By Brian Josephs
June 21, 2019 at 12:11 PM EDT
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

True to his brand, that’s Lil Nas X riding horseback by his lonesome on 7’s EP cover. The open secret is that the 20-year-old ain’t that much of a cowboy to begin with. His small catalog is more multitudinous, swerving through a Fiona Apple reference and a Sega sample. Country is really a fraction of his oeuvre, but it’s still the most notable thanks to the journey of “Old Town Road,” a banger that went from being shunned from Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart only to top the Hot 100. Having a country rap song become a phenomenon in 2019 — which definitively was not the year of the country rap song until Billy Ray Cyrus butted in — inherently pigeonholes him into something of a novelty act. On 7, Lil Nas X will wear the cowboy hat, but he wants you to know he’s about other things, too.

7 is the latest entry in the saga of Atlantians being versatile for the sake of it. Last decade brought us Andre 3000’s over-indulgent The Love Below. His progeny, Raury, and his acoustic guitar caught buzz for a short period before fizzling out. Today, the outside-the-box approach has increasingly become an unimpressive ambition: styles naturally cross-pollinate in the internet’s post-regionalism era. Even with the shortcomings, you at least get the sense that’s truly Andre 3000 and Raury’s spirit behind their efforts. With 7, there’s too little conviction to tell if a full project is something Lil Nas X wants to do. At best, there’s a set of half-considered songs. At worse, you’re left wondering why anyone fussed over Blink-182’s Enema of the State in the first place.

“F9mily (You & Me)” immediately strikes out as the low point — and not only because pop punk already had its moment in the sun. Lil Nas X’s lackadaisical tone doesn’t exude cool; he genuinely doesn’t sound convinced that the genre needs a revisit. He gives stale guitar riffs another try on “Bring U Down,” which does nothing more than say, “I too have heard Nirvana. It’s a good band.” But the most damning thing about 7 isn’t his failed versatility. “Rodeo” is the closest “Old Town Road” duplicate and you forget about the main star by the time Cardi B musters up more charisma on autopilot (“Last n— did me dirty, dirty/Like a bathroom in a truck stop, truck stop”), killing Lil Nas X on his own Yee-haw agenda.

The specific nature of “Old Town Road”’s existence doesn’t extend toward Lil Nas X’s lyrics, which feel like broad placeholders that can fit with any young, happy-to-be-here rapper of note. The partly autobiographical “Kick It” wastes a passable hazed-out beat. He mentions the Billboard controversy (“Seen you on the TV, heard that Billboard took your chartin’ place”) with the enthusiasm of someone whose A&R walked in the booth with a checklist of topics to mention. It’s not the work of a star, but of a timid upstart, which happens when you hide yourself with enough memes. That doesn’t cut it for 20 minutes. A guitar riff isn’t a worldview.

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