Some Said Lil Nas X Was a One-Hit Wonder. They Were Wrong.

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dodai stewart

Hi, Jasmine.

jazmine hughes

Hello, Dodai Stewart.

dodai stewart

Which are you?

jazmine hughes

So happy to be talking to you today, girl. How are you today?

dodai stewart

Yes, it’s going well. I really want to talk to you about this amazing profile of Lil Nas X that you wrote.

jazmine Hughes

Dodai! I’ve stopped dreaming about Lil N X and you’re trying now to bring him back in my life. Thank you.

[music]
dodai stewart

Dodai Steward is a reporter for The New York Times. Lil Nas X – even if he wasn’t in your nightmares, he has definitely been everywhere.

archived recording (lil nas x)

(Singing) Yes, I’m going with my horse to the old city road. I’m going to ride —

dodai stewart

He returned with not one, but two songs to his 2019 smash “Old Town Road”

archived recording (lil nas x)

(Singing) Call me when and where you want. Call me at any time. Call me in the early morning. I’ll be right there.

dodai stewart

Two songs were the soundtrack of summer.

archived recording (lil nas x)

(SINGING). Long ago, I was on the road and I knew what I had to do.

dodai stewart

Jazmine, Jazmine Hughes’ colleague, is a Magazine writer. She also spent time with Lil Nas X before these songs were released. He’s trying something completely new, she says.

jazmine Hughes

We’ve seen queer performers before. But what Nas is doing now is to place his sexuality at the center of his popstar identity in the same way that straight people do everyday without worrying about it.

dodai stewart

She walked me through his entire life, from his childhood in Atlanta to his teen years on Twitter, to where we are today. Okay, we are here because Lil Nas X got interviewed.

jazmine Hughes

Montero lamar hill is his name. He could have been a UPN star in the 1990s.

dodai stewart

See, I was going to say he sounds like he’s the Black guy on “Young and the Restless.”

jazmine hughes

[LAUGHS] Right, but there’s a vibe. You’ll feel like things are about get better when you hear Montero Lamar Hills.

dodai stewart

I’m like: “Oh, that is the Black guy in Young and the Restless.”

jazmine hughes

— sexy. Oh-ow! [LAUGHS]

dodai stewart

It’s a good choice. It’s a really good name.

jazmine Hughes

His mother really wanted a Mitsubishi Montero. The Mitsubishi Montero was out of reach so her daughter named her son after it.

dodai stewart

Okay, tell me some more. Did he grow up in this area?

jazmine hughes

He grew up in Bankhead outside of Atlanta. He spent his childhood shuffleboarding back and forth among his parents. His grandmother and his mother were residents of Bankhead Courts in Atlanta, a poor housing development. He stayed there through middle school. He had four brothers and sisters there. And they really didn’t have any money.

Unfortunately, their mother began to exhibit signs of addiction. Their grandmother was truly the life-saver. They had each other and she was their steady hand. It sounds like they had a great childhood. I spoke to Nas and Lamarco about it.

dodai stewart

You mean like what? What would they do then?

jazmine Hughes

He and his brother would find old half-filled paint cans and try to sell them and make a couple of bucks. They would create their own shows and choreograph them for their friends.

dodai stewart

It is my favorite.

jazmine hughes

Nas was in middleschool, and his parents were having an extended custody fight. Nas eventually moved in with his dad to a suburb near Atlanta. This was probably the worst thing that could have happened to him. He didn’t want the move. He wanted to stay with his siblings, and he wanted to stay with his grandmother. He reluctantly moves in with his dad.

Nas’s father is a gospel singer and is very active in his church. Nas started attending church as a major part of his life. He can be very insolent, sullen, and a classic teenage shite. And he’s starting to realize that he’s gay. He’s starting to realize that his crushes on boys and thoughts are becoming an identity. And because he was born in 1999, a number that makes even me feel old, he spent a lot of time on the internet.

So he told me that there were two major channels in his adolescence that helped him figure out who he was. One was this Nintendo camcorder thingamabob, which he won at an school contest. He would record and attempt to create content the first time. He then began to dabble in the creation of internet content. In essence, he would copy jokes and photos from other people and refashion or repackage them to make them viral so he could gain attention and followers.

dodai stewart

And what was the second channel?

jazmine hughes

Nicki Minaj was the second channel.

[music – nicki minaj, “feeling myself”]
archived recording (nicki minaj)

(Singing) Yo B. They ready?

jazmine hughes

His life was changed forever when Nicki met him.

Archived recording (nicki minaj).

