It has been almost three years since the release of the multi-platinum certified “Old Town Road” (2019) which started rapper Montero Lamar Hill, better known as Lil Nas X, on the proverbial road to fame. Over the course of those years, Lil Nas X went from working two jobs at Zaxby’s and Six Flags Over Georgia to becoming a global superstar. “Old Town Road” was the song that changed his life, and the music scene, dramatically. Pulling together a banjo, collaboration from rock band Nine Inch Nails and a $30 beat, Lil Nas X created the most certified song in history. It seemed likely that Lil Nas X might be a one-hit wonder or struggle to find his footing in a music industry that is often openly hostile to people of color, especially those who identify as members of the LGBTQ community as he does.
Enter the debut album “Montero,” released on Sept. 17, that has changed all of those preconceptions. In addition to 14 other tracks, the album features the hit pre-release single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” The song resulted in a frenzy of backlash and critical acclaim in March for its provocative music video and unapologetic style, which have come to characterize much of the album as well. Though the song ruffled many conservative feathers, it only grew the artist’s fanbase and signaled an evolution from the Lil Nas X of “Old Town Road” toward something greater and more noteworthy.
However, listening to “Montero” reveals a level of artistry and talent that goes beyond just the ability to create controversy. As the album moves through the 15-song track list, a narrative emerges. The pre-released song “Industry Baby” featuring rapper Jack Harlow has proven to be one of the best party songs of the year. The beat, with producers including Take A Daytrip and Kanye West, is absolutely infectious. The chemistry that Lil Nas X and Harlow have on this song couples electrically with the energy of the horn samples and music video. Lil Nas X has realized his potential as an artist and is sharing his vision free of inhibitions.
He discusses this attitude on one of the best tracks from the album, “One of Me,” which features Elton John. The drum- and piano-driven ballad addresses his skeptics, whom he quotes as saying, “If it ain’t ‘Old Town Road,’ Lil Nassy, I ain’t playin,” in a reflection on the doubt that he faced before the release of his album. The song builds, playing on the idea that everyone has ideas about how he should act or produce his music, saying, “I like this, I don’t like that/ Do this here, don’t you do that.” It ends with an Elton John-esque piano outro reminiscent of “Bennie and the Jets” (1974).
Lil Nas X also dishes out his unique style of powerful trap songs underscored by guitar and horns in “Scoop” with Doja Cat, “Don’t Want it” and “Dolla Sign Slime” with Megan Thee Stallion. These tracks are some of the best from the album, and they showcase Lil Nas X’s true strength as a vocalist even while performing beside the likes of Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion.
Throughout the tracklist, the album is playful, tender, sexy and powerful all at once. We see the more personal side of Lil Nas X in tracks like “Void” and “Am I Dreaming.” Additionally, “Dead Right Now” is at once a dark diss to the people from his past who “switch sides,” underscored by gospel singers and a catchy horn riff, but is also a heartfelt detailing of some of his personal and familial struggles. “Sun Goes Down” details some of Lil Nas X’s struggles with his identity as a gay Black man and reasserts his lyrical talent, while “Am I Dreaming” is a reflective duet with Miley Cyrus that focuses on the fallout of a successful music career and the fear of being forgotten. With profound lyrics like “Glitter comes off, battered and blue, but I gotta go on/ As I’m singin’, I rewrite my story,” the song is a strong outro and concludes the album beautifully.
Overall, “Montero” is an amazing album. It is likely one of the best of the year simply because it’s different and fresh but also wholesome and revelatory. Lil Nas X has made a name for himself, and “Montero” establishes him as one of the most iconic, relevant and ingenious artists of our generation.