REVIEW: Lil Nas X comes to terms with success and identity on ‘MONTERO’
Lil Nas X shows incredible versatility and sensitivity on his debut album
Editor’s note: This article contains mention of suicide.
On his impressive debut album “MONTERO,” the 22-year-old singer and rapper Lil Nas X proves that there is a lot more to him than a few viral stunts, showing both his artistic versatility and his emotional vulnerability. The album’s 15 tracks provide meaningful reflections on his tumultuous life and mental state and the impact of his newfound success in the industry.
In 2019, the previously unknown artist became a household name almost overnight with his breakthrough country-rap crossover “Old Town Road,” which went on to spend a record-breaking 19 weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Lil Nas X garnered signficiant attention and criticism after coming out as gay in a Tweet later that year. Since then, he has had no problem playing provocateur with his adversaries and trolls, unashamedly embracing his identity and sexuality in his public image and music. For instance, the lead single for this album “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” was paired with the release of $1,018 “Satan Shoes'' containing real human blood, and the video for “INDUSTRY BABY,” shows a group of men dancing nude in a prison shower. While these moves sparked outrage among some, they only heightened Lil Nas X’s popularity among others.
At times, “MONTERO” is triumphant and rowdy, as Lil Nas X basks in his own success. An instant highlight is “INDUSTRY BABY,” with Jack Harlow. The two rap over a noisy, in-your-face beat with brassy horns and a thumping bass line, rubbing their fame in the face of their doubters and naysayers. The punchy horns return on “DOLLA SIGN SLIME,” and Lil Nas X continues his victory lap with braggadocious lines like “Now I’m with the hits like I’m Babe Ruth.” However, Megan Thee Stallion takes the spotlight on this track, with effortlessly changing flows and biting lyrics.
This album truly shines when Lil Nas X opens up about his personal life and sexuality. The title track, “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” references the novel/film “Call Me By Your Name,” and Lil Nas X raps about seducing another man, coyly telling him “If Eve ain’t in your garden, you know that you can/Call me when you want.” The Spanish guitar licks and driving bass give the whole song a primal energy that perfectly sets the mood for Lil Nas X’s tales of youthful escapades. “THATS WHAT I WANT” is an unabashed, top-40 style pop hit with its acoustic guitar chords, infectious chorus and lyrics about wanting to find love and make a genuine connection. It is cliche and sappy, yes, but undeniably fun and catchy.
Success is not a clean slate. Lil Nas X knows that better than anyone as an individual whose sexuality became the subject of national media attention and scrutiny. “MONTERO” deals with this conflict: having everything he ever wanted and still having to overcome the insecurities and feelings that were amplified by his meteoric rise. The B-side of this album is filled with beautiful ballads that detail his struggles with depression, like on “VOID,” where Lil Nas X easily gives the best and most gut-wrenching vocal performance of his career, singing heartbreaking lyrics about loneliness and dealing with personal demons. “LIFE AFTER SALEM” is the album’s most surprising instrumental moment, shifting gears into a rock ballad with eerie distorted guitars and an explosive chorus where Lil Nas X vents about a one-sided, destructive relationship. Meanwhile, “TALES OF DOMINICA '' focuses on his life before fame and surviving in a “broken home” over soft guitar arpeggios.
He seems to reach an acceptance of himself and his newfound fame on the emotional heart of “MONTERO”: “SUN GOES DOWN.” Scored by an ethereal instrumental and floating background vocals, Lil Nas X sings about how denying his own identity and sexuality almost drove him to suicide. He reflects on these feelings, telling his past self, “there's much more to life than dying/over your past mistakes/and people who threw dirt on your name.”
Herein lies the true power of an album like “MONTERO”: aside from being a musical tour de force, it gives a voice to a community of queer youths who are often not represented openly in the hip hop and music industries. On the closing track, “AM I DREAMING” Lil Nas X implores his listeners to “Never forget me/And everything I’ve done.” It represents the fear of many LGBTQ+ individuals that their stories will be swallowed by a society rigged against them.
Yet “MONTERO'' works to normalize and bring to light the struggles and lives of those individuals in a way that not many artists have done on this scale before. This is both courageous and laudable, and will hopefully pave the way for other artists to be able to openly be themselves in their work. But in the meantime, it is safe to say that the musical and emotional power of “MONTERO” will ensure that the world will not forget about Lil Nas X anytime soon.