It’s ironic that Lil Nas X called Montero his baby—complete with promo imagery of a round-bellied, sweaty LNX popping out his new album on a hospital bed—because from the jump, Lil Nas X deemed his debut an epistle to his younger, lonelier self. A baby for a baby.
The 22-year-old artist, whose 2019 single “Old Town Road” ruled charts and elementary school assemblies alike, has endeared himself to fans as the most social media-savvy performer around. In the past two years, he’s ruffled feathers in both country music and rap spaces with daring and devilish music videos, flexed his troll muscle on haters like Boosie and Boyce Watkins, and storyboarded massively extravagant performance that bang every buck outta Columbia Records’ bank-breaking budget. All of his moves, as noisy as they seem, belied an inner reckoning for the Georgia-born musician. The rapper has been balancing abandonment wounds since he was a kid, the true extent of which we might not have known without Montero.
Refreshingly, this album is deeply personal. If mini-Montero was interested in moving and living with clarity about who he is and what he’s after, it’s fairly certain he’d be proud of how far his older self has come.
Sometimes the beginning of finding yourself is simply learning what you are not. Montero finds Lil Nas not just growing tired of the ways he’s been dismissed, but also celebrating how terribly wrong his detractors were. “You’s a meme, you’s a joke, been a gimmick from the go,” he spits on “One of Me.” The record is written from the perspective of the naysayers who thought he wouldn’t “top his last creation,” or that making memes means he’s not a real artist. Montero features a host of finger blasts against this kind of thinking, which, no doubt, flooded LNX’s timelines. Montero is textual evidence, in the existence of the song and the album itself, that while “Old Town Road” might have been a one-of-one hit, it comes from a one-of-one artist.
They might not have stopped him completely, but even a troll like Lil Nas felt pricked by rap and country heads who side-eyed his place in the game. “So fuck all that Nas be considerate” he raps over “DOLLA SIGN SLIME’s” shoulder-shimmying horns (and a very ho-hum Megan thee Stallion verse), “I’m really the n---a that’s killing it...I’m really the n---a that’s different.” He knows that it’s not just his queerness that separates him from the rest; that there is an indelible quality that only he has—whether it’s savvy, tenaciousness, or simply the continued attention of the industry—that’s led to his unlikely sustained success.
The aggressiveness ain’t forever, but LNX’s youthful angst is all over this record. In the triumphant “DEAD RIGHT NOW,” he lays bare wounds inflicted by everyone from his gospel-singing father (“He said, ‘It’s one-in-a-million chance, son,’ I told him, ‘Daddy, I am that one-uh, uh-uh’ I ain’t never need him, I ain’t never need no n---a”) to his mother, who struggled with addiction during his childhood (“My momma told me that she love me, I don’t believe her”). Despite his success, Lil Nas clearly has lingering hang-ups around loving and lonesomeness.
As much as he celebrates making it out of a difficult childhood, the multi-platinum artist loathes having done this without the quality of love he was held back from. Whether romantically (“Call Me By Your Name,” “THAT’S WHAT I WANT,” and “VOID”) or through familial love (“TALES IN DOMINICA,” and “DEAD RIGHT NOW”), even with fans roaring his name, he still feels an intense sense of his childhood loneliness. We don’t know how he might cope or what he’s learned about himself since, but Montero does beg the question of where LNX might be receiving love these days, and whether the trappings of fame are enough to fill the gaps he felt as a young person.
Listening to Montero feels like peering into the broken shards of Lil Nas X’s past. It’s hard to know what he’s doing now in order to deal outside of making music. The song “SCOOP,” which features another seamless verse from contemporary Doja Cat (adding even more credence to the idea that she can skate on just about any record), is a gym rat anthem locked, stocked, and loaded for the next Peloton session. It’s a bit banal, altogether, but at the very least it gives some sense of what is important to the rapper now.
Later, Lil Nas X dons the early 00’s alternative rock stylings of bands like Yellowcard or Fall Out Boy on tracks like “LOST IN THE CITADEL” and “LIFE AFTER SALEM,” with pretty decent melodics. He’s definitely still working on his wailing, but he’s made a ton of musical progress since the 7 EP shortly after “Old Town Road.” Montero, the origin story, just hits a little harder. Though he has no interest in being a role model to kids necessarily, Lil Nas X sounds most lucid when he speaks for and to his inner child.
For Lil Nas X to be one of the most prominent queer Black men in the world is obviously huge, but he’s always insisted that just because “Old Town Road” was beloved by children, doesn’t mean he wants to be a role model for them at all. “At first, I felt a sense of responsibility,” he told GQ in May, “but now I just don’t care. It’s not my job. Of course, I want to spread good ideals but I’m nobody’s parents.” This album might not be for kids to raise Lil Nas X up as a heroic figure, but the combination of writing chops that are still developing and its childhood focus doesn’t totally convey Adult Music. It does, however, represent a piece of art that LNX felt he needed to make, and that much is palpable on virtually every cut.
At the moment, the aim for Lil Nas’ work continues to be the need to free himself from external pressures, from being anyone other than exactly who he is. As he grows artistically and personally, the past will no longer be fuel for LNX achieving his aims, and there will be calls for him to be responsible to something or someone, even if it isn’t children. The hushed backlash he received for his “pregnant with an album baby” jokes—which some would say is transphobic because it’s predicated upon the false belief that men aren’t able to have kids—reminds us that there are gaps in his experience that could come back to haunt him. One does wonder whether the self-assurance Lil Nas has shown in his career so far could turn into the kind of self-absorption we observe in many celebrities, especially as he takes aim at all the online denigrators. Obsession tends to work both ways. But at this point, Montero feels more like a declarative statement: this ain’t ya mama’s one-hit wonder.