It feels like only yesterday when the world met Lil Nas X. “Old Town Road” was gaining momentum on its own, but it really took off once controversy surrounded it. Billboard disqualified the song – indisputably a fusion of rap and country – from their country charts, arguing that it didn’t “fit” the genre. This sparked outrage across the world, many feeling the ruling was less about the song and more about Lil Nas X being a Black man.
Billy Ray Cyrus stepped in, offered to hop on a remix, and the rest is history: two Grammy awards; the longest-running #1 in US history; 15x Diamond certification, the highest of any song in existence; a place on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest songs ever written.
From the very beginning of his career, Lil Nas X’s success was anchored in proving his detractors wrong and doing so with a big, wide smile. Three years later, Lil Nas X – real name Montero Hill – has become nothing short of a cultural icon. Giving much needed mainstream representation to queer rappers, you can see his influence on young people happening in real time. His social media presence is unmatched, forging a lane for himself that at once sees him labelled as a master of the platform, while never feeling like he’s trying too hard. And he’s done all that without ever compromising on his music.
Now, Lil Nas X has finally released his debut album, MONTERO. He’s ready to introduce himself once again, with help from a few pals like Doja Cat, Miley Cyrus and Megan Thee Stallion. So, in celebration, here’s every song on MONTERO ranked by yours truly.
15. “THE ART OF REALIZATION”
A queer man? Driving? I’ll believe it when I see it.
14. “ONE OF ME (FEAT. ELTON JOHN)”
It saddens me that a meeting of two larger-than-life queer-pop icons would culminate in something so underwhelming. It’s fine, but there was so much potential for it to be monumental.
13. “SUN GOES DOWN”
“SUN GOES DOWN” is a sweet track, but never really ventures beyond that. There are far more impactful moments on MONTERO that are equally as introspective.
12. “LIFE AFTER SALEM”
Huuuuuuuuuuge Bond theme vibes here. Interesting cut, despite feeling out of place and disjointed in MONTERO’s otherwise smooth and consistent flow.
11. “DOLLA SIGN SLIME (FEAT. MEGAN THEE STALLION)”
As much as it absolutely pains every fibre of my being to say it: Megan outshines Nas here. Perhaps it’s because her singular unrelenting rap style serves as a cutting point of difference in what is a hyper-coloured, genre-melting album, or perhaps it’s because her mere essence commands all attention. But Lil Nas X, inadvertently or not, let’s her take all the spotlight. Not a bad song by any means, it just doesn’t feel like his.
10. “LOST IN THE CITADEL”
Pop-rock is once again proving a dominating force in mainstream music in 2021, and “LOST IN THE CITADEL” taps into a pocket that Lil Nas X would do well to explore in the future. A testament to his versatility, the only thing this song would benefit from are those guitars hitting just that little bit harder. LNX isn’t afraid to rage – we’ve heard it before and more than once – but here he feels a little too timid to really go there.
9. “AM I DREAMING (FEAT. MILEY CYRUS)”
There’s something so beautifully full-circle about Lil Nas X closing his debut album with a Miley Cyrus collaboration, considering a collaboration with her father helped nurture him all the way to superstardom and beyond.
As far as closers go, Lil Nas X understood the assignment. “AM I DREAMING” is ethereal but grounded, with Cyrus’ signature raspy vocals adding an earthiness to an incredibly fantastical tracklist. It’s a deceptively sombre acknowledgement of both Nas X and Cyrus’ artistry and legacy, and a reckoning with the fact that all of that is, ultimately, fickle. It’s a desperate plea for us to remember them both, done so beautifully and tactfully that I can’t imagine them having to beg us too hard.
8. “TALES OF DOMINICA”
Lil Nas X isn’t untouchable, despite his meteoric rise to fame and even more impressive display of maintaining it. Over more latin-inflected guitar strums, he has a moment of self-doubt on “TALES OF DOMINICA”. Showing chinks in an armor he’s worn for years, he sullenly sings: “Could I be wrong?/Was everybody right about me?”
Strings peppered throughout the song add grandeur to the track, which adds to the underlying melancholy that wafts throughout it. It’s a song where Lil Nas X chooses not to ignore or to conquer his sadness, but to ruminate in it before letting it pass. It’s a rare moment of stillness from one of pop’s most animated artists.
7. “INDUSTRY BABY (FEAT. JACK HARLOW)”
Everything about “INDUSTRY BABY” feels like a battle cry. Sure, the opening bugles and marching progression throughout are specifically meant to signal Nas’ arrival as a “legitimate” artist, but there’s energy charged into it that makes you realise he’s serious. Lil Nas X’s entire career is built on his refreshing ability to not take himself too seriously – fun comes before anything else.
But, on “INDUSTRY BABY”, he means business – in his own humorous way. It’s a sober acknowledgement of where he came from – “Old Town Road” has one-hit wonder written all over it – and his achievements up to now, from Grammy awards to record plaques. As the song bounces on (shout-out to Harlow’s worthy guest verse) “INDUSTRY BABY” begins to not only feel like a battle cry, but also like a victory lap. If you know about Lil Nas X, then you know about Lil Nas X. And if you don’t – you’re about to.
6. “SCOOP (FEAT. DOJA CAT)”
Lil Nas X and Doja Cat is a pairing that was written in the stars. No two artists working today have such an unteachable ability to not only wield the internet and social media to their advantage, but do it in a gloriously outrageous and sometimes self-deprecating way. And they do so all while conquering the charts.
