Rap Album Review: Lil Nas X’s “MONTERO” — More than a Meme

By Alex Szeptycki

With this satisfying album Lil Nas X has made one thing clear — he’s more than a meme.

Cover art for Lil Nas X’s MONTERO

To promote his debut album, MONTERO, Lil Nas X decided to get pregnant. The performer wore a prosthesis and bedecked himself in a white robe — an obvious homage to Beyonce’s internet-record-breaking maternity shoot. Several videos followed, featuring a baby shower, a staged late-night interview, and a dramatic birth sequence on the eve of the disc’s release. This bombastic marketing campaign was typical; Lil Nas X has mastered the art of the internet spectacle as few others have — he has turned a promotional tactic into a form of performance art.

Indeed, pretty much everything Lil Nas X has put out has exploded, from his debut single, which became the most streamed song of all time, to the music videos that are greeted as cultural events on a level not seen since Michael Jackson. He is a queer Black man who has embraced the brightest of spotlights through wielding unparalleled mastery over digital media. His antics on Twitter often feel as vital to his oeuvre as his music, from his wild promos to his gleeful trolling of the vitriol-spewing conservative masses. This is the man who created a viral music video set in Hell: he gave Satan a lap dance. That turned into a viral shoe collab, for which he was promptly sued, only to turn that lawsuit into another viral music video.

My point is that so much of the chatter about Lil Nas X has nothing to do with his music. Which is a damn shame, because MONTERO establishes him, firmly, as an exciting and daring pop star. The album trades on many of his strengths: his chameleonic, genre-bending versatility, a sense of campy bluster, and an unapologetic flaunting of who he is. But the record also has darker edges, moments when the artist retreats in on himself, engaging in intensely self-conscious bursts of vulnerability. Sure, this move toward introspection doesn’t always pay off; his approach to production has, at times, felt bland, and that conventionality sticks with him here. But on the whole, MONTERO and its accompanying videos give us a Lil Nas X willing to take admirable risks and he emerges (mostly) unscathed.

There’s an eclectic brassiness to Lil Nas X’s music. MONTERO jumps from idea to idea; the album’s only consistency is a commitment to work with different sounds. “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” opens with sultry Spanish guitar licks, before morphing into a bouncy dance hall beat that proves to be the perfect platform for Lil Nas X’s sardonic ruminations on a hookup: “Tell me you love me in private/I do not care if you’re lyin’.” In contrast, “Industry Baby” is a sonic victory lap. Ostentatious horns triumphantly drive the song; they lift the track up, suggesting the arrival of a royal procession. Lil Nas X’s rapping matches the music’s frenzied energy: “Baby back ayy/Couple Racks ayy/Couple Grammys on him/Couple Plaques ayy.” The performer is completely in his element here, oozing confidence. “I ain’t lost since I began,” he quips, announcing his presence as a superstar.

These two wildly different tracks define the album’s range, its impressive versatility. Like many young pop artists, Lil Nas X jumps between disparate styles, mixing and matching as he goes. This makes for some very exciting production moments. The moody “Dead Right Now” is given an excellent twist with the addition of a church choir to the hook. It subverts Lil Nas X’s harsh reflection on fame. “What I Want” is a mellow track about loneliness, but the tune’s melancholy lyrics (“It don’t feel right when it’s late at night/And it’s just me and my dreams/So I need someone to love me”) is undercut by its instrumental, a peppy acoustic riff.

Lil Nas X

MONTERO’s varied sounds and styles invited Lil Nas X to bring in a slew of guest artists. Megan Thee Stallion’s dexterous flow is the perfect fit for “Dolla Sign Slime,” given the track’s swaggering horns and bassy trap beat. Lil Nas X keeps pace with a singsong hook and a verse of his own. Elsewhere, “Scoop” creates a psychedelic, atmospheric jam in which it makes perfect sense for Doja Cat to join in.

It’s on the back half of the album where Lil Nas X showcases how much he has evolved as an artist. He dials back the pop glitz and turns inward, engaging in a series of songs that reflect on his own life. “One of Me” signals this change of pace, with its mellow synth strokes and downtempo drums. Lil Nas X settles down to face the viral circumstances of his own rise to fame, rapping “You’s a meme, you’s a joke, been a gimmick from the go/All the things that you do just to get your face to show.” He effectively acknowledges his anxiety at having to deal with being an artist working the technological levers of a fickle celebrity machine. This shift in the mood of the album continues with the deeper dive on “Tales of Dominica,” which examines the rapper’s fraught family life and relationships: “Can’t go running back to home/Can’t face her face.”

It’s a powerful change of direction for Lil Nas X that goes beyond his pastiche hits. It’s a gamble that pays off with some of the most engaging songs on the album. “Life after Salem” serves up a refreshing counterpoint to the snappy breakup number “Lost in the Citadel,” its downcast tone making use of gritty, distorted guitars. “Why don’t you just take what you want from me/I think you should just take what you want and leave,” sings Lil Nas X in a maudlin grunt, no longer seeming to care what the person decides. “Sun Goes Down” is perhaps the most personal track here. The performer reflects on his experience of being queer — he details the hate he has experienced. “It” ends on a decidedly happier note, however: “And I’m happy by the way.”

MONTERO has been anticipated by fans and foes for more than its 15 tracks. Lil Nas X operates with so much flair that it is guaranteed that everything he does will be surrounded by hype, hate, and culture war debates. But it turns out that Lil Nas X, as a musician, is about much more than controversy and point-scoring. With this recording, Lil Nas X has made one thing clear — he’s more than a meme.

Alex Szeptycki is a writer from Charlottesville, VA. He recently graduated from Stanford University, majoring in American Studies with a focus in contemporary art and pop culture. He’s currently working as a freelance writer at the Arts Fuse while navigating post-grad life in a pandemic.

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