The Learning Curve Of Lil Nas X

Sep 17, 2021
Originally published on September 19, 2021 4:51 pm

"I guess I'm a lot more confident... "

When Lil Nas X first dropped "Old Town Road" at the end of 2018, the country-rap banger broke the internet. In the process of wrangling viral fame, Lil Nas X's trajectory sparked debate over the racial boundaries of genre. While some might have thought this was just a teenager's 15 minutes of fame, three years and two Grammys later, Lil Nas X is rewriting the rules of unlikely stardom again.

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Not only has Lil Nas X broken Billboard records, he's breaking barriers. The rap-pop star is openly gay and, through his lyrics, music videos like "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" and comedic clapbacks to critics, he's using his platform to generate new conversations about representations of Black queerness and dismantling homophobia in hip-hop. It's a position the 22-year-old doesn't take lightly, but he's not trying to let his entire artistic narrative be defined by it, either.

"My intention was always to be as entertaining as possible," he says. "I'm not like trying to comfort anyone, or their children."

On Sept. 17, Lil Nas X dropped his debut studio album, Montero, a project that has been two very eventful years in the making. The artist joined NPR's Sidney Madden to discuss the road to this release and how his approach to music has changed over the years.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. To hear the broadcast version of this story, use the audio player above.


Sidney Madden, NPR Music: What's one song on the album that we can hear that went through a change?

Lil Nas X: I feel like all of them – but especially, "Lost in the Citadel." I went back and rewrote that one a million times, because the situation kept changing. [That song] is about this relationship that I kept going back to and expecting a different outcome, when it was going to be the same situation over and over again. It's called [that] because [that situation] is like a place you can't get out of... a maze.

You have so much confidence – but it's clear that you analyze your own output and creative process a lot.

As soon as I moved into my new house I spent the entire day writing – I'm still getting used to writing personal stuff in songs, and being open to people about things happening in my private life. But I really want to be honest with fans, remind people that I'm a human being and we all have the same situations in different forms.

What allowed you to be more personal?

I thought about the people I look up to the most – Kanye, or Drake, or Nicki – what really connects is when they're saying the things that are happening internally. They're letting you get a peek into their life, [which] humanizes them. People a lot of the time see celebrities or anyone famous as just... a being existing.

... not a real person. Do you ever feel like you've been put into a box so far in your career?

Yeah and I feel like it's going to happen over and over and over again. We unintentionally say people are exactly our first thoughts of them – whatever I'm saying right now I may not agree with in a year, you know? Or things I'm doing right now, I may say 'Ah, I should've done that differently.' We change as people, over and over and over again.

Has there ever been internal pushback on what you want to do and how you express yourself?

Yeah, absolutely. A lot of times if I'm saying something in a song, like the second verse in "Call Me" or even the first verse, or just talking about guys in music. Even you know, going to these pole dance classes, or going to the BET Awards and performing all, you know, sensually. It's a lot of pushback internally – but that's actually my guide to do exactly what I'm doing. A lot of times, when you're afraid to do something, that's when you should really do it.

Hip-hop has historically been very homophobic, in some respects. How has that affected your relationship with the genre?

I wouldn't be here without hip-hop. I understand how things have been, and I let go of it. There's a long build of homophobia, not even just in hip-hop but in the world. It's something that has been molded for a very long time, and I understand that it takes a lot for people to unlearn. I've thought that way in one point in time – it's the reason that there's still a lot of people who are extremely racist. It's gonna take some time to calm it down, I guess...

Can you give me an example of when you did that, and that you had to unlearn?

When people would say 'Oh my God I love you, you're not like the other gay people.' I thought that was like, a compliment. But in reality those people are just against feminine men, and the only reason they hate that is because they've been taught over time 'This is now how this specific person or thing is supposed to be.'

At the end of the album, you're talking about leaving a legacy – I'm trying to have you forecast what that legacy is going to mean, when the fan hearing who's hearing it starts their own music career. What boundaries are they going to break, and what boundaries won't they have to worry about?

