Review: ‘MONTERO’ marks the birth of Gen Z’s popstar

Lil Nas X’s debut album was culturally massive before it dropped, but its release cements the rapper’s success in music history

Lil Nas X’s debut album “MONTERO” is the undeniable mainstream pop masterpiece of the year.

Released on Sept. 17, the album features some of this moment's biggest stars, including Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion, and Jack Harlow. Its 15 tracks range from dreamy and introspective to sexy and intoxicating, demonstrating the artist’s intuition and seemingly unlimited potential.

Thanks to a phenomenal marketing campaign characterized by the artist’s signature blend of manufactured controversy and playful online presence, it is probably the year's most anticipated release as well. 

The dynamic and hype-driven album is the ideal debut for Lil Nas X, who has garnered a reputation for shocking and challenging the music industry.

Old Town Road (feat. Billie Ray Cyrus)'' hit the internet in the spring of 2019. The single instantly found a place in the meme zeitgeist. Its hip-hop and country-pop fusion, featuring a young Black rapper and a long-irrelevant singer-songwriter, made for a comical collision of worlds.

But, despite its tongue-in-cheek character, there was something undeniably catchy, fun and sophisticated about the single that allowed it to transcend the realm of parody. “Old Town Road” now holds the record for the longest-running No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100, at an unprecedented 17 weeks.

This can hardly be called a humble beginning. But the following years showed that Lil Nas X, with his taste for the flashy, trailblazing and controversial, would easily beat the one-hit-wonder allegations.

Lil Nas X came out as gay while “Old Town Road” was still sitting at the top of the charts, commenting in a tweet, “thought I made it obvious.” The artist subsequently become one of the few out Black queer men in the industry, and has since dealt with backlash from racist, homophobic and religious groups.

When the album’s first pre-release single, “MONTERO (Call My By Your Name)” dropped, alongside a music video featuring the artist giving Satan a lap dance, some members of the American religious-right reacted strongly. The ensuing frenzy could only be described as a tired combination of satanic panic and “gay agenda” rhetoric.

“Y’all love saying we going to hell but get upset when I actually go there,” the artist said in a tweet.

If there’s anyone who understands that “all press is good press,” it’s Lil Nas X. In response, the artist doubled down with an exclusive line of Satan-themed shoes, which prompted critical statements from prominent athletes and politicians.

Like “Old Town Road,” underneath the memified mania surrounding “MONTERO” is a subtle-yet-defined work of hip-hop and pop that is both conceptually niche and universally appealing. Lil Nas X knows exactly who he is and what he wants, and his album does not compromise on either.

I imagine this is what it’s like for straight women whenever a Taylor Swift album is released.

If there’s one adjective that anyone could apply to “MONTERO,” it’s fun. The bangers bang, with anthems like “INDUSTRY BABY (feat. Jack Harlow)” and “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” serving dramatic and euphoric dance beats.

The features are well conceived and perfectly balanced. Doja Cat’s electric verse on “SCOOP” and Miley Cyrus’s classic vocals on “AM I DREAMING” stand out as flavorful complements to Lil Nas X’s own style and flair.

The second half of the album hits a deeply personal nerve. “SUN GOES DOWN” and “VOID” find Lil Nas X addressing his younger self in a state of transition and longing. The artist’s struggle with self-love and identity only add to the album’s uncompromising authenticity.

And then there’s “THATS WHAT I WANT,” an under-appreciated revolutionary moment for Black queer representation in popular music. In the track's music video, Lil Nas X plays a high school football star in a passionate and steamy romance. 

Lil Nas X’s detractors have frequently argued that his recent music and imagery is too explicit for the young audience he amassed during the “Old Town Road” era. The unabashedly homophobic reactions to relatively mundane depictions of queer sexuality aside, these bigots are fundamentally wrong about today’s youth. Lil Nas X is exactly what the children need.

Lil Nas X’s music is the affirming messaging that gay kids need, and the representation that Black gay kids have never gotten. In a popular culture that invalidates and demonizes queerness — especially Black queerness — Lil Nas X is a mainstream model of sexuality and expression for gay children that straight kids have always had.

At age 22, and just two years into his career, Lil Nas X is only getting started. The artist has already made history. What boundaries can he break next?


Reach the reporter at ammoulto@asu.edu and follow @lexmoul on Twitter. 

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