Lil Nas X showed Billboard and his critics that they can’t tell him nothin’

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Lil Nas X, whose short music career is already rich in accolades, is on the verge of breaking the all-time Hot 100 record. As Billboard recently notes, “Old Town Road,” the 20-year-old’s breakthrough and genre-bending first single, has been No. 1 on the chart for 14 weeks. Only two songs have lasted longer: Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” and Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” featuring Justin Bieber, both of which sat atop the charts for 16 weeks.

Lil Nas X could plausibly tie or even best those feats — though, even if he doesn’t, his success story has proven itself to be historic and influential, and it matters not if said story can be measured in days, weeks or months as opposed to years.

The Atlanta native’s improbable (albeit not totally implausible) rise is a testament to a number of variables, although, in terms of importance, the standout variable to me is undoubtedly the importance of finding a way to carve out a place for yourself in spaces where those like you are typically told there is no room.

After all, who could have imagined that one of the biggest singles in recording history would be a country-trap tune crafted by a southern Black teen who has since told us that he also happens to be queer?

“Old Town Road” gained initial interest not by way of radio, but as a meme on TikTok, the video-sharing app that debuted in China in 2016 and has since gained popularity in the United States. As Time explained in a piece themed around the song’s initial rise, “millions of video creators used the song as a soundtrack to transform themselves into cowboys and cowgirls. Videos with [the] hashtag #yeehaw, almost all of which sample ‘Old Town Road,’ have been seen more than 67 million times.

Lil Nas X himself gave TikTok all the glory in that article, acknowledging that he had been promoting the song for months as a meme but it wasn’t until it landed on that platform that the song caught fire. “When I became a trending topic on there, it was a crazy moment for me,” he told Time. “A lot of people will try to downplay it, but I saw it as something bigger.”

Of course, controversy — namely the song’s removal from the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart over claims that “upon further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard‘s country charts” — also helped fuel the song’s popularity. Many rightfully took aim at such a stance, given that white country acts managed to enjoy success on the charts with their country-rap works, citing a double standard. They felt the backlash was largely fueled by the fact that the industry is predominantly controlled by white men clinging to their overly narrow definition of both “country” and “rural.”

All that act did was to bring greater attention to Lil Nas X’s debut single, and ultimately, more powerful allies. To wit, in response to the egregious claim, Lil Nas X released a new version of the song that included the contributions of 1990s country star Billy Ray Cyrus, perhaps better known to young music buyers and streamers as Miley Cyrus’ father. It effectively dared Billboard, which today touts the single’s success, to answer the question: Is it country enough for ya now?

In her new Elle cover story, Miley Cyrus said of the collaboration, “My dad doesn’t like when anyone tells anyone no. He loves the underdog and has always been that way.”

As for her thoughts on the song: “That record is the best of both worlds in the way that you get a song that just sounds amazing on the radio — it’s glue, it brings people together. But it’s a f—ing political statement.”

And it hasn’t been Lil Nas X’s last.

On June 30, the last day of Pride, Lil Nas X joined both Miley and Billy Ray Cyrus to perform “Old Town Road” at Glastonbury. Following that performance, Lil Nas X tweeted a hint about his sexual identity: “Some of y’all already know, some of y’all don’t care… But before this month ends I want y’all to listen closely to c7osure.”

The song “C7osure (You Like)” from his EP 7 speaks of the desire to be “free” and includes lyrics like “This is what I gotta do, can’t be regretting when I’m old.”

In a subsequent tweet, he brought greater attention to EP artwork — zooming in on part of the artwork that is a rainbow, a symbol for LGBTQ pride — and suggested that he’d thought using the symbolism had made something obvious to fans: His sexual orientation. In a later interview with the BBC Breakfast, Lil Nas X confirmed he has already experienced some backlash, but added, “I’m not angry … because I understand how they want that reaction.” Instead, “I’m just going to joke back with them.”

Lil Nas X, whose real name is Montero Lamar Hill, went on to say “I don’t want to live my entire life … not doing what I want to do.” And realizing the significance of the reveal in either the country or hip-hop music scenes, he professed hope that people would “feel comfortable” while admitting that queer men are “not really accepted in either.”

I have seen criticism of Lil Nas X’s announcement, suggesting that he was “trivializing” the situation for “clout,” but that speaks more to the unimaginative, cynical minds of the few rather than the fold who have already benefited from Lil Nas X bringing greater visibility.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time Lil Nas X’s motives and moves have been questioned.

In April, Intelligencer ran a story titled “Before ‘Old Town Road,’ Lil Nas X Was a Tweetdecker.” In it, writer Brian Feldman alleges that Lil Nas X ran a popular, now-suspended Twitter account that engaged in activities he categorized as “engagement bait.”

“A feel-good story of ingenious platform disruption and merit-based achievement plays a lot better than using pay-for-play meme-propagation systems based on infringement and misrepresentation to build a following and then release a hip-hop track,” Feldman wrote.





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