I feel like they won't have to worry about being a queer person in the industry. Or being stifled by whatever somebody has to say about you on the internet. I feel like that's a big difference between artists nowadays and 10 years ago – we're open to hate from millions of people around the world. It's harder to block out. But I feel like that will be easier for them.

Maybe we'll have like a mainstream trans artists or something... just something different. Something new.

I love that. And then they're going to be the first artist to headline on Mars, and they could be a trans artist and [that aspect] would not even be part of the narrative.

Let's hope I'm the first artist to headline on Mars.


Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When Lil Nas X dropped "Old Town Road" in 2018, he pretty much broke the internet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD TOWN ROAD")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Yeah, I'm going to take my horse to the old town road. I'm going to...

KELLY: Some people might have thought this was a young person's 15 minutes of fame. Two years and two Grammys later, Lil Nas X is saying he's here to stay.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INDUSTRY BABY")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Funny how you said it was the end. Then I went did it again.

KELLY: His new album "Montero" is out now, so NPR Music reporter Sidney Madden spoke with him about it this week.

SIDNEY MADDEN, BYLINE: Not only has Lil Nas X broken Billboard records - he's breaking barriers. Lil Nas X is openly gay, and through his music, his videos and comedic clapbacks (ph) to critics, he's using his platform to generate new conversations about what it means to be Black and queer in the music industry. It's a position the 22-year-old does not take lightly, but he's not trying to limit his own artistic narrative either.

LIL NAS X: My intention is always to be as entertaining as possible. I'm not trying to comfort anyone. You know, it's my music career, and I feel like if people get upset at it, that's even better because if nobody's upset at what you're doing, then it's probably not worth it.

MADDEN: His debut album has been two very eventful years in the making, so I began by asking the pop-rap star how his approach to music has changed in that time.

LIL NAS X: I guess I'm a lot more confident. And I actually go back in, and I'll rewrite verses now or, you know, change the beat pattern or whatnot when at first, you know, once I was in the studio on that day, the song was finished. And I wasn't going back to it, you know?

MADDEN: So you've gone back to the drawing board a lot. What's one song on the album that we can hear that metamorphosis?

LIL NAS X: I feel like all of them but especially "Lost In The Citadel." I went back and wrote that, like, a million times, I guess because the situation kept changing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST IN THE CITADEL")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Tell me, are you feeling down? Are you happy? Do your dreams still seem inbound? Tell me.

LIL NAS X: "Lost In The Citadel" is about this relationship that I kept going back to and, like, expecting, like, a different outcome when it was going to be the same situation over and over again. And it's called "Lost In The Citadel" because it's like you're in this place that you can't really get out of. You know, it's like a maze.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST IN THE CITADEL")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) I need time to realize that I can't be yours. I need time to give up just like before. I love it how you know I'll only come right back for more.

MADDEN: You have so much exuberant confidence, but it's clear that you analyze your own output and your own creative process a lot. And I really like - I like the song "Dead Right Now."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAD RIGHT NOW")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Even though I'm right here by the phone, dawg (ph), you know you never used to call. Keep it that way now. I'll treat you like you dead right now.

Actually, for "Dead Right Now," as soon as I moved into my new house, I spent the entire day just kind of writing. And it was kind of hard because I'm still getting used to, like, writing personal stuff in songs and being open to people about my private life. But, you know, I really just want to be honest with fans, remind people that I am a human being and that we all have the same situations in different forms, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAD RIGHT NOW")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) 2018, I was in my sister's house the whole summer. Songs wasn't doing numbers. Whole life was going under. Left school, then my dad and I had a face-to-face in Atlanta. He said...

MADDEN: And what allowed you to be more personal?

LIL NAS X: I thought about the people who I look up to the most, like, say, Kanye or Drake or Nicki. What really connects is when they're saying the things that are happening internally. So they're letting you, like, get a peek into their life and just humanizing more because people a lot of times see celebrities or anybody famous as just a being existing.

