Lil Nas X is here to prove you wrong
In two hours, Lil Nas X will be the happiest he's ever been. He'll shake a bottle of Veuve Clicquot before popping it. He'll shout, "They said we would not do it! We did it again!" He'll fire off a dozen celebratory tweets. But right now, the Georgia rapper — who's huddled with his team at a downtown Los Angeles photo studio one April morning, awaiting Billboard's latest Hot 100 announcement — is a ball of nerves. That's to be expected considering the week he's had, weathering the response to "Montero (Call Me by Your Name)," his lustful, unabashed new single about a same-sex relationship, and the accompanying music video that climaxes with the star sliding down a stripper pole to Hell to give Satan a lap dance. He further enraged religious groups days later by releasing 666 pairs of customized Nikes, which contained a drop of human blood in the soles, a pentagram hanging from the laces, and a Bible passage on the sides (Nike had nothing to do with the shoes but sued and settled a lawsuit with the company that did).
Yet the controversy briefly melts away when news finally arrives that "Montero" is a global No. 1 hit. "I'm thankful," says Nas in an interview later that day. "But it also feels good to prove people wrong. It's one of my driving forces."
Montero Lamar Hill had been manifesting the success of his eponymous single for months — a power he first wielded when he was an unknown 19-year-old sleeping on his sister's floor in Atlanta. "I was only getting like 1,000 plays a song [on Soundcloud], but I knew for a fact something huge was coming," he says. "And it happened. It didn't even take a year of making music, and then boom."
The boom, of course, was his genre-breaking 2019 single "Old Town Road," which became the longest-charting No. 1 song in Hot 100 history, eclipsing records set by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men's "One Sweet Day" and Luis Fonsi's "Despacito" remix. But with success came an onslaught of insinuations that his debut was a mere novelty, and that he'd amount to nothing more than a one-hit wonder. Meanwhile, the praise he did receive felt seeped in jealousy and back-handed compliments. "People were like, 'Oh, he'll never do that again. Hope he saves his money,'" he says.
Being so closely aligned with "Old Town Road" led Nas down a completely different path on his forthcoming album, turning away producers who were trying to throw him on more country-trap beats. "No, I want to do whatever the f--- I want," he recalls thinking. "Stop trying to make me give you that next 'Old Town Road.'" The new record, which bounces between rap, pop, and R&B, will be reminiscent of music made by two of his idols, Nicki Minaj and Drake. Though he's been working with producers including John Cunningham (Halsey, Miley Cyrus), Omer Fedi (24kGoldn, Machine Gun Kelly), and frequent collaborators Take a Daytrip, he's also been writing the majority of the record, as of yet unfinished, on his own. "I found myself being able to grow lyrically and express more of me when I write my own songs," he says, of his first project since 2019's 7 EP.
You can hear that openness on "Montero," which came out of sheer determination. At the time, Nas was attempting to write another song and wanted to quit, but forced himself to finish; the melody arrived soon after. Besides getting the title from Luca Guadagnino's 2017 romance, the song is especially noteworthy for its explicit references to gay sex. "At first I was really afraid of alienating any of my straight fans," he says. "But then it was kind of like, if they feel offended, they were never really here for me. They were here for whatever version of myself they made up in their head."
It's ironic, though predictable, that a declaration of self-worth like "Montero" would become a new target for the right. But then, most of the online vitriol Nas has experienced since coming out in June 2019 surrounds his sexuality. Being a young gay Black man is already hard enough in the music industry, not to mention a queer community synonymous with white men as the dominant image of queerness. Dating and meeting new people have also proved difficult.
"I've honestly gotten to this point where I'm just like, okay, I hope this person actually likes me for me [and] isn't trying to use me as a stepping stone," he says. "I've just got to a point where it's like well, even if they are [using me], then that's a lesson learned. I can't just stop meeting people because of this fear."
He addressed some of these struggles in an eloquent and tender letter he penned to his 14-year-old self, which he shared with the release of "Montero." "I know we promised to never come out publicly," he wrote. "I know we promised to die with the secret, but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist." The note is about giving the old version of himself — a kid who was working through his sexuality and Blackness — a bit of grace.
"I feel like it's very important, especially in this age, to forgive yourself for the past," he says, nodding to the fact that everyone in his generation is reckoning with their history being permanently etched on the internet. "At the end of the day, you are the main person that has to depend on you before anybody else. You have to love and nourish yourself."
One past mistake he's owning up to: claiming he was never a Barb — the name used to refer to Nicki Minaj's fanbase — which came from a fear that people would know that he was gay. But Nas finally minted his status in public last year. (Barb to Barb, I had to ask him what his favorite Nicki song is: "I'll say my favorite two right now, because it's always changing: "Put You in a Room" and "Miami.") Lest you think he's just posturing to procure an elusive Nicki feature — especially after tweeting at her last year — he also talks about how underrated her 2018 album Queen is, even singing the lyrics to "Chun Swae." "When that song first came out, I was like, 'Why aren't people going crazy over this yet?' But it's catching on now."
Nas also regrets some actions of his pre-fame days, when he used to tweet hateful messages toward random people for no reason. After he came out, though, he found himself on the receiving end of similar responses. "When I first got famous, I would block everybody," he says, of the vicious trolls that flooded (and continue to flood) his mentions. "But now it's like, okay, cool. For me, I would rather somebody hate the s--- out of me when they're talking about me rather than not say anything at all, because that's giving more power to my name."
Which isn't to say he doesn't just let the hate wash over him. His social media presence now harkens back to the era of Rihanna not giving a f---, clapping back at trolls in her own mentions. "I'm very much a chaotic, good person," he says. "I almost never want to start shooting at somebody who didn't bring it to my doorstep, you know? But I kind of live for when somebody tries to get me and I'm ready to throw it back at them tenfold. Do I feel bad about it sometimes? Every now and then, but I feel less bad knowing that I didn't start it. I try to never throw stones, but if somebody throws one at me, I'm throwing an entire house."
Yet, in the midst of being admonished by right-wing organizations — and hearing actual church congregations devote time to a video where he twerks and pops on the devil's lap — Nas has felt a swell of genuine support and love. "Once you show the world more of yourself," he says, "they can relate more." Indeed, Lil Nas X is done tiptoeing around how to act in public. "Looking back on history, the biggest icons, the biggest artists, are the ones who aren't trying to always make everybody happy and who were doing themselves. I hope to do that at all times."
That's a message he wishes to convey to his fans, particularly the young queer ones who look up to him — the ones who tell him that he's inspired them to come out to their family and friends. "I want to be a voice for those who pretend to be themselves, but aren't quite there yet." Does that mean Nas is now finally showing the real version of himself to the world? He looks down at the long white acrylics on his nails and laughs, saying he doesn't always have the urge to wear some of his more wild looks. "It's not like, 'Oh God, I have to wear this,'" he says. "But I don't mind." And if he's inspiring others to be their authentic selves, then what's the harm in a little pretending?
Ira Madison III is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles and host of the pop culture podcast Keep It.
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