Lil Nas X Steps Into a Post-Viral Future
It started with a few faint, unmistakable banjo plucks, and it’s still going. After being quietly and independently released in December and picking up traction as an unfailing meme, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is now distributed by Columbia Records and has been No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 for the last 11 weeks. Along the way, there’s been a controversy over Billboard removing the song from its country charts, Billy Ray Cyrus’s subsequent intervention, and every sort of eye-popping and/or heartwarming viral moment you can imagine. Six more weeks of this and the song will break the all-time record for a sustained run at the top.
Pop monoliths Taylor Swift and Drake have released singles in the past week, though, and next week’s updated chart will tell whether either can dethrone “Old Town Road.” Lil Nas X has only been making music for a year. The question isn’t just how long this can last, but what else can he do? On Friday, Lil Nas X released his first new music since “Old Town Road” took off, an EP called 7, and he can’t have had much time to develop a new playbook for it. In interviews, he’s said he sleeps three hours a night these days. The songs on 7 skitter between styles and don’t present a clear picture of what an extended version of Lil Nas X fame would look and sound like—he may not even know himself yet.
Take “Panini,” released yesterday as the second single off of 7 (“Old Town Road” is counted as the first). To follow its rollout yesterday and the conversation around it, you could just look at Lil Nas X’s own Twitter feed.
And he seemed to be in on whatever joke he reasonably anticipated being made about him and the song; you could see both the backlash and his response in the same place. Lil Nas X’s rise has been internet-fueled, which is often used as a way to dismiss an artist, but in his case it has at least something to do with being very good at using the internet.
Or take “Rodeo.” With a Cardi B feature and a reprisal of “Old Town Road”’s cowboy aesthetic, you can hear Lil Nas X swinging for the same kind of hit. And on “F9mily (You & Me),” produced by Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker, he crosses over with pop-punk instead of country, but there’s a similar interest in blurring genres.
Lil Nas X is confronting a question any breakout artist does: is he a one-hit wonder? The sheer size and impact of that first hit set a difficult bar to clear. But suppose the next round of memes don’t take off, and even the Cardi collab doesn’t go anywhere. “Old Town Road” will still be remembered for a long, long time, and perhaps the fault lines it pointed to in genre classifications will be too.
On an appearance on Desus & Mero last month, Lil Nas X played a game of Country or Nah with the hosts. At the beginning of the segment, he interrupts when he’s introduced as the “king of country” and points at the camera: “Wait, wait, wait, I don’t want to say that.” Then Lil Nas X is asked to evaluate the relative countryness of a series of people, things, and concepts. Spaghetti is country; ghosts are not. And Nelly, the St. Louis rapper who’s put out songs with Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line, and whose debut album was called Country Grammar? Lil Nas X’s eyes lit up: “country.”
In April, Lil Nas X posted a snippet of a song that turned out to be “Bring U Down” from 7, a guitar-driven collaboration with OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder. “Y’all think they gonna let me on the rock charts,” he asked. At the very least, they’ll have to think harder about it.