Arts and Entertainment

Lil Nas X Proves Himself on “Montero”

A brief history of Lil Nas X, a summary of his appeal and an assessment of his debut album, “Montero.”

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Joanna Meng

It feels like Lil Nas X has been a constant of pop music discussion since his early 2019 breakout, riding a wave of controversy, meme marketing, and hype he generated with just a few well-timed social media posts and remixes. Between the passionate genre-categorization debate over the ubiquitous “Old Town Road,” the openly gay and graphic visuals for the lead singles to “Montero,” and flashy fashion statements, Nas X has whipped hit songs into one of the biggest superstar presences in the world. As such, his debut album has had astronomical expectations, and not just for chart success—“Montero” is Nas X’s opportunity to define himself as an artist. If he fails to find an artistic identity or land a few more catchy tunes, all of the shock tactics and marketing in the world can’t sustain his popularity, and he will go down in history as a gimmicky one-hit wonder who was in the right place at the right time. So, how did Lil Nas X fare on “Montero”?

As with most pop records, it’s something of a mixed bag, both stylistically and qualitatively. None of the content reaches “bad” status per se, but disappointing squandrance of good ideas is a common thread throughout the album’s weaker moments. The broadest constant besides Nas X himself is producer duo Take a Daytrip, who, along with former XXXTentacion associate John Cunningham, produced the vast majority of “Montero.” Nas X is clearly comfortable with their inclusions; he has enough faith in their songwriting and production abilities that he interpolates melodies from their production in nearly half of the album, for better or worse.
The instrumental palette is generally tasteful, featuring some impressive string, horn, and piano arrangements updated for the modern pop landscape. Punchy kicks and bass, snappy claps and snares, peppy rhythm guitars, and futuristic synthesizers round out the instrumental side of “Montero,” with the last piece of the puzzle being Nas X’s contributions. Lyrically, he moves on from his spurious, contrived country boy roleplay into typical pop-rap territory. He not only celebrates and reflects on his success but also sings about young love and lust in the context of his sexuality. Not that Nas X was expected to craft a magnum opus that revealed some mystic wisdom, but considering his wholly unique place in the mainstream, lyrical depth is notably absent from his introspective moments.

Nas X is at his best when he’s having fun. “Industry Baby” with Jack Harlow is the best Lil Nas track to date, with its bold, triumphant horn line standing as one of the most defining moments in pop this year. The other main boon of “Industry Baby” is its song structure, which avoids Nas X’s tendency to abort his best ideas without much development. Its robust three-and-a-half minute runtime is enough to leave a real impression. Conversely, the lead single title track is such a strong statement on its own that its fragmented two minute length is plenty satisfying. The Spanish style guitar and synth bass build a catchy foundation onto which Nas X gives some of his most explicitly gay and sexual lyrics. The bass on the chorus mirrors his melody, making the track feel front and center, immediate and unavoidable. Nas X is gay and here to stay.

Sandwiched between those two highlights is “Dead Right Now,” which is almost as catchy as the aforementioned two. It’s more mellow, but the distinct processing on the horn section gives it an unmistakable identity. “Life After Salem” is even more calm at first, but Nas X shows off his range as the track springs into a cleansing, passionate chorus, topped off with some anthemic guitar riffs. “Dolla Sign Slime” uses staccato horn arpeggios to achieve a similar grand effect as Young Thug’s “Hot” or J. Cole’s “Middle Child,” and a standout sexually charged feature verse from Megan Thee Stallion elevates it to a key track. “Tales of Dominica” sees Nas X try his hand at some Post Malone and Kid Cudi-esque entrancing, downbeat, liquidy trap, and over it, he tells a brief and revealing story about his mother’s drug addiction. While he vaguely circles emotional resonance with his lyrics, he never zeroes in on any memorable imagery or deeper insights into how he’s changed from his experience. Despite the song’s overall quality, the lack of attention to detail on “Tales” is one of the clearest examples of his tendency to underwrite.

The paramount example of Nas X’s bad habit is “Void.” While it’s the longest track on “Montero,” the length is mostly devoted to a drawn out, sanitized acoustic guitar line and peppy kick pattern that sounds faux-inspirational and hokey. It hardly introduces any new ideas in its four minutes besides a slow and uninteresting string drone. Lyrically, he articulates his feelings in the bluntest possible way: “I’d rather die than live with these feelings.” There’s nothing wrong with being direct, but the line feels out of place and unwarranted without sufficient buildup. “One of Me” completely wastes the piano contributions of gay pop legend Elton John with an egregious and clunky interpolation on the chorus and painfully basic lyrics about self doubt.

Beyond his on-par lyrical proficiency, Nas X utilizes a multitude of techniques which are a few tweaks away from their most polished selves. “Scoop,” featuring Doja Cat, may have a decent tongue-in-cheek contribution from the guest rapper and a standout line from Nas X (“I ain’t talkin guns when I ask where your [EXPLETIVE] at”), but it sounds like a tired, pitched-down retread of “Juicy,” an already mediocre track from Doja herself. “That’s What I Want” is a sweet, well-written pop rock number chronicling Nas X’s pursuit of a crush, but with heavily autotuned vocals and guitar pickups that lack any bite or smolder, the production feels so antiseptic and stripped of its edge that it has the appeal of chewed gum. “Lost in the Citadel” brings some pop punk energy, a solid melody and guitars with more body to them, but the rest of the production is underweight and lacking.

Overall, Lil Nas X spends more time on hinting at interesting ideas rather than bringing them to fruition. The attempts to voice his insecurities and traumas show heart, and the forays into guitar-based music were a fitting change of pace, but Nas X’s decisions lack the refinement that would have made them what they deserved to be. Fortunately, while “Montero” might not show Lil Nas X at his full potential, he succeeded in creating an overall enjoyable project that sets him apart from his contemporaries. Not all of his stylistic flairs panned out perfectly, but that’s just the nature of a debut. He’s only 22 years old; he has plenty of time to smooth out the kinks, break even more records, and break the mold further in normalizing gay sexuality. “Montero” may not be consistent, or even worth revisiting besides its two or three major highlights, but culturally, it’s a landmark moment for one of the world’s biggest new stars. Lil Nas X has proved himself.