Content warning: suicidal thoughts
At the tender age of 22, Lil Nas X is simultaneously holding down three job titles: pop star, Twitter overlord and sex symbol. It’s not an easy load to juggle, but Lil Nas X does exactly that on his highly anticipated eponymous debut LP, Montero. The record sees Lil Nas X coming into his own, churning out both raucous, whiplash-inducing chart-toppers and tapping into a wellspring of contemplative material anchored by his artistic identity.
Few artists have had as meteoric a rise to prominence as Lil Nas X, whose scintillating cowboy-inspired 2019 single “Old Town Road” catapulted him to stratospheric levels of success. Lil Nas X’s social media charisma has supported his ascent to superstardom; his Twitter account provides more than 7 million followers with a beautiful, steady supply of SpongeBob memes and crass humor. Coupling his sharp wit with his transparency when discussing sexuality, Lil Nas X makes for a compelling figure outside the recording studio as well as within his animated discography and aesthetic.
To much figurative and literal fanfare, Lil Nas X released two lead singles earlier this year — one was “Industry Baby,” complete with a sweltering trumpet instrumental, and the other was “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” The title track is notably the strongest off the record with its addictive tap beat and driving Spanish guitar. “I’m not fazed, only here to sin/ If Eve ain’t in your garden, you know that you can,” Lil Nas X sings, subverting Biblical imagery to paint his own Garden of Earthly — or in this case, infernal — Delights. The baroque instrumentation of “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” is not an attribute exclusive to the track, but it is certainly at its most polished and cohesive here.
Standout “Industry Baby” is inundated with a swagger only excusable because he’s Lil Nas X. At several points on the record, Lil Nas X examines his contentious relationship with celebrity, and here, he proves that he’s entirely comfortable with his stature within the music industry: “I told you long ago on the road/ I got what they waiting for,” chants the chorus. Juxtaposed with the more vulnerable lyrics on later tracks such as “Don’t Want It” and “Void,” the single’s self-assuredness adds another layer of dimension to the album as it contrasts with the darker sentiments that dominate the record’s latter half.
Montero’s darker themes are not solely relegated to the back half of the album. This is evident on the track “Dead Right Now,” the narrative-driven, vulnerable rehashing of the star’s fraught rise to fame and struggles with suicide. Later, “Tales of Dominica” deals with dysfunctional relationships and the fear that hope will inevitably run out. This is uncharted territory for Lil Nas X, who, prior to Montero’s release, had yet to release material with such emotional depth — a surprisingly poignant and welcome contrast to the album’s unusual marketing obfuscated by Satanic aesthetics and increasingly elaborate maternity photos.
Expectedly, there is an abundance of quintessential Lil Nas X bangers to be found on the record — unfortunately, not all live up to their full potential. “That’s What I Want” is a lush, guitar-heavy entreaty for intimacy with a driving groove, and while plucky strings and brash lyricism make “Scoop” a perfectly serviceable Doja Cat collaboration, the song struggles to distinguish itself from the rest of the tracklist. “Dolla Sign Slime” featuring Megan Thee Stallion is similarly lackluster; Megan’s verse overshadows the track, and at this point in the record, backing trumpets begin to feel wearisome.
Lil Nas X is an endearing public figure that many people — specifically young, queer people of color — feel a particular connection to. Because of this connection on the basis of shared identity, many have become deeply invested in his success and what it represents. “I’m happy that it all worked out for me/ I’ma make my fans so proud of me,” he sings on “Sun Goes Down.” Clearly, Lil Nas X’s debut is a triumph — not just for him as an individual, but for everyone who has seen a bit of themselves in him.