roll and its original wild child. Richard may have spent his career in and out of the closet, but he was queer, flamboyant and Southern, and he wrote and performed lyrically-coded pop songs about anal sex like his 1955 debut, "Tutti Frutti." Lil Nas X is also part of a genealogy of queer Black musical creatives that includes Esquerita, Billy Wright, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Billy Preston, Sylvester, Carl Bean, Meshell Ndegeocello, Tonex, Shamir, Makonnen, Mykki Blanco and Cakes da Killa — to name just a few. In Lil Nas X's spectacular videos, I catch echoes of Missy Elliott's Southern gothic cyberpunk and Janelle Monae's Dirty Computer Afro-futurism. Given that Nas got his start as a Nicki Minaj "Barb" superfan, his career is also a reminder of Minaj's chronically-underrecognized cultural influence over the past decade and change.

In music videos and lyrics that center and prioritize Black-on-Black same-sex desire, Lil Nas X gives us rare mainstream images of black men desiring, holding, kissing and having sex with other black men. Back in 1989, "Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act" became a famous (and contentious, for some) line from Tongues Untied, filmmaker Marlon Riggs' experimental documentary about Black queer experience. In a culture that systematically marginalizes POC same-sex desire, and given the way Black LGBTQ communities have been scarred by intersectional forces of racism, homophobia, transphobia and AIDS, the courage of Black men to love and desire each other openly remains in and of itself a radical act. When Nas sings about wanting "someone to love me" on retro 1990s guitar pop toe-tapper "That's What I Want," it's no less haunting than when Freddie Mercury expressed a similar sentiment on "Somebody to Love" 45 years ago. This time around, however, Nas is specific about the kind of man he's looking for: "That afro Black boy with the gold teeth / he dark skin, lookin' at me like he know me." In October, Nas admitted that he'd been in a relationship with his backup dancer Yai Ariza, but that they'd broken up because he'd chosen to focus on his music and career.

Lil Nas X's vision of utopia is expansive enough to include white people and cultural hallmarks of white queer culture — that may be one reason he put "Call Me By Your Name" in the "Montero" sub-title. Sometimes this inclusion strategy backfires: The video for "Industry Baby" suffers when it tries to parallel Lil Nas X's liberating Black-on-Black same-sex narrative with a conventional white-on-white hetero romance b-plot featuring Jack Harlow, as if to suggest that the former narrative wasn't strong enough to stand on its own. Nonetheless, the overall impression is that Nas X isn't trying to make pop music meant to flatter while people or to center them. In contrast to crossover pop of the past where Black performers had to court and kowtow to whites to secure a place on charts, Lil Nas X doesn't need to compromise or shrink his Blackness, his Southern-ness, his ratchetness or his gayness to rack up impressions or streaming numbers.

Lil Nas X's capacious understanding that there is more than one way to be a Black man, along with his decentering of the white gaze (and white gays), and his skewering of the religious right's bogus terms of evil and damnation has earned him the special ire of a strange group of bedfellows that includes prudish liberals, staunch conservatives and zealots of various stripes. We've also seen predictable backlash from parts of the hip-hop community, including homophobic tweets from rapper Boosie Badazz. Nas failed to pick up a single nomination at this year's Soul Train Awards, the annual celebration of achievements in Black music. Part of the issue, I suspect, is that Lil Nas X's fanbase includes children who follow him after the success of "Old Town Road." Just as Little Richard got into hot water making so-called "jungle" music in the '50s, Lil Nas X has become the latest rendition of a Black queer man leading children into eternal damnation through a seductive good beat and horny lyrics. While Republicans this year have tried to lead an insurgent school board ban of race-themed and LGBT-themed books in schools, Lil Nas X has brandished his NSFW pop music to give his young audience a lasting education about queer and POC self-advocacy and self-determination.

No need to romanticize Lil Nas X's resilience and courage: He's already mentioned the "emotional toll" that it's taken him to fend off unrelenting (online) hate he receives. He's no stranger to dejection and desolation, evidenced on the hard rocking track "Life After Salem:" "I think you should take what you want and leave / Why don't you just take what you want from me?" But it surely helps that Nas has a wicked sense of humor, as seen in his comedic response to the controversy surrounding his pentagram-laced Satan Shoes. His "Who gon' check me boo?" approach to internet conflict makes him unbought and unbossed and entirely un-trollable. Offering Twitter retorts to parents like, "I am an adult. I am not gonna spend my entire career trying to cater to your children. That is your job," Lil Nas X comes off Teflon and unscathed, while his opponents get exposed for what they actually are — small, cruel, bigoted and dangerous.

"I ain't lost, since I began," Lil Nas X ecstatically boasts on "Industry Baby." Winning at life by battling impossible odds, Nas has done us a solid by flashing us a glimpse of an inclusive world where POC / LGBTQ+ people heal themselves from trauma and damage while fabulously holding the center. We become the complex protagonists in our own narratives, not the stereotypically-sassy best friends in someone else's. In the hook of that same song he also croons, "I got what they waiting for." Lil Nas X's faith and profound self-investment in his own Black gay creativity — and his own happiness — has made him pop music's contemporary messiah, the only one right now willing to take what he refers to in "Sun Goes Down" as "that jump, that leap of faith." Who could have expected after the success of "Old Town Road" that Lil Nas X would take such a risk in centering his autobiography as the core of his music? And that by exposing himself fully in that way, he has, in turn, exposed the structural limits of a system that has thrived off the negation of Black gay men, and so many others relegated to the margins, rarely allowing us to bring our full selves to the table?

Lil Nas X's jump, that leap of faith, reminds me of a famous line from The Matrix, the virtual reality film released in 1999, the same Gen Z year Lil Nas X was born. In its thematic focus on dismantling the binary and making people self-aware of the hidden structures that control them, the Matrix film franchise has long been a rich source of subtextual meaning for LGBTQ audiences. (Lana Wachowski's Matrix Resurrections, the fourth installment in the series, was released last week: It brings that once-suppressed subtext to the surface.)

In that original 1999 film, Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) marvels how the film's hero Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) is "beginning to believe" — he's tapping into his latent power, and emerging as the chosen "one," because he has mastered the system by stepping out on faith. Lil Nas X has felt unstoppable this year because he is, on his own personal and professional terms, finally beginning to believe: in himself.

Montero's success this year is proof that the revolution is already here, and that it is indeed being televised — more specifically, it's being streamed on all digital platforms. But there's a deeper, more resounding lesson Lil Nas X has driven home this year: Any revolution that hopes to transform the world has to start within each of us, as we stand resolutely in our truth, freeing our minds from fear, doubt and disbelief, guiding others to higher ground by letting our radiant inner light shine brightly. It's been thrilling to watch Lil Nas X begin to walk the path, as Morpheus might have said — and the world is richer for it.

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