(Singing) I’m singing with some hood girls.

dodai stewart

He is a barbarian, right?

jazmine hughes

He is a barb.

dodai stewart

Can we just tell you what a barb looks like for people who don’t know it?

jazmine Hughes

Barbs — my friend described barbs, to me, as evil hackers who act for Nicki Minaj. Barbs love Nicki Minaj like pop stars do.

dodai stewart

It’s where Nas began to learn how to use internet to his own advantage. Because these fandoms dictate your mode of operation, your currency, the way you communicate, and how you communicate. It’s all memes backwards and forwards, tweeting, building on tweets, and other things that will be really crucial for your career.

jazmine Hughes

Yes. Nas, I think, is bilingual. He’s a native English speaker, but he also speaks the internet. He knew how to make an internet sensation from a young age. It is therefore understandable, I believe, that he was in a position to create the most popular song.

archived recording (lil nas x)

(SINGING). Take my horse to Old Town Road.

dodai stewart

OK, so that song was big: “Old Town Road.” This song is what launched him into our lives all around the world. He uses everything he has learned from his life online to do this. Let’s talk about how he got the song out there.

jazmine hughes

Nas had been working hard to build a career in music for the past few months. So he had put out maybe a dozen songs on his SoundCloud. He also noticed an emerging meme genre of vaguely-country related things, that had roots in the Black community. It started to be called the “yeehaw agenda” I believe. But —

dodai stewart

Yes, the yeehaw agenda.

jazmine Hughes

Cowboys were really in fashion. He had realized that he could link his music to the viral memes and tweets he was already creating. This would make people ask “hey, what is that song in there?” He purchased a YouTube beat for $30 and started writing a humorous yehaw agenda track. He was conscious that he wanted only lines that could stand alone, lines that were actually funny. He started promoting the track on SoundCloud, promoted it via Twitter and also began deluging everyone with cowboy memes. Then he made what I consider to be the most brilliant promotion move: he joined a Reddit group that helps people find earworms.

dodai stewart

Oh, yeah!

jazmine hughes

He posted, “Hey! What’s that song called? I’m going to ride my horse to Old Town Road,” so someone could answer him. Then he could possibly start a conversation about a song he wrote. He’s a marketing genius. He started to compile all these threads. The song finally made its way to TikTok.

Archived Record 1

(Singing) I will ride until I can no longer.

archived recording 2

(SINGING) I got my horses in the back.

jazmine hughes

Both you and I know, and I think that you know more than me, that when something is on TikTok it’s massive. It’s there. It’s big. It’s incredible.

Archived recording

(SINGING) You can whip a Porsche. I was there.

dodai stewart

That’s where I saw it first, on TikTok. I loved the song, it was catchy and I was a fan of all the different ways people used it to perform routines to show they were Black, wearing cowboy hats and boots with a country line dance. It seemed very —

It was like a song that could be used in many situations. Everyone had their own take.

Archived recording

(SINGING) Ride till I can’t no more. I got the horses on the back. Horse tack is attached. Hat is matte black, got the boots that’s black to match.

jazmine Hughes

I think that it popped off in part because of TikTok, but also because, one, it’s like the world’s easiest rap song to memorize.

dodai stewart

[LAUGHS]

Archived recording

(Singing) I’m going with my horse to Old Town Road.

jazmine hughes

Even children can be like (SINGING)

archived recording

(SINGING). I got the horses in my back. Horse tack is attached.

jazmine Hughes

It’s also a great beat. It’s an enjoyable song to dance along to. It was released in summer of ’97. One of my friends hosted a party and played Old Town Road every hour.

dodai stewart

What?

jazmine hughes

But it’s fun.

dodai stewart

It’s great fun.

jazmine hughes

It’s a fun, playful song.

Archived Record 1

(Singing). — to the Old Town Road. I’m going…

Archived recording 2

(SINGING) — ride till I can’t no more.

Archived recording 3

(Singing) I will ride my horse down the Old Town Road. I’m going to ride —

Archived recording 4

(SINGING) — ride till I can’t no more. You have the horses in the back.

dodai stewart

It is interesting that the song reached the country charts after it went viral on TikTok and other sites. This, we know, is very white. Then Billboard removed it from the country charts. This actually made it more famous because everyone was curious about the song that was removed from the country chart. It had this extra push of publicity by the fact that Billboard removed it from the country chart. They tried to claim it was because it wasn’t enough country. Then, on social media, many people said that it was because he’s Black.

jazmine hughes

There’s a lot of talk about Old Town Road being an authentic country tune, even though it’s a song about horses and Wrangler jeans as well as cowboy hats.

dodai stewart

This is a law. It is considered country if it has a horse inside.

jazmine Hughes

Yes.

dodai stewart

Then he added Billy Ray Cyrus’s remix.

jazmine hughes

God, what an amazing flex. Wow! It was not even calculated. As “Old Time Road” begins to get some traction, but still pretty early on in the process, Nas tweets like, guys, help me get Billy Ray Cyrus on this track. He was familiar with Billy Ray’s story because he had watched “Hannah Montana,” featuring Miley Cyrus. He felt like he had written the true country song and wanted to be a country legend. The Billboard Hot 100 controversy wasn’t even happening yet. He thought it would be fun for Billy Ray Cyrus to remix the song. His people called him Billy Ray Cyrus. Joe Coscarelli (shout out to Joe) did this Diary of a Song.

