From Soundcloud to The Grammys: The Power of Lil Nas X
By Sarah Druhan
Photo: Rolling Stone – Source
Nowhere can the youth takeover of the music industry be seen more than in recent Grammy nominee Lil Nas X. A 22-year-old rapper from Georgia who has been rapidly gaining traction since clips of his music first started going viral, Nas has been providing culture with some of the catchiest earworms in recent memory. But he’s also a reflection of a fascinatingly different approach to music-making—one that boasts a very Gen Z brand of marketing, and emphasizes opportunities for new perspectives in the industry.
Born Montero Lamar Hill, Lil Nas X blazed a very unconventional trail on his road to stardom. As a closeted Black college dropout in 2018 facing disapproval from his family and working two jobs to support himself, Nas was likely aware that he wasn’t the poster child for the kinds of acts that typically make it in the industry. But it was during this time that the beginnings of his most prominent boost to fame began to take form: the future rapper started writing snatches of songs about a loner cowboy making it on his own against the odds. Nas’s emboldened decision to turn his situation into a narrative of triumph completely shines through the entirety of what eventually became "Old Town Road". His unapologetically confident attitude made for an addictively catchy single and
a refreshingly different take.
Nas X’s rise to fame additionally boasted qualities that felt wholly generational. Born in the heart of the iGeneration, the rapper very intentionally utilized social media to build his platform, meticulously crafting every part of "Old Town Road" into something bred for instant virality. At the time Nas was running a meme account on Twitter, using Zillennial-brand Internet humor to grow his following and strike specific markets in his self-promotion.
But where the rapper really struck gold was on one of 2019’s most up-and-coming apps: TikTok. Lil Nas X was one of the earliest artists to really see TikTok’s potential to drive new singles to the top of music charts, and he had a deep understanding of the app’s undeniably Gen Z humor. His slow build to an abrupt beat drop in "Old Town Road" felt custom-made for TikTokers to put their own creative spins on, and while radio stations would later debate about "Old Town Road"’s true home, the country-trap weirdness of a modern cowboy anthem was something TikTok adored. Once Nas posted a song clip on the platform, it was inevitable: "Old Town Road" achieved fame practically overnight, touted to every corner of the app by social media stars and their unexpected transformations into cowboys.
Funny as it may sound, "Old Town Road" was a watershed moment in many ways. Lil Nas X had proven the dizzying power of TikTok to practically do the work for a content creator if they played their cards right, marketing and promoting them at an almost feverish speed. With only one single under his belt, the fledgling rapper was able to sign with Columbia Records and release remixes that had celebrities from country singer Billy Ray Cyrus to Walmart yodeler Mason Ramsey hopping on the verses. TikTok was a vehicle that Nas was the first to visibly use, paving the way for many other musicmakers to follow. His big break was an undoubtedly momentous one that changed the way the industry worked, forever.
After a debut that was as much of a juggernaut as "Old Town Road", Lil Nas X probably could have been just fine retiring music right then and there. Instead, he put two years of work into the album that would become MONTERO. In this Grammy nominee for Album of the Year, Nas digs deeper into the emotions that inspired his attitude in "Old Town Road": “INDUSTRY BABY” flaunts fountains of victory trumpets in the faces of those who dismissed him as a one-hit wonder, and “SUN GOES DOWN” explores the pain of constantly being forced to minimize his Black queer identity to please others. The album’s smash hit, however, was undoubtedly its namesake “MONTERO: CALL ME BY YOUR NAME”.
More than most of the viral songs of the summer, “MONTERO” had a unique and lasting power. A queer Black man embracing his sexuality and identity with an almost fierce determination, broadcasting his unabashed pride everywhere from the stage of Saturday Night Live to the Billboard Hot 100, was something that just had never before been seen in mainstream music culture to that extent. In the second verse, Nas lists the desires he has of his lover in what feels like an unrelenting shout, baring himself raw both in front of the person the song is addressed to and in front of the entire world. He’s resigned with his own love life, but also with the society that continually tried to shut down any expression of his true identity at every turn. These frustrations with societal standards weren’t exaggerated in the slightest. When instant backlash emerged from
parents and conservative figureheads all around the world, the snappy swiftness of Lil Nas’s comebacks made it seem as though he had expected it from the very beginning.
“dear 14-year-old montero,” read the first line of the letter Tweeted by Nas upon “MONTERO”’s release. “i wrote a song with our name in it…i know we promised to die with the secret, but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist. …people will be angry, they will say i’m pushing an agenda. but the truth is, i am. the agenda to make people stay the f*ck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.” Lil Nas X’s transcendence as a musical artist is bigger than just his social media presence, bigger even than the changes he spearheaded in the industry. His self-love and unashamed presentation of his authentic identity reflects more opportunities for more perspective in the music business. His art is breaking boundaries, and has become a symbol of hope for all generations of queer communities listening in.