Lil Nas X doesn’t like labels. That much is evident with only a passing glance at the video for “Industry Baby.” Newcomers and onlookers may say he likes to stir the pot for the sake of it, while using the resulting pearl-clutching to his advantage. Just one listen to Montero says that couldn’t be further from the truth.
His debut album was so long-awaited that it’s okay if you thought it already dropped. Two years of ups, downs, and whatever comes in the middle gave more meaning to everything that happened to him when he was just Montero Lamar Hill. But it turns out the long wait between 2019 — when he took the world down that fabled “Old Town Road” — and September 17th, 2021 were productive for the young ATLien.
Montero is 40 minutes of a young cat bearing his naked soul both to those who applaud him, and to anyone who folds their hands and gives him massive amounts of side-eye. It’s emotional, thought-provoking, and layered music from an artist clearly comfortable in his own Satan shoes.
The album opens with “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” which wears its heart on its very short sleeves. Lil Nas X raps and sings about a lust that gets more desperate as the song goes on. He’s infatuated by a secret lover and the fame at his fingertips. It’s not a stretch to say that celebrity put him in a position where it’s much easier to give in to his lustful desires. The song may be catchy as hell, but it’s also about addiction. The single epitomizes his ability to package his truths, even the ugly ones, in candy-coated wrapping so sweet that some may miss the message.
That trend continues on the beautiful Miley Cyrus-assisted “Am I Dreaming,” as well as on “Sun Goes Down,” “Tales of Dominica,” and “Life After Salem.” “Life After Salem” has more in common with grunge rock than current music sensibilities, and positions Lil Nas X as his generation’s Kurt Cobain. Like Cobain, Lil Nas X knows how to turn his pain and fears into a relatable concoction while representing something larger. Being a gay man in hip-hop can’t be easy. It’s a genre built on the kind of testosterone seen in gangster flicks or anything starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Lil Nas X breaks that mold and embraces who he is — even if it’s painful. So, when he sings on the aforementioned “Salem” about being someone’s part-time lover and letting their emotional scars dance with each other, its mere existence is groundbreaking. The fact that it’s dope makes it infinitely more meaningful.
Of all the handful of guest stars, Elton John tickling piano keys on “One of Me” is the most effective. And, obviously, the most contextually significant. Nas X voices his critics who only see him as a flashy one-hit-wonder and nothing more. The emotion in his voice shows that at least some of those barbs thrown his way cut deep enough to leave a permanent mark: “You’s a meme, you’s a joke, been a gimmick from the go/ All the things that you do, just to get your face on the show/ Oh you think big shit, big pimpin’ let me know/ Ain’t the next big thing, you the next thing to go.”
Like so many artists before him, Nas X is fueled by doubt and people underestimating him. But unlike others in the genre, he’s not so quick to throw up a middle finger in protest. He talks about the words that hurt while detailing old insecurities thought buried long ago. To do that while not sounding preachy, spiteful, or asking us to throw a pity party in his honor is one hell of a magic trick for any artist.