Archived recording (joe scarelli).

Billy Ray, tell Billy Ray when you first heard Old Town Road.

Archived recording (billyray cyrus).

I heard it on March 16th. As we were enjoying our morning cup of coffee, I heard the song. I stood up from my chair. I stood up, and it was a beautiful moment. That man is original.

jazmine hughes

I believe that it was the right thing for Nas to ask Billy Ray to step in and flex on his vocals. He also made a great song.

Archived recording (billyray cyrus).

(Singing) Yes, I’m going with my horse to Old Town Road. I’m going ride until I can no longer. I will take my horse to Old Town Road. I will ride until I can no longer.

archived recording (lil nas x)

(SINGING) I got the horses in the back.

jazmine hughes

The track is so popular that Nas gets Billy Ray Cyrus to sing it. It explodes even more. It does reach the top of country charts. It’s number one on Billboard Hot 100 and it stays there for 19 weeks. That is a record. In the middle of it all, he pops out.

dodai stewart

How was he able to do this?

jazmine hughes

On the last day Pride Month’s, he will be performing at Glastonbury Festival. I mean, he’s come out at this point to his family members and to his team, but not to the world. However, he claimed that he was just looking out at everyone and felt so overwhelmed by emotion that he pulled out his phone during the performance. He thought for 10 mins about the tweet he was writing, then he topped it off.

dodai stewart

Yeah, so I’ll just read the tweet. It states, “Some of you already know. Some of you’all don’t care. Some of y’all not going to F with me no more. I’d like to urge you all to listen to ‘Closure’ before the month ends. This track has many lyrics about being true. He ends his tweet with the rainbow, the smiley emoticon that has stars in the eyes, as well as the sparkle emoji.

jazmine Hughes

These are the gayest Emojis.

archived recording (lil nas x)

(SINGING) Yesterday, I got it wrong. You called me. It’s been a while since I was last out. I hoped you would smile at me. Romantic talkin’? You don’t even need to try.

dodai stewart

Okay, so now he is a big star. This has already been a big disruption in the country charts world. He appears. He then returns with this song, “Call Me By Your Name”, as well as this insanely fun video.

jazmine Hughes

I tried to describe it as Tipper’s worst nightmare. It is clear that we can see Nas’s time spent in church. It’s really quite like a Bible study. It literally starts in the Garden of Eden and then ends up moving to this Greek cathedral, in which Nas is judged for his sins. Finally, it ends with him being killed. He climbs up to heaven, but instead he takes a wrong turn and ends his life in hell.

I think that the most blasphemous thing, or what people might find blasphemous about it, is that he makes a lap dance to devil, which he kind of enjoys. Then, at the end, he sneaks behind devil and breaks his neck. He then removes his crown, puts the crown on his head, and takes over as leader of hell. So a standard Thursday.

archived recording (lil nas x)

(SINGING) I wanna sell what you’re buyin’. I want to feel the Hawaiian heat on your body. I want to fly and feel that jet lag. You can shoot me a shot while I ride.

jazmine Hughes

It looked like he was asking the question in this video: OK, if it’s telling you that I’m going straight to hell, then what’s going on when I get there. I believe he was able to tell the rest.

dodai stewart

This video really brings together all aspects of his life. He is sharing his sexuality. He’s exploring the relationship he has with his faith. I mean, what do you make of all this?

jazmine Hughes

It would be very difficult to believe that someone could become angry if they told you for your whole life that your selfhood was perverse.

And I think that in Nas’s work, we talk a lot about how over-the-top things are and how clever they are, but there’s really this undercurrent of anger that I find really interesting, because it really is a send-up of this promise of eternal damnation that he has endured for a really long time. And I say in the story that just being sentenced for hell does not mean you are condemned to suffering. And I think that is what we are seeing in this video.

dodai stewart

He is using his anger. He’s also using his sexuality. Then, he turns it up a bit and releases a new clip. It’s almost as if everything he did so far had led to this “Industry Baby.”

