After Lil Nas X put out “Old Town Road,”
Was a star at 19 years old.
Goin’ viral first, then he whupped the world,
Toppin’ charts for three months or mo’.
But is he a one-hit wonder?
Yeah, is he a one-hit wonder?
That’s what they wonder.
Guess we all wonder …
Sorry, y’all, but this is my brain on “Old Town Road.” It’s a song so infectious and weirdly specific to 2019 that it’s bound to soundtrack any movie or TV reference to this year for decades to come, and sometimes even critics’ typing fingertips can’t help but chant along. Suburban Atlanta college dropout Montero Lamar Hill had been taking a shot at music for barely a few months last year before he bought a beat online (one based on an obscure Nine Inch Nails instrumental) and posted his “country trap” version of it to SoundCloud. It became a meme on hot-with-teens platform TikTok, and the madness built from there. Its run got a motivational jab from Nashville’s spurs in March, when Billboard pulled it from the country charts, calling it insufficiently country to qualify. This was the blunder that launched a thousand tweets and think pieces—some hitching up to the bandwagon (by people with no previous apparent concern about country music of any kind) but many of them valuable discussion-sparkers about the long history of artificial segregation of American music by both corporate gatekeepers and audience prejudices. In time for the artist’s 20th birthday, the controversy also helped “Old Town Road” to hit No. 1 on Billboard’s own Hot 100, a title it’s held for 11 weeks and counting.
Lil Nas X floated through it all as if touched by some cowboy angel. His charm on social media and in interviews was outmatched only by his savvy strategic moves. First he convinced Billy Ray Cyrus (Miley’s dad and a lovably clownish Nashville staple from his “Achy Breaky Heart” days) to jump on a remix. “I think Lil Nas is a hero who came along when the world needed a hero,” Cyrus senior raved to Rolling Stone. “At a time when we’re so divided, he’s a light in the universe.” Then, a few weeks later, Columbia (to which Lil Nas X is now signed) released a mini-movie video for said remix, one that not only featured more celebrities such as comic Chris Rock and cred-to-burn rapper Vince Staples but presented a kind of minor meditation on racial social geography. Looked at closely, it seemed to ask not only who owns country music but who owns “the country,” rural America itself, through waves of development, displacement, reclamation, and gentrification. Then again, you could simply enjoy the twang of the digital banjo and the heehaw comedy—in the spirit of, say, a whole building of ecstatic schoolchildren, like the ones Lil Nas X whipped up into semi-spontaneous hysteria last month.
(Quick pause for a sincere question: Has anyone come up with a workable nickname, since clearly one can’t call him Lil, X, nor, god forbid, Nas? To hell with it, I’m going with initials.)
LNX also knew better than to milk the song alone for too long, which could make him seem the exact novelty act that both rap naysayers and Billboard’s country-chart sheriffs thought he was. So he announced he’d have an EP coming in June, releasing snippets online that hinted strongly it wouldn’t be another batch of country-trap exercises. Could his winning streak just keep him vaulting over hurdles once fans had to contend with songs that weren’t “Old Town Road”?
That EP, called just 7 for the number of its tracks, came galloping round the bend last night. And, well, I can’t quite whoop along with the Los Angeles Times’ Mikael Wood’s claim that the collection proves LNX “A Star, Period.” But I also want to cock a six-gun at the Pitchfork review that says it shows he’s just a talented meme machine who might not even “actually” like music. (What would we do without critics’ psychic abilities?)
As promised, the EP demonstrates LNX has got a few more bullets in the cylinder by switching up genres pretty much every track. But that amount of stylistic partner-trading makes its scant 18 minutes—including both the Cyrus remix and the original of “OTR” as bookends—feel rather more extended. Fortunately, LNX’s still-breezy and appealing presence carries it. Thus it achieves what a quick EP after a monster hit must: It keeps hope alive (and his name on our lips) while buying time to work on a more realized album.
Regrettably, a late-adolescent songwriter in the first flush of fame is unlikely to have much to rap and sing about other than said flush. LNX does at least ring some creative variations on the theme. “Panini” is directed at a former fan who’s turned coat due to his success—it’s not named for the sandwich, by the way, but for a cuddly animated creature who crushed on another character on a Cartoon Network show from LNX’s not-so-distant childhood. (And the fact that it’s got a Kurt Cobain writing credit on it is because someone pointed out its melodic echoes of “In Bloom,” while LNX says he had never heard Nevermind—though he knew the T-shirts.)
“Kick It” is about a weed-dealer friend upset that LNX can’t hang out anymore and predicting he’ll “fall off” in “oh, two months, give or take.” Then there’s “Bring U Down,” which is about prying media digging into celebrity secrets—in LNX’s case, likely the New York Magazine story reporting that he used to have a different Twitter identity as a Nicki Minaj stan. (Why this is such a shameful secret I don’t particularly get, but he’d know better.) And finally there’s “C7osure (You Like),” maybe the EP’s best song that isn’t “Old Town Road,” thanks to the muted piano groove of a beat by Boi-1da and Allen Ritter, over which LNX declares that he’s not going to let any of these haters get him down: “Let my future take ahold/ This is what I gotta do, can’t be regrettin’ when I’m old.” On that one, he sweeps me up in the sentiment.
The EP could use one meatier track, similar to “Carry On” from last year’s very raw, homemade debut EP Nasarati, which addresses LNX’s early abandonment by his mother and its later fallout. But mostly the lyrics won’t get in listeners’ ways here, if they even can make them out amid the hyperactive sampling of different styles and up-for-anything energy. Among the things the young artist is up for are a couple of hybrid 1990s alt-rock exercises. “F9mily (You & Me)” is a collaboration with Blink-182 drummer (and hip-hop enthusiast) Travis Barker. The aforementioned “Bring U Down” is backed not only by promiscuous producer Ryan Tedder but apparently most of his bandmates from OneRepublic—who clearly have heard Nevermind, given the track’s construction around a restrained bass lick that builds to more clattery bits. These tracks are enjoyably oddball enough that I can’t judge them harshly or, at this point, really, at all. It’s part of the ride. But if LNX heads any further down this path, maybe he could call upon some more age-appropriate rockers?
I haven’t yet addressed the bison in the room: Is there any more of a follow-up to “Old Town Road”? It would be understandable to avoid such pandering. But given the debate that took place, it might also seem like a surrender to genre purists and reactionaries. So I’m glad LNX goes back to the campfire with “Rodeo,” enticingly produced with a spaghetti Western twist by duo Take a Daytrip, who also helm “Panini.” It boasts a nimble feature by Cardi B, the ideal figure to stave off the specter of one-hit-wonderdom in hip-hop today. (It’s difficult even to recall now how many people assumed that she’d meet that fate after “Bodak Yellow.”) This might be the least raunchy Cardi verse ever committed to tape, and indeed the whole EP is relatively wholesome—gotta keep those schoolkids in mind, I guess, and I don’t miss the swears at all.
What I do miss, a little, is YoungKio—the Netherlands-born maker of the original “OTR” beat. Not that he hasn’t benefited plenty by it, but given the hodgepodge of producers here (again, Travis from Blink-182!), it would have fit the mood of the Lil Nas X feel-good story for Kio to get another go-round on the bull. Whether or not LNX keeps the twang in his arsenal much longer, there’s one country maxim any recently signed young artist, at risk of being “managed” and “advised” to the end of their rope, might do well to recall: Dance with the one what brung ya.