There’s one thing Lil Nas X’s fans and haters can agree on: he’s a pop star, not a rapper, a point made abundantly clear on his debut album MONTERO. But well into an era where rap is the most popular genre, that pop star sounds like the future of rap, or at least one path it could take.
Lil Nas X barely raps on the album, singing about love, sex, his past, family, detractors who swore he was a one-hit wonder. While his 7 EP was a swatch test for Lil Nas X to try out different genres and styles, MONTERO is a cohesive composition, uniting the sonic influences of OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, TikTok sonic wunderkind Omar Fedi and frequent collaborators Take A Daytrip (Nas X’s “Panini” but also Sheck Wes’s “Mo Bamba”). The end result sounds like a distillation of contemporary popular music, the kind of blockbuster pop album following the much larger footsteps of Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman or Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream, albeit not as polished.
MONTERO’s 41-minute runtime breezes by in flashes of Spanish guitar, brassy horns, choral harmonies and the cleanest 808s money can buy. The Kanye West-co-production on “INDUSTRY BABY” and its world beating trumpets will be soundtracking SportsCenter highlights for another six to eight months. “THAT’S WHAT I WANT” has a skyscraping hook backed by firework synths and quick-paced handclaps, a pop confection destined for Top 40 radio. “LIFE AFTER SALEM” is audio-induced heartache, Lil Nas X crooning tenderly over plodding grunge guitar.
Despite the short length and stylistic variety, Lil Nas X’s lyrics can be thematically repetitive with most songs being perfunctory raps about fake friends and haters. “ONE OF ME” is the worst offender on the album, with Lil Nas X taking on the persona of one of his haters. But unlike Eminem’s “Stan” or Nav’s “Brown Boy,” the song fails to dive into the root causes of the celebrity fixation. The end result is Lil X Nas X singing his haters’ arguments for them, with little perceptible irony.
But when he gets it right, he really gets it right. The album’s songs about relationships come across as vulnerable yet poised, like meme-ing through a breakup and waking up to 17,000 retweets — without feeling sick the entire timeline knows you got dumped. He’s looking for a consistent lover on “THAT’S WHAT I WANT,” or at least “a boy who can cuddle with me all night.” Meanwhile, “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” is an anthem for anyone who’s ever dated someone who doesn’t have their life together enough to do right.
Self-belief anthems such as “SUN GOES DOWN” or “VOID” recall Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” or Grande’s “Be Alright” but with an injection of Hip Hop self-mythologization that keeps Lil Nas X relatable despite his success.
The vulnerability veers into voyeurism early on the album with “DEAD RIGHT NOW,” a Travis Scott-esque track where Lil Nas X sings candidly about his mother’s addiction. Following “MONTERO” and its chorus assuring a lover they can “call [Nas X] when they want,” “DEAD RIGHT NOW” is a searing tell-off: “You know you never used to call/Keep it that way now.” The sense of intrusion reemerges later on with “TALES OF DOMINICA,” when Lil Nas X resigns himself to fame, sighing, “Can’t go running back to home, can’t face her face.”
What makes these songs uncomfortable isn’t Lil Nas X’s personal disclosures, but that it seems like he feels compelled to make these disclosures in response to digital scrutiny of his interpersonal relationships. Celebrities’ personal problems have always been the butt of tabloid jokes (think Britney Spears’s 2007 meltdown), but the expectation that artists should be accountable to listeners and critics for their personal lives is pure virtue signaling: fans just want to say “Lil Nas X is my unproblematic fave.”
Lil Nas X knows this. He’s aware people don’t want to see a young, Black gay man win. Despite what Lil Boosie or Laura Ingraham might think, MONTERO’s success hinges on quality music, not some fleeting controversy.
Lil Nas X isn’t the first star of the TikTok era, but he’s the definitive one; the next time a label signs a teenager over a meme track, MONTERO will likely be the standard for comparison. In the social media panopticon, what stardom demands is not only self-knowledge but knowledge of how audiences perceive and think about the artist.
Call him what you want, call him what you nee — industry plant, LGBTQ+ icon, CIA plot to destroy the traditional family — but he’s already on the way to the top.
— Darryl (@darrylcummins04) September 16, 2021
If you fw good music, then you'd listen to MONTERO! lil nas X delivered no cap
— Khalid❁ (@KhalidTweetss) September 16, 2021
I feel like if you gotta do all this bullshit to promote an album it’s probably trash
— dean herb (@wesleypresley18) September 16, 2021