Lil Nas X: Montero review – pop-rap at its proudest, biggest and best

(Columbia Records)
This blockbuster debut album matches its eclecticism and broad emotional range with high-quality hooks throughout – and all with the rapper’s sexuality front and centre

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.

Cover art for Montero.
Cover art for Montero. Photograph: Publicity image

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.

What Alexis listened to this week

Sad Night Dynamite – Psychedelic Views

Sullen, melancholy UK rap, its backing based around a sample of the Handsome Family’s Far from Any Road, AKA the theme music from True Detective.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Vince Staples: Vince Staples review – inventive rapper still walks own path
The Long Beach MC has repeatedly shunned fame – and this spectral take on his region’s G-funk, paired with conversational lyrics, deepens his outsider appeal

Alexis Petridis

01, Jul, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
DMX: Exodus review – a bold and bleak posthumous finale
The New York rapper, who died in April, is strong and unsettling over grimy, atonal production, with guest turns from Alicia Keys, Jay-Z and Bono

Alexis Petridis

27, May, 2021 @12:24 PM

Article image
Ghetts: Conflict of Interest review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Big-label backing and unusual, beautiful arrangements should finally propel Ghetts, long a critic’s favourite, into the big time

Alexis Petridis

11, Feb, 2021 @1:32 PM

Article image
The 100 greatest UK No 1s: 100-1
Look back on our complete countdown of the greatest UK No 1s, from the Beatles to Baby D, and So Solid Crew to Suzi Quatro

Ben Beaumont-Thomas, Alexis Petridis and Laura Snapes

05, Jun, 2020 @8:00 AM

Article image
Slowthai: Nothing Great About Britain review | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
On his debut album, the Northampton rapper swears at the Queen, dodges the far right and tries to pull a posh girl. It all adds up to a hilarious punk portrait of the nation

Alexis Petridis

16, May, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
Stormzy: Heavy Is the Head review – a bright light on the dark side of fame | Alexis Petridis' album of the week
He’s become so famous that even the Archbishop of Canterbury loves him – but this brilliant second album shows how difficult Stormzy finds stardom

Alexis Petridis

13, Dec, 2019 @12:01 AM

Article image
Lizzo: Cuz I Love You review – body-positive pop with its foot on the gas
Lizzo’s exhausting third album ramps up the drama to 11 with dense arrangements, squealing guitars and climactic vocals

Alexis Petridis

18, Apr, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
Gang Starr: One of the Best Yet review – rap duo stand tall beyond the grave
Though rapper Guru died in 2010, DJ Premier avoids the usual pitfalls of posthumous releases, deploying neat verses and brilliant production tricks

Alexis Petridis

31, Oct, 2019 @12:00 PM

Article image
Little Simz: Sometimes I Might Be Introvert review – rich, vital rap
Intensely creative as she discusses race, womanhood and family – and with a cameo from Emma Corrin – Simz’s fourth album feels totally alive

Rachel Aroesti

02, Sep, 2021 @10:30 AM

Article image
Dave: Psychodrama review – the boldest and best British rap album in a generation | Alexis Petridis's album of the week
Fearless and incisive, Dave’s reportage-style tracks sketch out race, prison and abusive relationships, resulting in a landmark record

Alexis Petridis

08, Mar, 2019 @6:00 AM