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6 September 2019

How political controversy and memes made an unknown rapper’s song the world No 1

By Sarah Manavis

When the 19-year-old American rapper Montero Lamar Hill, aka Lil Nas X, released “Old Town Road” on 3 December 2018, his country-rap fusion track became an instant hit. The 1:53-minute song featured elements from both country music and hip hop, combining deep bass beats with banjo, a southern twang with Auto-Tuned vocals, and lyrics about riding horses with references to driving expensive cars.

The track’s cleverness was displayed by its lyrical juxtaposition. The verses include “Ridin’ on a horse, ha/You can whip your Porsche” and “Cowboy hat from Gucci/Wrangler on my booty”; a country yin and hip hop yang that left listeners excitedly anticipating the next line. Combine all of this with a sick beat and an unbeatable hook, and you have an example of one of the smartest balancing acts in modern music.

For the first few months of its existence, “Old Town Road” rose in popularity through social media. Montero Lamar Hill is a social media savant, well-known for his meme-filled Twitter account and for running a notorious (and now-deleted) fan account devoted to the singer Nicki Minaj (@NasMaraj).

Upon releasing “Old Town Road”, Hill uploaded the song to TikTok, a video-sharing app popular among teens. The song became the basis for the “Yeehaw Challenge”, in which people shared clips of themselves dressed as cowboys dancing to the track. At the time of writing, posts on TikTok with the hashtag “#yeehaw” are nearing 80 million.

As the meme spread, “Old Town Road” made its way on to the industry-standard US Billboard music charts in March, entering the Hot Country chart at No 19. The track even made Billboard music history by becoming the first song simultaneously to feature on three charts: Hot Country, Emerging Artists, and Hot R&B/Hip Hop. Yet within a few days, “Old Town Road” had its ascent cut short after Billboard removed it from its country listing – claiming it did not “embrace enough elements of today’s country music” to merit inclusion.

The decision prompted a remarkable backlash. Rap and country behemoths asked “what do artists have to do to be recognised as country?”, “what more did Billboard need for this banjo-backed song about horses and tractors to be considered country?” and “would this have happened if Lil Nas X wasn’t black?”

However, no one was more outraged than Billy Ray Cyrus – yes, the country golden boy of the 1990s, the singer of “Achy Breaky Heart” and Miley Cyrus’s father. After witnessing the controversy unfold over several weeks, Cyrus tweeted his support to Hill on 3 April: “Only Outlaws are outlawed!”

Hill sensed an opportunity. Having tweeted back in December that it was his dream to collaborate with Billy Ray on “Old Town Road”, Hill decided to capitalise on Cyrus’s public support. Just two days after Billy Ray sent his tweet, a remix of “Old Town Road” featuring the country legend was released. And, in a matter of hours, it became a global hit.

Cyrus ensured his new verse replicated the juxtaposition that made the original “Old Town Road” so addictive. “Spent a lot of money on my brand new guitar/Baby’s got a habit: diamond rings and Fendi sports bras/Ridin’ down Rodeo in my Maserati sports car.” Cyrus tenderly tells Hill in a clip of them in a recording studio that “you’re a light in this world”.

While Billboard has still not accepted “Old Town Road” as a country track, the rest of the world has: Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music all classify both versions of the song as country music, and all three reported that the remixed version was their most streamed song over the weekend of 6-7 April.

The iTunes chart also listed “Old Town Road – Remix” as its most-bought song – making the collaboration the most popular song in the world.

There is nothing new about collaborations between country music and rap: there are deep, historical links between the two genres. Both draw on the music of African-American communities, such as  jazz, blues, and soul, and are associated with storytelling and a narrative style.

However, troublingly, Billboard has a history of pulling country songs by black artists from its chart. When Beyoncé released her Grammy-nominated album Lemonade in 2016, one of the most popular tracks on it was her country song “Daddy Lessons” – a bluegrass anthem  with references to guns, bibles and Texan roots. But after a revolt by country music stalwarts, such as Grammy Awards winnner Alan Jackson, the song was deemed ineligible for the Billboard country chart.

Having just turned 20 on 9 April, Montero Lamar Hill is having the last laugh. He has been swiftly signed by Columbia Records (which represents A-listers including Beyoncé, Adele, Calvin Harris and Pharrell) and is now one of the biggest new names in music. Profiled in Time magazine and Rolling Stone, he has created an insatiable buzz for his forthcoming debut album. And while Billboard may not accept his country anthem for what it is, Hill has left his fans ready for more. 

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This article appears in the 10 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, System failure