How could Lil Nas X possibly follow his 2019 country-rap smash hit “Old Town Road”, one of the best-selling singles of all time, with over 18 million sales and equivalent track streams worldwide? With his 2021 smash hit “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”. In the video, he grinds down a pole into hell and gives a lap dance to Satan, who is a mirror image of himself. With ten million Instagram followers, brand partnerships with multiple major sportswear brands and fast food outlets, queer icon status, and a 14-times platinum genre-bending single, it seems Nas has already conquered the music industry. But at age 22, on he must go – and so he does with debut album Montero, a rhapsodic masterpiece of contemporary pop that is as addictive as it is subversive.
Nas understands the title song’s gravity, the subtitle of which (“Call Me By Your Name”) is borrowed from the 2017 gay romance movie starring Timothée Chalamet (the main title, “Montero”, is Nas’s birth name). It is an unabashed statement of gay identity, following Nas’s coming out in late June 2019 – a bold subversion of hip-hop norms. Musically, it winds with Arabic fusion melody and reggaeton beats, Nas’s drawling bars interspersed with thick vocoder. If its impact was seismic as a single, it has a similar effect as the album’s opener: it propels the record, and Nas’s outward self, into existence. Here I am, he says, straight away – this is me.
Supreme confidence is, of course, a defining feature of hip-hop as a genre. Nas occasionally wields his in service of standard bragging lyrics (“Couple Grammys on him/Couple plaques… I ain’t lost since I began”, he sings on “Industry Baby”), but to hear it invoked via sexually explicit queer lyrics – which come to life in videos (“Industry Baby” involved a naked scene in prison showers) – feels novel and insurgent. “I don’t f*** bitches, I’m queer,” he tells us on the same track. In other words, I might sound like them, but actually I’m not like them at all.
Though Nas often has his tongue firmly in his cheek – a reminder that he was a meme-making internet sensation before he was a rapper – Montero allows him the space to show vulnerability. In hip-hop, this is just as rebellious as dressing as a cowboy and line dancing, as he did in the video for “Old Town Road”. On “Sun Goes Down” he confesses insecurity about his sexuality (“These gay thoughts would always haunt me/I prayed God would take it from me”) and his blackness (“Had friends but they was pickin’ on me/Always thinkin’, Why my lips so big?/Was I too dark?/Can they sense my fears?”). There is real complexity across the record: the offsetting of swaggering, windows-down tracks like “Dolla Sign Slime” with innocent, emotive love songs like “That’s What I Want” (“Need a boy who can cuddle with me all night”) suggests each contrasting persona might be an authentic layer of the self Nas allows the world to see.
He is consistently assured musically, too. Regal brass, ribcage-shaking basslines and Kanye-esque gospel choirs (West produced “Industry Baby”) all contribute to Montero’s symphonic proportions. But beyond even its boundary-pushing nouveau hip-hop, this record is striking in its invocation of traditional pop: big choruses, personal growth, cheesy chord sequences. Again, Nas knows he’s being naughty. “I’m a pop n**** like Bieber (ha)”, he spits on “Industry Baby”. Sparkling and inventive, he’s nothing like Justin Bieber, who is manufactured and drab. Except, perhaps, in his ability to write banger after banger, to execute chorus after chorus of catchy melodies and addictive beats.
Montero soars through introspection and lost love, expands and retracts in just the right places, dances and floats, toys with your emotions. After “One of Me”, which features long-time Lil Nas X fan Elton John on piano, the second half of the album largely succumbs to lyricism, as though softened. “Tales of Dominica” is a low-key softly sung bop with a country inflection; “Lost in the Citadel” and “Void” are transcendent electro R&B tracks showcasing Nas’s ability to sing, switching between falsetto and baritone. The final track, “Am I Dreaming”, departs from rap entirely. It’s a wistful ballad, with a dive-bar verse from Miley Cyrus (whose father Billy Ray made a cameo in a remix of “Old Town Road”). “I don’t wanna leave this place/Stay right by my side”, sings Lil Nas X. He’s addressing his lover, but listeners will be happy to oblige. Where will we go next?