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20 December 2021

L is for Lil Nas X: How one of music’s youngest artists made the best album of the year

Still a relative newcomer, the rap icon’s rise reached ever greater heights in 2021.

By Sarah Manavis

The rise and rise of Montero Lamar Hill, aka Lil Nas X, is not something anyone could have predicted when he first emerged in 2018 – known most for running a popular Nicki Minaj fan account on Twitter (the now defunct @nasmaraj), and for his just-released first single “Old Town Road”.

The track was a country-hiphop fusion which Nas, with a knack for knowing how to go viral online, uploaded to TikTok. There, it quickly became a mainstream meme, seen largely as a novelty song. Even when it topped the Billboard chart in March 2019, it was in many ways a joke – a fun song, with a fun story, and a remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus. It wasn’t something to be taken seriously. 

But three years later, Nas is having the last laugh. With all the markings of a one-hit wonder, he released his debut album, Montero, in September 2021, after six months of dropping chart-topping singles and zeitgeist-defining videos.

In March, he released “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”, a lyrically crafty, queer pop-hip hop single, with an accompanying high-production music video where Nas gives Satan a lap dance. The video sent American conservatives wild with rage, all while Nas capitalised on the extra coverage their moral panic handed to him.

In the summer, he released “Industry Baby”, produced by Kanye West, featuring rap darling Jack Harlow, with a gay prison sex-themed video that triggered even more outrage than the previous release.

The album itself is meticulously honed, featuring other major stars such as Megan Thee Stallion and Doja Cat – impressive at any age, let alone for a debut artist who released his first album, it’s worth mentioning, at the age of 21.

Nas had teased some tracks from the album in the summer of 2020 (a clip posted to Twitter showed him topless in his car bopping to what we now know is “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”), but chose not to release them.

Instead of rushing out Montero, trying to get rich quick off his fleeting flame, he had the confidence to know that, with time, he could make something truly remarkable. In doing so, Nas made 2021 – and the industry – his.

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Find the other entries in the New Statesman A-Z of 2021 here.

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