Lil Nas X Is Still Waiting for His Music to Catch Up to His Persona

A lesser entertainer launching a debut album in September 2021 might have foundered in the overlapping shadows cast by Kanye West and Drake, as both superstars released long-awaited albums in the past month. His singles might’ve sunk below the entirety of Certified Lover Boy on the Hot 100. We might even concede the hackiness in his running mock-pregnancy metaphor for his album rollout—if only Boosie Badazz hadn’t lost his goddamn mind over the photoshoot in People depicting the young man wearing a caftan in his third trimester, cradling his fake baby bump, ready to pop.

But Lil Nas X has risen to the challenge in his easy and gleeful way. His debut album, Montero, follows a long and controversial breakout beginning three years ago with his debut single, “Old Town Road,” the longest-running no. 1 record in the history of the Hot 100. “Old Town Road” was a brief and mischievous rap-country record blessed with the relentless charm in X’s voice. Unfortunately X’s follow-up single, “Panini,” and its attendant EP, 7, suggested a far more generic outlook on pop stardom: the same old hi-hats and moody Auto-Tune you’ve been hearing on playlists since the dawn of streaming music. He briefly risked becoming a one-hit wonder.

To really feel the rush of X’s second wind, you had to watch the kid work a major-label marketing budget and a news cycle. He’s spent the past several months counter-trolling the dumbest possible commentary from Boosie and T.I. about his homosexuality. He rode Lucifer’s lap in the music video for his lead single, “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” his second no. 1. In March, Nike sued the streetwear company MSCHF for trademark infringement for producing a custom Air Max 97, laced with human blood and marketed as “Satan Shoes,” in collaboration with Lil Nas X. The rapper then made a video parodying the lawsuit—and parodying Nike’s own parodies—and promoting his third single, “Industry Baby,” featuring Jack Harlow.

So Lil Nas X, at age 22 and on his debut album, rivals Kanye and Drake in the dark arts of self-promotion. But commercially and even musically he’s got far more in common with Post Malone and Olivia Rodrigo than Drake and Kanye—much less Boosie. Lil Nas X is the rapper critics spent three years wishing Lil Yachty was: the unholy and irrepressible Zoomer come to make a great mockery of everything hip-hop holds dear. But there’s the real and so far unresolved challenge for Lil Nas X. Can he make more hits? Sure, if only through brute force in industrial hitmaking. But can he make more songs like “Old Town Road,” which could’ve only ever come from him? Or will we one day look back and regard his musical breakthrough as pure pretext for some larger, multidisciplinary measure of celebrity? He’s a bona fide Barb, but how much does Lil Nas X care about music as a musician in his own right? There is, as always, only one way to find out.

So now we have Montero, a surprisingly robust album full of pop-rap gambits from a rapper who spends the album vocalizing his anxieties about his erstwhile one-hit wonder-dom. This is explicit in the lyrics but also implicit in the compositions. “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” is a two-minute song that’s nonetheless bloated with bridges to bridges, twisting and turning, desperate to earn ubiquity on radio and think pieces about the rapper’s evolution from “Old Town Road.” Mercifully the rest of the album sounds a lot less complicated and cloying than the title track, and so Montero permits the rapper to develop his signatures: the twanging guitars, the bad romance, the … actually, that’s about it? The songs are good, sometimes great, but the star lacks a certain gravity in holding them together. X triangulates the tenderness in Drake, the hedonism in Lady Gaga, and the tackiness in Flo Rida into a sound that’s unmistakably young and plausibly popular but not quite new—and never as clever as you know he can be.

It’s easy enough to hear “Scoop,” featuring Doja Cat, or “Thats What I Want” and think, “This is a hit.” But it’s much harder to hear Montero with an ear toward coherence. This guy blew up with a quirky song about cowboys and country music. That was a fluke, perhaps, much like “Mooo!” in the case of Doja Cat. But “Old Town Road” was more than a country-rap gimmick. It was, in X’s telling, a college dropout down on his luck, writing a song about going his own way in the music industry despite his family’s wish he’d do literally anything else. The songs on Montero are often similarly heartfelt but otherwise neutered by the industry’s tropes. “Sun Goes Down” is a bittersweet recollection about a childhood spent in the closet, but it sounds so slight and unbothered. “Void” is depressive, but it’s produced to sound like a big, twee romantic breakthrough in an indie movie from the early 2010s. “Dead Right Now” sounds big and brash and brassy, but then it also sounds a bit like every triumphant Track 2 from every major-label rap album released in the past decade. X isn’t rapping or singing these songs so much as he’s wearing them like a bodysuit and rubber balls for motion capture against a green screen. Listening to Montero is a bit like watching The Phantom Menace: There are stunning bits here and there, but often X sounds like he’s been swallowed and disembodied by his own special effects budget.

Three years ago Lil Nas X wrangled country music tropes on “Old Town Road”; now the pop-rap crossover tropes are wrangling him all over Montero. It’s easy to like but hard to love an album so broad and flat. And now it’s even harder to imagine X’s music hosting the full weight of his persona and talents. He’s no Nicki, but he’s also no slouch. Luckily his fortunes span a much wider horizon, where the music may fade but the sun never sets. See you, space cowboy.