The song itself is the worst thing about the “Old Town Road” story. In it, a 19-year-old from Atlanta, best-known for running a Nicki Minaj-themed Twitter account, makes a canny country-rap fusion. He’s taken off the country charts just as he starts to climb them. Suddenly, more attention than ever is brought to his goofy two-minute ditty, and his friends and compadres conspire to get him back on the charts — all the way to number one. He tweets a photo with Billy Ray Cyrus; a day later, their remix hits the charts.
“Old Town Road” is one of the biggest and most inexplicable singles ever. It’s also, let’s face it, not a great song. It’s a juxtaposition of clichés from the two traditions it tries to marry, tongue planted firmly in cheek. His critics who objected to his Wrangler deal had a point. He is making fun of country music. What they fail to realize is he’s making fun of rap too.
The song lives and dies with its fusion, and on his debut EP 7 the man born Montero Hill presents himself as a monkey wrench in the machine that spits out neat genre labels and assigns them to artists. His lyrics aren’t half as interesting as the scenery he drops them in, but he’s the embodiment of rap’s most genre-agnostic moment ever, where trap is pop, where the promise of rap-rock was fulfilled by rappers rather than rockers, where the “yeehaw agenda” brings together marginalized groups alienated by the white-masculine ideal of the Old West.
The songs are defined less by what they’re about than what they are. “F9mily (You & Me)” and “Bring U Down” are pop-punk songs. “Rodeo” is another country-rap hit in the making, with an uncharacteristically laid-back Cardi B (not Nicki; what gives, @NasMaraj?) bragging about watching Oprah Winfrey’s Oxygen channel. “C7osure (If You Like)” is dance-pop, assisted by Drake whisperer Boi-1da]. “Panini” might embody the current post-canon rap moment better than any other song: not only does it sample Nirvana’s “In Bloom”, Hill was actually inspired to listen to Nevermind for the first time after hearing the beat.
Not one of these songs are good, certainly not because of anything Hill is doing. His best asset as a rapper is his comically low voice, which he likes to juxtapose with high-pitched warbling through acres of reverb (a Fleet Foxes pastiche is inevitable once early-Obama indie rock nostalgia really gets underway). He also has a thing for cute, impudent “huh!” sounds, like after he sings “ridin’ on a horse” on “Old Town Road” or on the chorus of “C7osure”.
His voice isn’t far removed from that of Lil Yachty, another artist easier to root for than to listen to. Lil Yachty presented himself as a one-man crusade against rap orthodoxy before playing against his strengths by actually rapping. He shares with Lil Nas X a love of simple, neotenous imagery that seems kid-friendly until you realize what he’s saying. “Old Town Road” is very popular with elementary school-age kids who, after learning what Xanax is a few months ago from Billie Eilish, will now enthusiastically Google the word “lean”.
7 is the work of a canny prankster, but I wouldn’t call it “promising”. Lil Nas X is not ushering in a new era of rap but epitomizing the one we have. He’s late, even; chart rap is in a bit of a lull, with SoundCloud rap on its way out and something substantial yet to step into its shoes. “Old Town Road” is unapologetically a meme, and so are the other songs here. Hill wrote often on Twitter about his desire to “milk” “Old Town Road” for as long as he could prior to dropping new material, and 7 feels a little like an endgame rather than a beginning, an assertion that Lil Nas X is here to stay rather than simply a one-hit wonder. But being “here to stay” seems beside the point, and with “Old Town Road” one of the biggest hits in history, he could theoretically retire now and not have to do jack shit again in his life.
I wouldn’t complain so long as he still kept up his Twitter account. He’s a riot on there.