Photo Credit: Charlotte Rutherford
(Content Warning: this review – through exploration of the song “Sun Goes Down” – and briefly discusses themes of suicide.)
After the record-breaking success of “Old Town Road”, Lil Nas X seemed destined to be a one-hit-wonder; the hip hop-country crossover felt unmistakably like a fluke; a gimmick. With each follow-up single (first “Panini”, then Cardi B collab “Rodeo”, then unconventional Christmas single “Holiday”) charting lower than the last, it seemed all but certain that Nas’s star had firmly faded.
Counting out Nas however, as I and so many others had done, was to ignore the 22-year-old’s marketing genius; his unrivaled ability to blow up on social media and – for good or bad – get people talking about him. “Old Town Road”, it turned out, wasn’t a fluke but just the first glimpse of Nas’s superstar potential.
“Montero”, the title track and lead single for Nas’s debut LP, needs no introduction at this point; the sexually charged track which was accompanied by a quite literally devilish music video was simultaneously hailed as a boundary-breaking anthem of self-acceptance by some while stirring up a moral panic for countless conservative commentators and politicians. The landmark cultural impact of the music video – and the legal troubles that followed the resulting ‘Satan shoes’ – left the song itself as something of an afterthought. At just over 2 minutes in length, and falling prey to poor mixing, the song feels like far less of a fully realized statement than the video that accompanied it.
“Industry Baby” – the album’s final pre-release single – on the other hand, is just as good as the similarly provocative music video that followed. With the help of Kanye West and iconic hip-hop duo Take a Daytrip, the song stands as a shining pinnacle of pop-rap at its best; with an earworm chorus, an addictive horns addition and one of the strongest verses featured artist Jack Harlow has offered to date.
The rest of Montero fleets between these alternating states of excellence and muddling. “Lost In The Citadel” is a swing and a miss at pop-punk revivalism, while Megan Thee Stallion collab “Dolla Sign Slime” reveals the gulf of skill between the sure-footed ‘Savage’ rapper and the rap-newcomer.
Alternately, “Sun Goes Down” offers a fantastic glimpse into Nas’s infinite bleeding heart; a soul-stirring ballad addressing a suicidal younger self struggling with his sexuality (“Don’t wanna lie, I don’t want a life // Send me a gun and I’ll see the sun”). “That’s What I Want”, meanwhile bottles longing like a storm cloud in a glass, only to release it in its most visceral and unfiltered form. Like the most influential stars of the 21st Century (Lady Gaga, Lana Del Rey among them), Nas has made a name for himself by blurring the line between the persona and the person until the two become inseparable – and the distinction becomes a mere afterthought. Despite this, much of Montero‘s strongest moments are also its most sincere; there’s an unmistakable quiet power to his confessions of being “way too lonely” and “missing out.”
Montero, ultimately, never fully decides exactly what it wants to be; Nas flicks through different sounds and themes as if they were catalog pages – making the experience of listening to this album front-to-back a little confounding. Yet, there’s no denying that this project showcases a quantum leap of artistry from 2019’s slapdash EP 7. For any faults Montero may have, there’s no shaking the feeling that it will come to be looked back on as a landmark release; one that was hugely affirming for many of its LGBTQ listeners, and that also just happened to be hugely enjoyable.