One of the great mysteries of our lifetime is how the banjo loop and fake drawl of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” blew up into one of the biggest hits ever. The common explanations for its popularity just don’t suffice. Yes, Montero Lamar Hill is a marketing genius and meme master, but jokes alone don’t get auditoriums of children to sing your song. Yes, he linked up country and rap, but other artists blend genres all the time without scoring the longest-running No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 single in history.
The truth must be that Lil Nas X broke through because of the sound of his music, and specifically the sound of his voice. Cutting against the song’s rinky-dink beat and clownish lyrics, his croon of deep weariness channeled Johnny Cash, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and maybe God or at least James Earl Jones. Satirical or not, the extremity of Lil Nas X’s singing grabs the ear, and then the quality of it moves the heart. Here was masculine sadness, the lone cowboy, in all its grit and self-pity. “Old Town Road” thus took after a cartoon that Lil Nas X cherishes, SpongeBob SquarePants: nonsense with a strange amount of soul.
The rollout of Lil Nas X’s debut album, Montero, has involved plenty of nonsense too. For most of this year, the 22-year-old Atlantan has made the internet into a big, gay carnival with steamy-and-sacrilegious music videos, bruising Twitter battles, a fake talk show, and an even faker pregnancy. The advance singles were colorful pop-rap that, like “Old Town Road,” stitched disparate influences into orderly packages to disprove the notion of him as a one-hit wonder. Yet the impressive, full album isn’t as wacky as advertised. Instead, it underlines that the secret to Lil Nas X’s success—the thing that makes him the star for this moment—is his sadness.
You might not guess it from the carefree way he flaunted a gold bodysuit at the Met Gala, but Lil Nas X has a lot of biographical baggage on his mind—and he spends much of Montero sharing it. His sexuality-related struggles with shame and bigotry are well documented, but other difficulties of his upbringing now come to the fore. On the standout “Dead Right Now”—a darkly suspenseful odyssey punctuated with gospel joy—he describes his mother, whose addictions have kept her estranged from her son, getting drunk and leaving him demeaning messages. Many other songs focus on depression and anxiety tied to money and ambition. On the twinkly “One of Me” (featuring Elton John on piano), Lil Nas X sifts through the criticism that many people still have of his art and talent.
For what it’s worth, that talent lies in his ability to alchemize angst in innovative ways. Working largely with the production duo Take a Daytrip, Lil Nas X tends toward short songs that still feel spacious because of all the styles they combine. Bouncy hip-hop (“Scoop”), Middle Eastern music (“Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”), and Billie Eilish–style shuffle beats (“Tales of Dominica”) snap together like Legos, and on “Dolla Sign Slime,” a jittery horn loop even brings to mind modern classical music. Everywhere, Nas builds verses and choruses out of varied micro-melodies, phrasings, and intonations. The effect is comparable to the topsy-turvy fun of a go-kart, with no danger of tipping over.
Besides Nas’s voice, the album’s big constant is guitar. Across the track listing, the instrument knits acoustic doilies, emits weed-smoke hazes, and grunts out grungy chords. Lil Nas X is a pop star first and a rapper second, but he clearly gets why rock aesthetics are back in style in both pop and rap right now. I sometimes wish he’d take a cue from the bands he references and push into wilder, woollier, and more challenging fare—though the reverberating anguish spiral of “Life After Salem” does represent a stab in that direction. Still, his fealty to rock makes a lot of sense. Under the sparkly exteriors, Nas wants to tap into mosh-pit emotions—frustration, fury, fantasy.
Why, after all, is there an emo-punk revival happening right now, as heard in Lil Nas X’s contemporaries, including Olivia Rodrigo and The Kid Laroi? Whether the reason is climate change or the brain-chemistry disaster that is social media, Zoomers are a remarkably anxious and depressed generation. Yet if you look at Gen Z’s cultural footprint to date, you find the hilarious chaos that defines TikTok and, indeed, the antics of Lil Nas X. He is the superstar for people coping in the best ways the internet allows: by playacting, self-therapizing, shitposting, and becoming really good at connecting with strangers. He’s been treated like a fad in human form—yet the sturdy and sincere Montero may show not only the future of pop, but also the future of how to get by.