Sunday, September 19, 2021

With 'MONTERO', LIL NAS X Proves He Is No One-Trick Pony

It is no understatement to call Lil Nas X an overnight sensation. He first rose to prominence with his cross-genre country-rap anthem ‘Old Town Road’ that spent nineteen months at the top of the Billboard chart, shattering the all time record by almost a month and spawning four official remixes (and several more unofficial versions). 

Now, Lil Nas X (born Montero Lamar Hill) has birthedMONTERO’— a debut album that delivers on all of the humor and fun of his first singles with an added complexity that has cemented his transition from industry upset to genuine artistry.


MONTERO’ is best characterized by a self-aware artifice and a full embrace of controversy. It’s impossible to mention the album without mentioning the music video for its first track, ‘MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)’, whose music video features the artist descending on a stripper pole to Hell and giving a lap dance to none other than Satan himself. The music video is rich with visual and literary references, including a set that draws from Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, a line from Plato’s Symposium carved into tree bark, Marie Antoinette-inspired costuming, and a Dante’s Inferno type descent into Hell. The same level of attention to detail is present across ‘MONTERO’ and Lil Nas X is at the top of his game for the record. In 15 tightly produced tracks, the album pushes the limits of pop and rap with a refreshing level of experimentation reminiscent of the work of pop collective PC Music.


The title track is both over-the-top and deeply intimate, simultaneously decrying the dissociative hedonism of contemporary youth culture (“Cocaine and drinking with your friends / You live in the dark boy, you cannot pretend”) while embracing the libertine nature of celebrity. This becomes one of the recurring themes of the album as Lil Nas X contrasts the isolation brought on by his newfound fame (later in the album he writes that he has “smoked myself to sleep / I'm sad / I think I'm feelin' lonely / Took one too many shots last night and I spent all my money”) with his glamorous lifestyle and celebration of hedonism.


That dual identity is on full view in ‘THAT’S WHAT I WANT,’ a bright and summery track with a pop-rock hook that calls upon artists like Portugal. The Man. The glittery, windows-down sound contrasts the lyrics as Lil Nas X asks when it will be his time to be loved, a theme amplified by his identity as a gay, Black man. While he never shies away from discussing his background, the album also never veers into gimmicky or exploitative and the grounded honesty of Lil Nas X’s lyricism allows the much shiner production to flourish.


LOST IN THE CITADEL’ tells the story of a doomed one-sided relationship as Lil Nas X struggles to regain his independence. Underscored by droning synths that provide a New Order-esque intrigue, he sings “Why I thought we'd be together?/ When you treat it like whatever? Yeah, yeah, yeah / My love for falling down / Playing the victim when all my envisionings / Come slowly tumblin' down / Putting me back on the ground.” While he both recognizes the faults in his pursuit and tries to overcome his lost love, it becomes apparent that ‘MONTERO’ isn’t afraid to shy away from being personal and vulnerable while still holding on to its expertly crafted sound.  This dark, droney, and arguably experimental production is best seen later in the penultimate track, ‘LIFE AFTER SALEM’, introducing the very trendy nu-metal influence most recently popularized by artists like Rico Nasty and Rina Sawayama.


While ‘LOST IN THE CITADEL’ is one of most mature songs on the album, it effortlessly flows into ‘DOLLA SIGN SLIME’, a trumpet-driven pop trap anthem that sees Lil Nas X and Megan Thee Stallion celebrating their respective careers, sexuality, and material accumulations.  ‘MONTERO’ is dotted with features from some of the hottest names in contemporary music. In addition to Megan’s feature, Doja Cat, Miley Cyrus, and even Elton John (who all identify within the LGBT+ community) all make appearances that perfectly complement each track they appear on while never overshadowing Lil Nas X.


As much as the album is saturated in camp and flamboyance, ‘TALES OF DOMINICA’ is surprisingly subtle in its production. Sensitive while never veering into cheesy, the song is grounded in its airy harmonies and Spanish guitar, making for an understated track that helps tie together the almost confessional nature of the album. It leads into ‘SUN GOES DOWN’, another lighter track with a Mac Demarco-style chorus effect that recurs across the record, one of many details that adds a surprising maturity for a debut album.


Lil Nas X chooses to end on a quiet note as its final song ‘AM I DREAMING’ ties together all of the lyrical and musical themes present on ‘MONTERO’ before closing out with a moment of reflection: almost half a minute of organic sounds like birds chirping, waves crashing, and thunder rolling.


Behind the scenes, Lil Nas X has curated a team of industry legends: post-production is lead by mastering engineer Chris Gehringer (‘Dirty Computer’ Janelle Monae; ‘Born This Way’, Lady Gaga; Norman Fucking Rockwell, Lana Del Rey) and 18-time GRAMMY winning mixing engineer Serban Ghenea (‘1989’ and ‘Folklore’, Taylor Swift; ‘Melodrama’, Lorde; ‘One of the Boys’ and ‘Teenage Dream’, Katy Perry). Kanye West and Jack Harlow also hold writing credits.


It’s clear that craft is central to ‘MONTERO’ and its balance between smart, honest lyricism and complex and multifaceted production prove that Lil Nas X is just getting started. As Lady Gaga became an icon of the 2010s with her embrace of controversy, experimental and genre-pushing pop music, and shocking mass market appeal, could the 2020s be the decade of Lil Nas X?

Charlie Alexandra


Image: ‘Montero’ Official Album Cover (Columbia Records)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comment Here;