The forces of authority loom over the promotional material for rapper and singer Lil Nas X’s debut album, Montero. In one clip, the viral star appears before a fictional Supreme Court, a defendant in a lawsuit by Nike, which earlier this year, in a real court, sued a company for which Lil Nas had codesigned a shoe. The trial is brief and draconian; the court sentences him to prison for homosexuality. In a subsequent advertisement, a reproving newscaster reporting Lil Nas’s escape from said prison identifies him as a “power bottom ‘rapper,’” encasing that final word in questioning air quotes. And then, of course, there’s the music video for the lead single, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” in which Lil Nas faces off against divine authority and is damned to hell—where he rescues himself by taming Satan with a glorious lap dance.
These winking face-offs with institutions—the law, the media, the church—both send up the feverish homophobia that has plagued Lil Nas X’s short career and underscore his preoccupation with optics. Since his runaway hit “Old Town Road”—a hokey, campy, charming mash-up of country twang and rap swagger—shattered sales records and flooded the globe with memes two years ago, he’s made a name as a Web-savvy trickster, emboldened by prying and bigoted gazes.
“Old Town Road” was his proving ground: After it shot up the country charts, Billboard removed the song for not “embracing enough elements of today’s country music,” a racist decision that highlighted who is allowed to work in the genre. Lil Nas responded by recruiting country maven Billy Ray Cyrus for a remix that went on to top multiple charts, his first of many decisive victories against gatekeepers. It isn’t hyperbole to describe his understanding of the attention economy as virtuosic. His tweets, TikTok videos, and television appearances are arch delights that skewer the fear of queer people and play with the strangeness of modern celebrity.
His music isn’t as accomplished as his celebrity, though. Montero, which takes its title from Lil Nas’s real name, pitches the artist as a boundless free spirit who can do anything, but its sprawl only highlights his lack of a perspective and his rudderless style. Straddling rap, pop, and rock, he struggles to offer a unified theory of Lil Nas X as a performer or even an experience—his rapping is pedestrian, his singing unmemorable, and his story colorless. While his songwriting has improved since “Old Town Road,” he continues to be better at attracting eyes than engaging ears. Montero knows that pop should be eventful and monumental, but it never crystallizes these ideas into compelling music. As attention has become the ultimate metric in music and culture more broadly, works like Montero highlight the cost of visibility’s outpacing quality and vision.
At the height of the “Old Town Road” craze in 2019, Lil Nas released 7, an amateur EP that both capitalized on the moment and sought to course-correct. Aware of the tight flash-and-burn life cycle of all memes, Lil Nas emphatically insisted that he had staying power. The songs weren’t persuasive, but they were successful: The track “Panini” was a chart-topper, going platinum six times as of this past July. Bolstered by that warm reception but still determined to prove himself, Lil Nas began working on Montero, which he has billed as a more confident and complete record.
There are some serious improvements here, but many of the songs are nondescript, revealing little about Lil Nas or his interests. The best moments come early. “Montero” is earnest and self-possessed, Lil Nas pursuing a bad boy paramour over flamenco guitar and handclaps. He’s fun when he’s horny: “I wanna feel on your ass in Hawaii / I want that jet lag from fuckin’ and flyin’ / Shoot a child in your mouth when I’m ridin’,” he sings. The lines are as sincere as they provocative, the hypersexuality trolling a heteronormative gaze while also expressing humdrum desire. The song is in many ways the blueprint for the kind of pop musician Lil Nas aims to be: brazen but relatable, iconic but down-to-earth.
The down-tempo “Dead Right Now” hits the latter note, detailing how family riffs have fueled his determination. The third verse is pure venom, as Lil Nas personifies his troubled mother: “You ain’t helpin’ out with me, God won’t forgive you,” he snarls in her voice. The song harks back to his debut (and only) mixtape, Naserati, created at a time when his writing and style were primarily informed by rap, especially the theatrical persona and flows of Nicki Minaj, his main influence.
Lil Nas is not a skilled rapper—a fact underscored by every featured rapper on the album stealing the show—but as the triumphant “Industry Baby” shows, he has a sense of flair and history. The song, which mocks the idea that he’s some sort of lab-created pop monstrosity (”an industry plant,” in the parlance of purists who strangely reject artifice in pop music), is built on the brass and percussion arrangements of Black marching bands, which inspired early producers of trap music. Lil Nas flows effortlessly over this backdrop, boasting, lobbing insults, and interpolating fellow Atlanta rapper Waka Flocka Flame.
Lil Nas’ singing isn’t as fluid. Whereas his rapping is at least economic and casual, his singing is frequently drawn-out and inert, the melodies stagnant, his voice tepid. The chorus of “One of Me” is so functional that the bullies and doubters it invokes feel like bathroom graffiti. “I like this, I don’t like that / Do this here, don’t you do that,” Lil Nas sings flatly. Do these comments bother him? Is he distressed? His voice offers no insights. The pop rock number “Lost in the Citadel” is just as canned, the chorus deflated by Lil Nas’s anodyne crooning. Elsewhere, even as he addresses intimate subjects like suicidal ideation (“Void”) and self-doubt (“Tales of Dominica”), he feels disembodied and distant, like he’s narrating someone else’s story.
As the whiffed ballads accumulate, it begins to feel telling that there’s a music video for each of the album’s songs, even a skit. Lil Nas has no musical identity. Even the production on Montero lacks a foundation, the producers delivering pop rap bangers (“Scoop”), rockabilly theatrics (“Life After Salem”), and Elton John piano solos (“One of Me”), despite none of these modes’ bringing out, at minimum, any of the personality that Lil Nas exudes online. His music seems to be so defined by gazes that they’ve become the linchpin of his enterprise. His songs, primed for screens, have little internal integrity. When he has no camera to play to or gawking authority to subvert, Lil Nas struggles to find anything meaningful to say about the world or express about himself. That anonymity is the biggest disappointment of Montero. There really is no one else like Lil Nas in music or pop culture now. He’s a queer Southern rapper and singer emboldened by the spotlight, eager to turn necks and snap them in the service of expanding who is allowed to inhabit and claim public space. That he’s a son of rap, one of the many genres that have fostered a narrow vision of masculinity, has made his rise all the more invigorating. But he’s not yet shown himself to be interested in being an artist; instead, Lil Nas X has settled on being merely an icon.