A debut single as big as Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ can be both a breakthrough and a farewell. Success that large can be hard to overcome, particularly when you emerged as a meme, trolling both hip-hop and country music fans. His debut EP 7 which followed quickly made waves but failed to clock a hit even half-as-big as his breakthrough moment. Then, more than a year later, his comeback single ‘Holiday’ limped onto the charts and suggested Nas’ 15-minutes may be over.
What people failed to consider though is Nas knows the ins-and-outs of memes. He’s grown up watching what the internet reacts to and what they hold on to. He’s a master of it. And that’s why his debut album Montero arrives with Nas in a position that few could’ve predicted. Singles ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)’ and ‘Industry Baby’ have been two of the biggest pop moments of the year, establishing him as a cultural force rather than a time-stamped meme.
Both singles have benefitted from spectacular music videos that are unapologetically queer. Sprinkle in some religious iconography and he’s successfully sent the conservatives into a spin. Part of his genius is he knows how to stage a stunt but to reduce Nas’ success down to provocative publicity would be to do him a huge disservice. ‘Call Me By Your Name’ is a syrupy, seductive pop song, and ‘Industry Baby’ is a triumphant, blaring statement that he’s here to stay.
The album, like the singles, stays largely clear of gimmicks. There are very few lines on here designed to stir the haters. Rather, it’s a record for the fans and for himself. It tracks his journey from nothing to superstar, balancing feelings of loneliness and self-doubt with braggadocious confidence and unrelenting self-expression.
The first half of the record instantly blends both. He comes through with rockstar confidence on ‘What I Want’, howling “I want someone to love me,” and creating the best pop moment of his career. ‘Dead Right Now’ also puffs its chest over grandiose horns as Nas declares, “I’ll treat you like you’re dead right now.” He recounts his upbringing while also sticking a middle finger to the doubters and clout chasers.
To his credit, he’s best when he’s shining by himself. Nas has showcased such a dynamic personality that he really doesn’t need features to lift the album. Nas and Doja Cat, two of the internet’s best pop trolls, together on ‘Scoop’ should’ve been explosive but neither give particularly memorable performances. Elton John playing piano on ‘One Of Me’ is largely unrecognisable while Miley Cyrus on the closer ‘Am I Dreaming’ is sweet but unnecessary. Megan Thee Stallion is the only one that adds a punchiness to the album, rolling through on ‘Dolla Sign Slime’ with magnetic energy. “I should have my own category in porn,” she raps in one of the few head-turning lines.
By the album’s close, after a long run of moody mid-tempos, you’re left craving more of those moments. The flair that he delivered during the album rollout. The pregnancy announcement and spectacular Met Gala reveal provided jaw-dropping entertainment that just doesn’t carry across into some of the music. At times, he feels so concerned with proving himself as a legitimate artist that it sucks the life out of him. On ‘One Of Me’ he sings, “You a meme, you a joke, been a gimmick from the go,” over a cloudy instrumental while the sprawling, Queen-esque instrumental of ‘Life After Salem’ is depleted by a morose, defeated vocal performance.
That’s not to say Nas has to be upbeat and playful all the time. ‘Tales of Dominica’, sees him dip his toes back into country for an emotive cut that is buoyant and inspired as he sings, “Hope my little bit of hope don’t fade away.” ‘Lost In The Citadel’ is the album’s darkest song, borrowing elements of emo-rock but it also has serious teeth.
He’s at his peak when he’s lucid and untamed whether that means he’s boasting or crying. Nas’ public persona is unapologetic and Montero is best when it doesn’t sand down the edges. He’s done what he’s done by making things uncomfortable for some and successfully imploding people’s views of queer representation in the industry. He’s lap-danced with the devil, pole-danced on ‘SNL’ and pashed a guy at the BET Awards. People will label it a stunt but for Nas, he’s simply brave enough to express his sexuality in an industry that has long put an explicit sign over queer expression.
Nas isn’t a niche artist, he’s mainstream and he’s got there without compromising. That impact may far outweigh some of the songs on here but Montero also gives no signs that Nas is a fleeting sensation.
“Never forget me and everything I’ve done,” he sings on the emotive closer ‘Am I Dreaming’. In a short time, he’s already guaranteed that he doesn’t have to worry about that.
‘Montero’ is out now.