It is fair to say that this year has forced things into perspective. It's also fair to say that this year has totally sucked. The "rules" that governed politics and pop culture and our civic and social lives don't seem like they'll ever go back to the way they existed before 2020. And maybe that's a good thing.
This year has certainly helped Montero Lamar Hill see things differently. Hill — better known as the Grammy-winning artist Lil Nas X — got a much-needed break over the past few months that he almost certainly wouldn't have enjoyed otherwise. With lockdowns around the world all year preventing him from touring and making promotional appearances, it's the first time in the 21-year-old's short career that he's had some shade from the spotlight.
That career began, of course, when his single "Old Town Road" seemingly took over the world for what felt like all of last year but was actually 19 weeks, which is how long it sat at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, a record-breaking feat. Not only did the song launch Hill into the public's consciousness, but it also took on a life of its own, spawning memes and dance challenges, remix after remix with heavy hitters like Billy Ray Cyrus, Young Thug, and BTS, merch deals and even a children's book. The follow up, 7 EP, was released at the crest of the "Old Town Road" wave, capitalizing on the buzz, with lead single "Panini" securing Hill's role as a chart-topper without doing much to signal what his true ambitions as an artist and performer really were.
"I want my fans to know how much I love what I do and that I'm loving myself more too. This is my 'I'm here to stay' project."
While these accomplishments are virtually unheard of for a brand-new artist, examining his trajectory makes clear the unique challenges young Black artists face when hitting the mainstream. There's a constant tug-of-war between who they want to be and which lens we're most comfortable observing them through. Black women artists and Black queer artists understand this even more acutely. Hill's contemporaries, like Lizzo and Megan Thee Stallion, are new to fame but face constant scrutiny. And in Hill's case, being an out, gay man means there's more untreaded territory to traverse. Even more reason to be careful.
Since March he's split his time between his home in Los Angeles and with his family in the Atlanta area, where he's from. He says the downtime was much needed. "I've been looking for approval in the wrong places." he tells PAPER on a Zoom call. "I'm trying to learn to just be thankful for the people that do support me." That support from his fans has come with its fair share of scrutiny as well.
"I do want to go beyond any other artist's impact. I don't want to do what has been done. I want to have a lifelong career."
Hill's media narrative has shifted almost as much as he's traded out his collection of cowboy hats. First he was a genre-bending freedom fighter trying to get on the country music charts, testing the limits of what the genre could be and who had the right to make that distinction. This was replaced with bemusement at how his hit record spread around the world in a way that's never been seen before, and the internet savvy that he possessed which made it all possible. And finally, his decision to come out last summer earned him even more attention as he was lauded as a trailblazer while also being questioned for his motives. This has been the toughest challenge for him to navigate.
According to Hill, he "planned to die with the secret." He told the Guardian earlier this year that changed when he hit mainstream success. The new standard for 2020 pop stars is part politician, part artist. Hill is keenly aware of that fact, pausing and thinking long before answering even the smallest questions.
He felt the urge to set an example for his fans, as well as get ahead of the breadcrumbs his history on the internet would have led people down. He wanted it to be on his own terms. Even after this revelation, which came in the form of a tweet last June shocking even the people on his creative team, he's still been tight-lipped about his dating and personal life. "I definitely dance around whatever I want to say or do on the internet," he says "I want to get to a point where I can share everything with the world, but I'm not there yet." This is out of an abundance of caution. He doesn't like saying the wrong thing.
But this year has allowed him time to give more thought about how he does want to let his fans in. With his next project, which will be his first full-length album, out next year, he promises something more "honest" and less "PG-13." It'll be his attempt to wrestle his narrative back into his own hands.
"I definitely dance around whatever I want to say or do on the internet. I want to get to a point where I can share everything with the world, but I'm not there yet."
On his first single from the project, "Holiday," which dropped last month, Hill is cockier than he's ever been. "Man, I snuck in on a horse, I got no remorse/I pulled a gimmick, I admit it, I got no remorse," he rap-sings on the track. It also features his first explicit reference to being gay on a song. He raps, "I might bottom on the low, but I top shit," a line he was nervous about including.
"Even saying it in the studio. I was like, 'Damn, do I want to say this in front of these people?'" he says. The fear started to creep in. Would he alienate his straight fans? Even his queer fans? "Within the community it's kind of like a taboo in a way to say," he said. "Which doesn't make sense because, you know, we're all gay." After much thought, he decided to keep it in.
Hill's greatest strength as an artist and as a personality is his self-awareness, and his ability to bring you in on the joke. He doesn't pretend to have it all figured out, and he doesn't ever take himself too seriously, always offering a wink and a nudge that he finds it just as funny as you do that he's a huge star.
While humour is what has not only made his fans love him so much, and made him such a family-friendly marketing alternative to other Soundcloud rappers who play in similar sonic worlds, it's also left a question mark over his career. Is there much past the laughs? He thinks with his album, he'll prove that there is. "I want [my fans] to know how much I love what I do and that I'm loving myself more too," he says. "This is my 'I'm here to stay' project."
He's been hard at work this year, getting his hands dirtier in the songwriting process, trying to push the boundaries he previously placed on himself. Before recording "Old Town Road," he had only just started making music. The song was recorded in under an hour, in a studio he paid just $20 to use. Now he has a lot more freedom. "I'm just taking my time on songs, much more than I did before," he says. "I would go into the studio and whatever I did with the song that day, that was it." EP 7 demonstrated how little he is governed by genre, just like all the other music industry traditions that he ignores. He says that'll be the same on this record.
This go around, he's less concerned about how his fans will receive the music, and more concerned with making something he's proud of. Despite saying he has "zero doubt" his fans will love it. "I'm thankful for every single fan of mine, but I feel like it's very important to me, as an artist, or creator in general, to create what I want to create no matter who's watching, because I'll never be happy if I don't."
Hill has shown how adept he is at directing your attention where he wants it, which is in part why he loves embodying different characters in his fashion and music videos. He's hung up the cowboy hat to trade for a cyberpunk Santa getup, which is his new look for the "Holiday" rollout. "Every day everybody, we dress up in drag in a way," he says. "It's just so fun, like being able to be a different person all the time."
Hill's trepidation with establishing himself as one kind of artist or performer, seems less to do with fear of acceptance and more to do with being pigeonholed. When asked who his inspirations are, he lists off some of the top-selling artists of the past decade: Drake, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Travis Scott, Frank Ocean. He couldn't land on one. As much as he wants to be thought of as a standalone icon, he just wants to do what feels right.
"I do want to go beyond any other artist's impact. I don't want to do what has been done. I want to have a lifelong career," he says before trailing off. "Unless I decide to do something else."