At just 22, Lil Nas X has already come to signify queer Black excellence for a large portion of his audience. An iconic pot stirrer and bop writer, he’s provoked more conversations about his work than many chart-topping artists do in their lifetime. In 2018, “Old Town Road” hit the airwaves and confounded country and rap enthusiasts alike, who questioned the merits of his trap country anthem and where it fit in within the industry. From the start, the artist resisted easy labels and sought to pave his own lane, with the help of Nine Inch Nails and producer YoungKio. His first single subsequently broke Billboard records, won Grammys, and became the highest certified song in music history.
Lil Nas X has never shied away from his identity as a young, Black, gay man, and on debut album MONTERO, he continues to be fearless in his expression of self, even—or maybe especially—when it involves his vulnerabilities. Aided by catchy melodies, the album conjures up a world where no one has to hide who they are or “banish” the parts feared by others. And for as bold and provocative as early singles “INDUSTRY BABY” and “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” are, the album shows there’s more—personally and musically—to Lil Nas X.
Though he dipped below the cultural radar for a little while (little fuss was made about “Old Town Road” follow-ups like “Panini” and “Rodeo”), the Georgia native returned with hellfire and the wrath of a fallen angel on “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name).” Over a rocksteady beat embellished with Spanish guitar and percussive clapping, Lil Nas X riffed on the Timothée Chalamet-led film, using it as an anchor for a song about seeking affection. Unapologetic in its queerness, it successfully got churchgoers clutching their pearls as Lil Nas X gave the Devil a lap dance in the heavenly inspired music video. Rather than backing down from the torrent of outrage, the musician dug in, trolling the trolls and humorously brushing off anyone who had a problem with his expression of identity. Doubling down on hot-button imagery, Lil Nas X responded with the brass-fueled “INDUSTRY BABY,” a song fit for a sports championship, featuring trap beats mixing with tight snare ticks, switching out bombastic bass lines with a low, booming tuba. “INDUSTRY BABY” is Lil Nas X’s touchdown song, and you can’t have that without a marching band.
But those omnipresent singles don’t represent the whole. MONTERO incorporates generic sounds from across genres such as rap, rock, and pop, but fuses them together to create something new—or at least mostly new. No stranger to traversing styles, Lil Nas X explores the woes of young adulthood under airtight, high-gloss production, as sounds from trap rappers, cheery pop, children’s melodies, grunge, gospel, and more (even Sixpence None The Richer appears, briefly) arise from one moment to the next. Like his previous work, MONTERO works overtime to evade easy definition, or even allow a single genre to emerge dominant. (For an artist who firmly refuses singular categories himself, that’s hardly surprising.) And while he’s far from the first to do so, no other young queer Black man in recent years has garnered so much prominence in pop circles while discussing desire, loneliness, and fantasy.
While “MONTERO” found him exploring raw sexuality through the lens of a booty call and casual encounters, these themes get echoed in the infectiously danceable “SCOOP (feat. Doja Cat),” in which lust runs amok as he makes himself available for a little touch-and-go at a moment’s notice. Other times, he touches on tenderness, the desire for emotional intimacy, and a mutual need for comfort, as on the chipper “WHAT I WANT.” This is by far the most run-of-the-mill pop song on the record, with a basic guitar line, predictable structure, and lighthearted beat, but it works. In sharp contrast to “DEAD RIGHT NOW”—which, despite its head-on delivery, maintains a feeling of untouchability—“WHAT I WANT” gives insight into true yearning. Lil Nas X wants to feel love, and have a shoulder to cry on, and he’s bold in his depictions of gay intimacy, from the raucous one night stand to finding someone to settle down with.
While the first half of the album explores some of the joys of queerness and the clout that comes with fame, the back end channels all of the pain that comes with inhabiting an othering identity, and how it affects your relationships with other people and also with yourself. Sadness often takes the forefront in MONTERO, as Lil Nas X grapples with all the things out of reach: love, acceptance, understanding, feelings of home. In “SUN GOES DOWN,” the artist opens up about suicidal ideation, stemming from isolation rooted in Blackness and queerness, and how coming out (along with being a Nicki Minaj stan, he adds) offered him a new opportunity at life. In counterbalance to the heavy topic, he allows the music to take the high road, with a delicate melody and a gentleness befitting a coming-of-age movie soundtrack.
And if “INDUSTRY BABY” (a play on people calling him an industry plant) found Lil Nas X embracing fame, flexing Grammys, and relishing the spotlight, he also navigates the harsh reality of having all eyes on you. In “ONE OF ME (feat. Elton John),” he addresses the man in the mirror, digging up all the things he said to himself post-“Old Town Road”—namely, that he’s a shallow one-hit wonder who no one will remember in five years. The ebb and flow of Lil Nas X’s vocals capture the sensation of being pulled in numerous directions, as Elton John offers subtly twinkling keys in the background.
Treading new lyrical territory, Lil Nas X opens up about his home life on “DEAD RIGHT NOW,” providing more history on the young man who blew up overnight, his life changing in an instant. He raps about his complicated and abusive relationship with his parents, and how too many people only reach out now that’s he’s famous. And he offers more range than ever heard before. Previously, this writer wondered if Lil Nas X could actually sing; MONTERO showcases the potential of his voice, reaching higher highs and lower lows. Straying from the polished and vibrant songs he’s known for, Lil Nas X stares vulnerability down, channeling raw emotion, even if the words don’t always hit home in a satisfying way. This might be clearest on “LIFE AFTER SALEM,” where he taps into something darker through clanging guitar and the heavy crash of a symbol, singing about letting a lover abuse him, unafraid to howl at the song’s chorus.
On “MONTERO,” the musician says, “I wanna fuck the ones I envy,” calling attention to a motif echoed across the album: Despite recent successes, there’s still plenty Lil Nas X is reaching to grasp. With every song, MONTERO builds a story of a multifaceted young man who’s not only survived but thrived despite the harshness of his childhood and the volatility of public visibility. He’s always been more than what people saw in “Old Town Road,” or the one they heard was making Satan shoes. And everything’s he’s done has led to this engaging debut record, a work that allows his inner self to shine.