It’s fitting, then, that their first song together feels built for social media. Long story short: “SCOOP”, with its fluttering strings, staccato hook, and non-stop humour, is an imminent TikTok trending smash.
“Tomorrow is my day off” is about to be all over your FYP page, mark my words.
MONTERO is an aptly autobiographical album, but it can be difficult at times to process that information when our idea of Lil Nas X is so theatrical and excessive. On “VOID”, he cuts through the spectacle and delivers an intimate, contemplative ballad; or, his interpretation of a ballad at least. The song itself feels like tears welling, with the opening moments being hushed and soft-spoken, before erupting into a raw flood of emotion – the most he gives us anywhere on MONTERO.
4. “DEAD RIGHT NOW”
While the horns that open this track pale in comparison to other brass-led moments on MONTERO, “DEAD RIGHT NOW” is so taunting and wry that it doesn’t matter. The production, courtesy of Take A Daytrip, is rich and full, giving an almost ominous vibe to Nas’ bars. He speaks of having to cut those off who didn’t believe in or support his journey, but he doesn’t seem to do so with remorse or reluctance. Instead, he cuts these people off at the door, grinning, because they should have known better.
“DEAD RIGHT NOW” isn’t a stock-standard anthem of greatness like we see elsewhere in hip-hop – Nas X contextualises his journey with past struggles (suicidal ideation, family battles with addiction) and reflects on how far he’s come He believed in himself when other people didn’t – and even still has to fight for his legitimacy as an artist in hip-hop – so you can’t blame him for answering the calls of congratulations from ex-naysayers with a middle finger.
3. “THAT’S WHAT I WANT”
One of the most surprising elements of MONTERO is how tender it can be. It’s not what Lil Nas X is most known for, or even best at, but on “THAT’S WHAT I WANT” he delivers this delicacy with such passion and conviction that you can’t help but tune in. Diving into the poppier side of Nas’ pop/rap fusion, “THAT’S WHAT I WANT” is a desperate call for real love laced with summer-ready, acoustic guitar and whistling synths.
MONTERO doesn’t shy away from vulnerability, but the painstaking lyrics of “THAT’S WHAT I WANT”, coupled with its Ryan Tedder-helmed, road-trip-fated production, make for a riveting emotional rollercoaster.
“I want someone to love, that’s what I fuckin’ want” isn’t exactly a songwriting marvel, but the fire in which he sings it with feels all too relatable.
2. “DON’T WANT IT”
“DON’T WANT IT” soars where “LOST IN THE CITADEL” stumbled. With rattling bass and a criminally catchy sample of “Hush, Little Baby”, “DON’T WANT IT” captures pent-up rage and self-doubt and mirrors it against his own success.
The song’s ethos is pretty clear – “I'm fuckin' living proof that if you want it/You can have anything right before your eyes” – and he plays on it by juxtaposing his own life experiences. In one verse, he raps about his sadness, loneliness and remorse about drinking and spending too much. That is directly followed with an interlude of audio of him winning his Grammy awards back in 2020, as well as a reference to “MONTERO (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME)” hitting #1 – cementing that he is no one-hit wonder.
“DON’T WANT IT” is almost like a journal entry or a vision board excerpt – Lil Nas X’s own reminder to himself that he is human, and he is multifaceted. His failures and trauma don’t have to define him, but they will help make his successes seem all the more great.
1. “MONTERO (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME)”
When Lil Nas X trotted onto the scene with cowboy hat and boots in tow, it would’ve been impossible to imagine he’d be as big, and as important, of an artist as he is today. While having one of the biggest runaway hits in recent memory and trolling almost every single person on the internet, Nas built a diverse, dedicated fan base. He did all of this while being unashamedly himself.
Queer rappers have never received as much mainstream attention as they do now, but as far as chart dominance goes, no one beats Lil Nas X. What’s most refreshing about this is that Lil Nas X wants you to know it – he wants every bigot, homophobe and backwards-thinker that he’s gay as fuck and all over social media, the news and more.
And he has never done it as well as he did it with the album’s opener and title track, and might never do it that well again. “MONTERO (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME)” has had a life of its own before it was even released, with Nas X teasing a snippet of it on social media almost a year ahead of it dropping.
The second those Spanish guitars beckon the song in – a motif we see all across MONTERO – he is ready to assert himself as clearly and as succinctly as he needs to. His voice bounces between rich and deep to impassioned and belting, as he raps about trying to woo another man. The genius of the song is that it takes the most basic pop cultural understanding of queerness, and sexuality in general, and twists it to fit his personal narrative.
Besides being named after one of the most well-known queer films of the past decade, the song also references sex explicitly – “I wanna feel on your ass in Hawaii/I want that jet lag from fuckin' and flyin'/Shoot a child in your mouth while I'm ridin'” – but with the lens of homosexuality. On top of that, the internet-breaking music video – which just took home the VMA for ‘Video Of The Year’ – toys with the demonisation of sex and homosexuality. After being condemned in front of a coliseum of naysayers, he literally pole dances his way to hell before giving the devil a lapdance. He stuck both middle fingers up to all the homophobes and bigots that damned him to hell, with a simple ‘Don’t mind if I do’.
It’s hard to imagine how pop culture’s idea of homosexuality would have been different had Lil Nas X emerged 20 years ago. But, if there’s anything MONTERO as an album teaches us, it’s that Lil Nas X has learned to acknowledge – not ignore – what happened in our past, and how that makes our present feel so much brighter.
This is only album #1 for Lil Nas X. If he keeps putting out songs as near-perfect as its title track, his future is set to radiate just as bright.