[music – lil nas x, “industry baby”]
archived recording (lil nas x)

(SINGING!) Baby back.

dodai stewart

We can also talk about visuals.

jazmine hughes

It’s hard to know where to start. Do you want to start?

dodai stewart

Well, it takes place in prison. This jail is not like any other jail that I’ve seen before.

jazmine hughes

It’s a sexy prison, which is probably the most bizarre phrase I have ever heard. This is a jail that is a verifiable explosion of shirtless, oiled up, gay men who just seem to be having an amazing time, performing choreographed dances in the shower together.

dodai stewart

One person is not wearing a shirt. And there are a lot of naked people in this jail. But their uniforms don’t look pink. I was thinking about the homophobic stereotypes that people use about someone going in jail. You said that someone’s prison was coming [EXPLETIVE]. You talk about don’t drop the soap. It’s almost like jail is not the punishment. But, you might get something gay there.

jazmine hughes

I’m sorry, but what you describe is making my realize how poorly thought about homophobic tropes. That he has taken the very common tropes, homophobia, to their logical end and then flipped the script to show that it was actually fun.

dodai stewart

Yes, not only is he flipping the script about homophobia but also the music industry. He responds to the backlash he has received for his video, for being out and being proud to be out in a tweet. You don’t have to say anything when people spend their entire music library to rapping about multiple women. However, when I do anything sexual, I’m being “sexually irresponsible” and, quote unquote “causing more men from AIDS to die.” He ends the tweet by saying, “Y’all hate homosexual people and don’t conceal it.”

jazmine Hughes

Yes. But the truly innovative thing Lil Nas X is doing, is being openly gay pop star and also sexual. Gay pop stars are not new to have gay men who love singing and are well-known for it. It is possible that one of those gay men also likes sex. He or she sings explicit songs about it. I am attracted to men.

dodai stewart

He’s right, and he’s using a lot of guys in his video like eye candy. It’s not just a love affair. You can see these hotties. It’s so much fun to be gay.

jazmine hughes

He is, in many aspects, a great guy. But, I think his novelty is that he is trying to follow the same path that many straight men have before him, male and female, when it comes time to modify his sexuality. He is just trying to do this in a Black queer body. And that’s the whole point. Straight people have built entire careers and had incredible successes, sold records, and done all of that stuff.

However, the essence of the matter, and I believe the heart of it all is that they have made lots of money. While I do not believe that Nas is motivated by money, I don’t think so. We know this is a hugely successful venture. Why doesn’t he get the chance to do what so many straight people have done for centuries?

dodai stewart

It is so much different than how I remember pop stars talking about sexuality in my youth. I remember listening to a lot George Michael when I was in high school. It wasn’t until later that I was like “oh, wait, a second!”

[LAUGHTER]

He wasn’t straight, was he? Do you see what I am referring to?

jazmine Hughes

The fifth grade was strangely the place where I first heard of a news story, or heard about widespread rumors. Stephanie, my best friend at that time, said to me that Ricky Martin had been gay, and that we shouldn’t listen anymore to “Livin’ la Vida Loca”. He wasn’t out until 2010. It was only 10 years later that I discovered that he had been gay. At that time, it was pretty much an open secret. While we have seen gay male pop stars or gay pop stars be gay in the public eye, it’s not happened at the peak of their fame, or even in Nas’s case, as their fame is crawling up that roller coaster.

dodai stewart

You’re right. And so, because of everything that you’ve said to us, growing up on the internet, having crazy social media skills, stanning for Nicki, and struggling with his upbringing at the church, Nas was able to use all this while becoming one the most popular pop stars on the charts. That’s part of his message and aesthetic. But he’s not saying that he’s gay. This is who I am. It is only necessary to accept this. It’s new and very Gen Z.

jazmine hughes

Even though I’m a millennial, my definition of gay is Gen Z. This is because I believe that the cut-off for me is when you were born and not when you come out. And I have what I find is a real Gen Z, jokey, meme-like approach to my sexuality. I think the word is mimetic approach to my sexuality. That is also something I share with Nas, even though we are a few years apart.

dodai stewart

Although he seems to be having fun, it is not what I meant.

jazmine hughes

Dodai! Take it from me. It’s so much more fun to be gay than being heterosexual. He seems to be having a lot more fun with it. I think Nas and his fellow cohort see their queer identity as fun-facing and fun first. So, we are creating memes. That anger still touches so many queer lives. The way that we deal is to have fun with it. We have all the hard work of those who came before us.

dodai stewart

What do you think it means to a young gay person today that Lil Nas X is in their life and they grow up together?

jazmine hughes

I hope it’s commonplace that one day, a young man who grew up listening to Lil Nas X, will be able to do the same thing. They’re like, “Oh, people were always really homosexual and really sexually popular.”

dodai stewart

And the lap dancing of the devil.

jazmine Hughes

You’re right, you’re thinking, “I did that last week in the gym class.”

dodai stewart

[LAUGHS] Jazmine – Thank you so much. This was so much enjoyment.

jazmine hughes

Thank you.

[music – lil nas x, “industry baby”]
archived recording (lil nas x)

(SINGING). Yes.

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