Amidst a global climate of division and cultural animosity, one unlikely cowboy rode into the Top 40 this Spring with an air of confidence and authority only a person born one month before the release of The Phantom Menace could possibly exude. That individual is Georgia native Montero Lamar Hill, a collision of rapper, influencer and enchanted consumer who represents the most perfect American everyman since Tom Hanks and has led a revolution of engaged cultural positivity in a country that constantly seems at risk of becoming a pure fascist state.
The key lesson in understanding the appeal of Lil Nas X is the fact that “Old Town Road” — His record breaking debut single — absolutely, unreservedly honks. It launches with some classic wild west whistling and erupts into an urban maverick ballad that undercuts its initially Republican-passing sentiment of “Can’t nobody tell me nothing” with acknowledgement that his cowboy hat is from Gucci.
Its initial success as a solo performance led to the now iconic Billy Ray Cyrus collaboration remix, which sees Cyrus’s extremely traditional white country attempt to overwhelm Nas’s brand of black excellence and totally meet its match. It’s Nas’s song, and the world had to accept that.
The decision by Billboard to remove the original “Old Town Road” from the country music chart did not reflect well on the organisation, and gained Nas a great deal of support as he became — within a matter of days — the most successful black country (or at least country fusion) artist in a generation. He went on to release remixes with a member of Korean BTS, the yodelling kid and Diplo. All bases covered. A four-quadrant success. A Dolly Parton duet has been teased online, and I’m getting my hopes up for the Grammys to deliver on that promise.
Yet in spite of “Old Town Road” being undeniably the best pop song of the year, Nas’s real appeal is all based on personality. He’s a master of Twitter, and of meme culture at large, catapulting his planet-sized persona into every format available with faster fingers than any corporate PR machine could, and offering critical real-time reactions to his own journey to success. Nas is a full-bodied multi-dimensional meta artist, and celebrates every new commercial success with the most endearing variety of celebratory posts. His particular penchant for Spongebob and Shrek content (not hugely niche I know, but glorious nevertheless) has won my love twentyfold.
But back to “Old Town Road”. Being a black rapper in a typically white genre was initially an obstacle to infiltrating the country scene, but with the involvement of Billy Ray (I hesitate to say “help” cause Lil Nas doesn’t need anybody’s help) he managed to score the love of that audience as much as his expected base. And then, in his final act of heroism, Nas came out as queer and disrupted the whole paradigm once more. Only a 20-year old gay, black, country rap artist with a strong political conscience could save Gen Z. At the end of the day, it’s in the spirit of the great protest songs — Guthrie, Seeger, Bragg — that Nas sings on his inferior but fun follow-up single “hey panini, don’t you be a meanie”.