MADDEN: Not a real person.

LIL NAS X: Yeah.

MADDEN: Do you ever feel like you've been put in a box so far in your career?

LIL NAS X: Yeah, and I feel like it's going to happen over and over and over again. We unintentionally say people are exactly our first thoughts of them. Whatever I'm saying right now I may not agree with in a year from now, you know? Or things I'm doing right now, I may say, oh, maybe I should have did that differently because, you know, we change as people over and over and over again.

MADDEN: Has there ever been internal pushback on what you want to do and how you express yourself?

LIL NAS X: Yeah, absolutely. If I'm saying something in a song like the second verse in "Call Me" or even the first verse or even talking about guys in music...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONTERO (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME)")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) I caught it bad yesterday. You hit me with a call to your place. Ain't been out in a while anyway, was hoping I could catch you throwing smiles in my face.

Even, you know, going to these pole-dancing classes or going to the BET awards and performing all, you know, sensually.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONTERO (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME)")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Champagne and drinking with your friends. You live in the dark, boy. I cannot pretend.

It's a lot of pushback internally, but I know a lot of times, that's actually my guide to do exactly what I'm doing - you know? - because a lot of times, when you're afraid to do something, that's when you should really do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MONTERO (CALL ME BY YOUR NAME)")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Call me when you want. Call me when you need. Call me in the morning. I'll be on the way.

MADDEN: And hip-hop's historically been, like, very homophobic in some respects. How has that affected your relationship with the genre?

LIL NAS X: I wouldn't be here without hip-hop. I understand how things have been, and I let go of it, you know? Like, there's a long build of homophobia not even just in hip-hop but, like, in the world. It's, like, something that has been molded for a very long time, and I understand it takes a lot for people to unlearn, you know? I feel like I've thought that way at one point in time, you know? I mean, that's the reason why there are still a lot of people that are extremely racist in the world because it was a thing that was cultivated, like, over time. So it's going to take some time to, you know, calm it down, I guess.

MADDEN: Can you give me an example when you did that and you had to unlearn that?

LIL NAS X: Yeah. When people would say, like, I love you because you're not like the other gay people and stuff, I thought that was, like, a compliment. But in reality, those people are just against feminine men, you know? And the only reason they actually hate that because they've been taught over time, like, this is not how this specific person or thing is supposed to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AM I DREAMING")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) As I'm sinking...

MADDEN: As you see at the end of the album, you're contemplating your own legacy. You're talking about leaving a legacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AM I DREAMING")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Oh, never forget me and everything I've done.

MADDEN: I'm trying to have you forecast what that legacy is going to mean five, 10 years from now when the fan who's hearing it right now starts their own music career. What boundaries are they going to break? And what boundaries are they not going to have to think about because you already broke them?

LIL NAS X: I feel like they won't have to worry about, you know, being maybe a queer person in the industry or being stifled by whatever somebody has to say about you on the internet because I feel like that's also a big difference between artists nowadays and artists, like, 10 years ago or so. It's like we're open to hate from millions of people around the world, and it's possibly, you know, harder to block out. I feel like that'll be easier for them in future, you know? I don't know. I feel like maybe we'll have, like, a mainstream trans artist.

MADDEN: And then they're going to be the first artist to headline on Mars, and they're going to be a trans artist. And it's not even going to be part of the narrative (laughter).

LIL NAS X: Let's hope I'm the first artist to headline on Mars.

MADDEN: OK. Speak it into the universe literally.

LIL NAS X: Let's do it.

MADDEN: Lil Nas X, thank you so much.

LIL NAS X: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AM I DREAMING")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) And everything I've done.

KELLY: That was NPR music reporter Sidney Madden talking to Lil Nas X. His debut album "Montero" is out now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AM I DREAMING")

LIL NAS X: (Singing) Like I'm your favorite song. I'm fading, replaying... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.