Lil Nas X’s debut album Montero arrives accompanied by not one, but two huge advertising tie-ins. In the first commercial, he shills Taco Bell’s Toasted Breakfast Burritos in a pink pompadour wig. Then there’s a series of adverts for Uber Eats, in which his comic foil is Elton John, one of Montero’s guest stars, albeit a low-key one, contributing piano.
They’re the kind of big-money gigs you only get if you’re in pop’s upper echelons, which Lil Nas X undoubtedly is. Since he bought a beat online for $30 and turned it into Old Town Road – which became the longest-running No 1 single in US history, sold 18.5m copies and provoked a debate about genre boundaries and country music’s attitude to race – the 22-year-old has been a constant presence at the top of the charts: five more platinum singles, and so many awards and nominations they require their own Wikipedia page.
He’s become such a familiar presence that it’s easy to forget what an extraordinary phenomenon he is. It’s not just that one of the biggest rappers in the world is an out gay man – an enlightened attitude to homosexuality has never ranked high on hip-hop’s list of virtues – but that he’s an out gay man who places his sexuality front and centre in his music. His last single, Industry Baby, came with a video set in a prison in which Lil Nas X leads a troupe of naked men in a dance routine in the showers. Its lyrics add being gay to the list of Things Rappers Brag About amid the usual stuff about racks and plaques and suggestions that rivals should bring their soldiers: “I’m a pop nigga like Bieber,” he swaggers, “I don’t fuck bitches – I’m queer”. Should you require confirmation of the climate he’s saying things like that in, Industry Baby was produced by Kanye West, whose current album features a collaboration with the openly homophobic DaBaby.
A cynic would say that Lil Nas X has been a beneficiary of the ongoing culture war; that liberal voices would feel duty-bound to praise his work to the skies. What Montero proves is that he requires absolutely no special pleading. It hits an impressively eclectic sweet spot between hip-hop and pop, leaping confidently from trap beats and martial horns to grinding, distorted hard rock; from music that recalls early 00s R&B to stadium ballads. The genre-hopping is unified by melodies. Song for song, Montero has more hooks – and stickier ones – than any other big rap album thus far released in 2021: the indelible chorus of That’s What I Want, the luminous tune at odds with Tales of Dominica’s disconsolate lyrics; Dead Right Now, which is rich and luscious enough to get listeners checking the credits to see what 70s soul track it samples, only to discover it’s original.
It seems appropriate that the aforementioned Taco Bell ad shows him performing That’s What I Want accompanied by a band staffed by multiple versions of himself in a nod to the video for Outkast’s Hey Ya! – not just because That’s What I Want’s breezy rhythm and acoustic guitar riff is audibly influenced by it but because Lil Nas X himself recalls Outkast’s André 3000, both in his ballsy approach to matters sartorial and in his disinclination to be artistically hemmed in. “Just stick to what you’re good at,” he advises a rival, witheringly, “I suggest you make another one like that”. Frankly, it would be a fantastic album whether or not it featured Lil Nas X snapping “I ain’t talking guns when I ask where your dick at” on Scoop, or opened with a track berating a publicly straight man he’s been shagging on the quiet.
There is a real confidence about its variety – presumably bolstered both by his success to date and the fact that he can sing as well as he can rap – and a confidence, too, about its structure. It’s front-loaded with tracks that strut and boast, before the emotional temperature suddenly plummets. Out go the crowing and the guest appearances from Megan Thee Stallion, in come more bleakly affecting songs. These are about depression, loneliness – Void appears to be addressed to Lil Nas X’s stylist Hodo Musa, and appears to suggest theirs is the closest relationship in his life – and his grim adolescence, marked by parental abuse and struggles with his sexuality, and enlivened only by his life online, “stanning Nicki morning into dawn”.
You expect the album to collect itself and end on an optimistic note, but it doesn’t. Instead, the closer is Am I Dreaming?, a troubled ballad featuring a wracked-sounding Miley Cyrus. “Never forget me and everything I’ve done,” he sings, as if he expects his current flush of success to be fleeting. On the evidence of Montero – an album from which you could excerpt pretty much any track and be rewarded with a hit – he needn’t worry. The advertisers look likely to be beating a path to his door for a long time yet.